<< The Body Politic

Civics in an election year

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Guest-blogging at the Pearson’s Online Learning Exchange (OLE) election blog, the Program’s Cheryl Miller makes the case for strengthening civic education–especially during an election season:

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama talked about an idea that lies at the heart of our system of government: citizenship. “This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations,” the president said. “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”

Mitt Romney, the Republican challenger, has also spoken about the importance of citizenship. In announcing his presidential campaign, he argued that “the true strength of America is self-rule, and a government that answers to a free and independent people.”

The election season reminds us of the primacy of American self-government. As both candidates have noted, the choice between them ultimately lies with the American people, whose duty it is to inform themselves about the candidates’ different positions and policies, to deliberate upon them, and to cast their vote. Their decision will shape at least the next four years in American politics.

Yet, as important as these responsibilities of citizenship are, they are too often neglected in our schools. Civics—the skills of democratic participation—has been largely sidelined as policy makers and educators have focused their attention on graduation rates and reading and math scores.

In 2010, the Program on American Citizenship surveyed 1,000 high school history and social studies teachers most directly charged with educating and shaping America’s young citizens to gain a better understanding of the challenges they face in teaching citizenship. Seven in ten agreed that their classes are treated as a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests.

The results are dismal, if not surprising. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has pointed out, “Knowledge of our system of government is not passed down through the gene pool.” According to The Nation’s Report Card and its most recent(2010) national civics examination, 75 percent of high school seniors cannot name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution, fewer than half of eighth graders know the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and less than a quarter of young Americans regularly vote.

The good news is that educators across the nation are doing innovative work to ensure students will be able to fulfill their civic duties. As many web-savvy teachers already know, the Internet offers a treasure trove of proven lesson plans for civics (many of them designed by fellow teachers) at sites like EDSITEmentTeachingAmericanHistory.org, and The National Archives Experience: DocsTeach, just to name a few.

Educators are pioneering engaging, interdisciplinary approaches to teaching civics, from using video games and flash activities such as those found at iCivics, to classic American fiction and music explored at What So Proudly We Hail, to online learning at sites such as The Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier. (We at the American Enterprise Institute have compiled just a fraction of the available resources on our website.)

Top-performing charter schools are experimenting with different curricula for civic learning, which could serve as models for schools currently without a strong civic mission.

America’s schools were once thought to provide the cornerstone for an informed citizenry—a citizenry made up of multiple races and ethnic origins. What made e pluribus unum—“out of many, one”—a fact was a common understanding of what rights and responsibilities we had as citizens and the role the government played in providing sound and effective self-rule.

We are playing fast and loose with our future if we continue to downplay or ignore the role civic education plays in making citizens of us all.

Visit the OLE election blog here.