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Action Civics: Round II

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Action Civics?

On Tuesday, we highlighted some differing responses to the Education Department’s new report, “Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy.” Much of the debate centers around how much schools (and the federal government) should focus on traditional classroom civics education (emphasizing knowledge about government and American democracy, e.g.) versus a newer model of “action civics,” which focuses on civic participation and service learning.

Yesterday, Teaching America editor David Feith entered the fray. He writes:

In its recently-released Road Map and Call to Action, and at the White House summit where it was unveiled, the Education Department defined civic education overwhelmingly as a matter of volunteerism and collective problem-solving. Our education system “must be gauged by how well the next generation of Americans is prepared to solve collective problems creatively and collaboratively,” says the Call to Action, adding: “Done well, civic education teaches students to communicate effectively, to work collaboratively, to ask tough questions, and to appreciate diversity.”

That’s hardly an exhaustive list—and it’s certainly not one well-tailored to our country’s circumstances. What about highlighting the need for students to understand the American political system so they’re empowered to influence it? What about conveying a sense of how radical the American notions of self-government and individual rights were in 1776—and how radical they remain today in so many places still unfree? One assumes the government doesn’t consider these matters “your grandmother’s civics,” too slow or old-fashioned for a world demanding “action civics.” But their omission is troubling.

Would-be civic-education reformers almost always focus on what might be called “supply-side” solutions: more and better teachers, more and better textbooks, more and better assessments, etc. So it is with “action civics,” service-learning and the like, which are justified by supply-side arguments about making our educational offerings more modern, interactive, “21st-century,” etc. But this supply-side focus tends to ignore the importance of the “demand side,” of cultivating in students an interest in—a demand for—civic knowledge, skills and participation. Without such interest and demand, both classroom content and service-learning outings are likelier to fall on deaf ears.

How, then, to stimulate civic demand in students? By cultivating feelings of civic empowerment, gratitude and opportunity. This is especially important in poor and minority communities, where children are often inclined to feel alienated from American civic and political life.

Recognizing the importance of demand creation allows us to examine what kinds of service-learning are most conducive to it. On one side of the ledger are, among other things, creative get-out-the-vote efforts, as at Harlem’s Democracy Prep Public Schools, where every election season students lead a nonpartisan “I Can’t Vote, But You Can” campaign in their neighborhoods. Then there’s the Habitat-for-Humanity school of service-learning. Building homes or community centers has obvious virtue, but to call it civic education—especially when we know that schools’ time and money for civic education is limited—is to shortchange students who need serious exposure to American history and civic life.

Head over to National Journal to read the whole thing–and others’ responses to the new initiative.