Opinion | Civics education won’t succeed if we sell kids a broken democracy

(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post)

New national educational tests results arrived this month — this time for civics — and again the news is bleak. We all know the storyline. The pandemic hit hard. Students lost ground. And civic learning in America has been eroding for some time.

Yes, but, sorry to say, it’s worse than that.

This story isn’t just about students’ loss of knowledge. It’s also about their loss of connection to this country. Even bleaker than the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results are the findings of a January survey by Morning Consult that revealed generation-by-generation declines in a sense of pride in America. About three-quarters of baby boomers say they’re proud to live in the United States, but only 54 percent of Gen Xers, 36 percent of millennials and 16 percent of Gen Z members do.

For the past three decades, NAEP results have shown a need to turn things around for civic education. The results come out, and cries go up for more investment in civic learning. But nothing has changed. And now the slope of learning is headed down.

But our problem isn’t just underinvestment. It’s that, for three decades, adults have been fighting bitterly about what to teach by way of civic education, and the result is that the kids don’t get taught much at all.

It’s time to say we’ve hit bottom and we’re going to turn things around. Can we do that?

I believe we can. Because while many people have been taking sides — 1619 vs. 1776, anyone? — others have been getting on with rebuilding a solid foundation for civic learning. It has taken hard work and meaningful compromise, but we now have available to us a consensus statement with national support about what should be in a civic education — and how we should teach.

I’m referring to the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, which I worked on as a principal author and investigator. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Education Department, the road map is designed to achieve excellence in history and civics learning for all K-12 learners, and it bears the distinction of having been funded by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Six former education secretaries, three from each party, spoke up on its behalf when it was released in 2021. Implementation is underway in nine states, including both conservative Oklahoma and liberal Massachusetts, and we are currently advertising a grant program for pilot implementations in kindergarten through grade 5. This month’s data ought to inject urgency into that work.

More important than what’s in the road map, though, is how we bridged our differences to reach consensus. This is an essential part of the civic renewal so needed in America. Democracy renovation starts from moral revolution.

In 2019, an initial group of six of us, spanning the right-left divide, came together because we shared a sense of crisis about civic learning. We committed to staying together come what may, as we tried to wrestle with the question of what content should be taught in an excellent civic education. We knew we would hit disagreements. We agreed to stop when we did and take the time to work them through to compromise.

And, sure enough, we had to take a timeout right at the outset. Our first fight was over whether we were educating young people for a democracy or a republic. Those advocating “democracy” cared about universal inclusion, participation and popular sovereignty. Those advocating “republic” cared about order, structure, constitutionalism and rule of law. We compromised by recognizing that we are educating for a constitutional democracy where order, structure, rule of law, popular sovereignty and universal inclusion all matter.

Likewise, we debated patriotism and solidarity. For folks on the right, the former is a necessary term for describing our bonds to one another and to the country. On the left, the latter tends better to capture the social connection necessary to sustain the common good. We compromised by agreeing that an excellent civic education will cultivate reflective patriotism — a conviction that honesty will sustain, nourish and lift up a commitment to the common good and to one another.

Most important, we structured the entire road map around questions, putting inquiry at the center of learning. The goal was to build a vehicle that would support open-ended, inquiry-based pedagogy, where the answers are not obvious in advance.

So about 1619 and 1776, we asked:

In what ways and to what degree were liberty and equality present in 1619, 1620, 1776, 1789? Where were they absent? How did the relation between them change over time?

How do you evaluate when changes are significant enough to count as a refounding?

How do laws and social structures change?

How can the Constitution be changed formally and informally? (And how can your state constitution or other charter be changed?)

What political and economic ideas have contributed to these changes?

Democracy demands reflection. That’s a core element of self-government. And a civics education built on questions strengthens that fundamental democratic capacity.

All this year, I’m writing about how we need to renovate our democracy to achieve a great pulling together. The deepest truth of this work is that you can’t have a democracy unless people want one. And right now, the kids don’t particularly want a democracy. This means that we are failing at one of our greatest responsibilities: generational succession. Rebooting civic education is about refurbishing and regifting an inheritance.

But the only way to reboot civic learning is if we adults can name and shake our addiction: It’s hate, rage and division. Our addiction is one reason why the kids are tuning us out. If we want them to learn, we’ve got to quit fighting so much. We’ve got to create some common ground.

We’ll never win if we try, via civic education, to connect the kids to a broken thing. We have to fix our democracy — and ourselves — so that we’re inviting them into something worth their time, energy and affection.