The Power of Active Citizenship

A Renewed Focus on Teaching Civics Education

By Bob Graham, Randi Weingarten

American Educator, Summer 2018

At the end of the day, the students at my school felt one shared experience—our politicians abandoned us by failing to keep guns out of schools. But this time, my classmates and I are going to hold them to account. This time we are going to pressure them to take action.

–Cameron Kasky, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Earlier this year, a horrific tragedy unfolded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida. On February 14, a former student walked into the school with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and murdered 17 students and staff in the deadliest high school shooting in American history. Only the 2012 mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School, with a toll of 26 young children and adult staff, resulted in a greater loss of life in a K–12 school. Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, 187,000 students have experienced gun violence at their schools, and active shooter drills are now commonplace.

We were devastated by the needless loss of life and anguished that yet another mass school shooting had taken place while commonsense gun safety legislation to protect America’s students and educators lingered in Congress and many state legislatures. Yet we were heartened by what came next. Because, rather than allowing themselves to be further victimized, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas began to take matters into their own hands, meeting and networking on social media, speaking to the media, participating in vigils, organizing walkouts and demonstrations, establishing coalitions with others who share their outrage and goals, and traveling to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of meaningful gun safety laws.

In other words, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have been acting as informed and activated citizens, utilizing their constitutional rights to assemble and speak freely, and they have learned competencies to petition the government for the redress of their grievances.

It is notable that Florida, like most states, stopped teaching civics—the study of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy—in the 1960s, only to restore it by legislative action in 2010, with citizenship instruction making its way back into schools around 2011. (For more on each state’s civics education requirements, see “A Look at Civics Education in the United States” in this issue.) Thus, these Marjory Stoneman Douglas students were among the first wave of students in Florida public schools to be taught civics in nearly four decades. For many of them, their civics education started in middle school and continued through a 12th-grade Advanced Placement government course where the teacher, Jeff Foster, espoused a simple mantra: “ ‘If you don’t participate, you can’t complain about things.’ I tell them in order to make a difference in the country, you need to participate. Unfortunately, we had this event happen [at Marjory Stoneman Douglas], and now it’s in live action.” Evidently, the education provided at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School served these courageous students well: they credit their teachers with introducing them to the civic knowledge and skills they have been using so effectively. Indeed, before the shooting, some students had just had this debate on guns in Foster’s class.

The fact that these students feel empowered to take a stand on their own behalf is a testament to the value of educating young people on their rights and responsibilities as citizens in a democracy, as well as teaching them how to exercise the power of active citizenship.

American Educator, Summer 2018

An Antidote to Authoritarianism

The events in Florida are taking place at a time when democracy itself is confronting serious threats,* both in the United States and internationally. In October 2017, the Albert Shanker Institute brought together leading scholars and democracy activists from across the globe to discuss these challenges.1 They are many: growing economic inequality, intense political polarization, government dysfunctionality and paralysis, the decline of civil society institutions such as organized religion and organized labor, attacks on science and factual knowledge, and the emergence of movements of racial, religious, and nativist intolerance. The conference’s participants, who included Han Dongfang, a leader of the independent unions in the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, and Mac Maharaj, a leader of the antiapartheid struggle who had been a prison mate of Nelson Mandela, agreed that the future of democracy cannot be taken for granted but must be actively promoted and secured by confronting these challenges. That is our work as citizens.

Education for citizenship is the first, essential part of securing the future of American democracy. (For more on the importance of civics education in preserving our republic, see “The Need for Civics Education” in this issue.) This is not because—as some have incorrectly suggested—popular support for democracy is flagging or because today’s youth are less committed to democratic governance than previous generations. In fact, the best evidence indicates that support for democracy has increased modestly and American youth are more stalwart in their support for democracy than those who are older.2 Rather, it is because openness to authoritarian rule is greatest among those who are disaffected and disengaged from politics, and who are under the sway of prejudice toward fellow citizens of different backgrounds. When a person lacks a sense of his or her own power as a citizen, experiences a problem that dysfunctional democratic institutions have been unable to solve, and has little experience in working constructively with other citizens on common goals, he or she is more likely to give up on democracy and turn to a “strongman” to solve his or her problems. Education is a powerful antidote to this authoritarian temptation, because it can impart that needed sense of civic efficacy and common cause. We know from national and international studies that increases in educational attainment are highly correlated with increases in civic participation and support for democracy.3 So the more education we provide to Americans—and the better we make that education—the healthier our democracy will be.

To be most effective, civics education must be resonant and relevant. Any serious effort to ensure that young people are fully educated about the values, processes, and institutions of democracy depends on accomplished and experienced teachers who both know their subjects well and actively engage students in their learning. Research both here and abroad confirms that those students who understand democracy best—and who participate most actively in civic life as adults—are those whose teachers know their material and dare to run classes that involve students in civic work and in discussions of controversial subjects.

Civics instruction should be “bottom up.” We need to teach students to interact directly with their government and make government respond to their concerns. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have done this, but it shouldn’t take a shooting for students to become civically engaged. Civic engagement should begin close to home. It is more important to teach students how to seek effective action from their school board or persuade their city commission to place a stop sign on the corner than it is for them to know that there are 435 members of the House of Representatives. This concept of bottom-up civic engagement is what the book America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall—and Win is all about (see “Teaching Civic Engagement” in this issue).

Teaching civics should be more than just understanding the structures and functions of government. In an era of “fake news and Internet conspiracy theories, it is crucial that students learn how to gather and evaluate sources of information, and then use evidence from that information to develop and support their ideas and advocacy positions. No polity can make wise decisions if its citizens do not know how to separate fact from opinion, and how to gather and weigh relevant evidence. Education for democracy shapes attitudes, values, and actions—it creates the foundations for a culture of democracy, not just an understanding of what it is. It takes time and long-term funding. It requires new forms of professional training.

Citizenship education at its best is a unification of foundational knowledge with civic values and key competencies. Together, these elements represent action civics. One of the biggest roadblocks to participatory democracy is the perception that everyday Americans can’t influence government policy, and that only the privileged and special interests can command the levers of power or change bureaucracies. But if students can actually identify a problem in their school or community that is important to them, consider the options to solve that problem, marshal evidence in support of their selected solution, identify which public decision-maker can make a difference and how he or she might be persuaded to take action, determine the best time and conditions to pursue a decision, attract allies to an expanding coalition of support, devise a plan to engage both traditional and new media, and propose credible fiscal solutions for challenges requiring public funding—then students can both move the needle toward success for the problem at hand and gain the confidence and experience necessary for a lifetime of action civics.

The active-citizenship approach we encourage focuses on five key principles for teaching action civics:

  • Help students recognize challenges or opportunities in their school, community, state, or nation that can be addressed through effective citizenship;
  • Instruct students on the competencies required for civic success (i.e., the skills of effective citizenship);
  • Provide students with foundational knowledge of democratic institutions and processes while teaching citizenship skills (e.g., exploring federalism to identify which level of government can resolve the challenge a student has selected);
  • Instill in students the dispositions of democratic citizenship, such as respect for fellow citizens of different races, religions, classes, and sexualities, and tolerance for different political viewpoints; and
  • Encourage students to utilize their newly learned skills, knowledge, and values to address the challenge or opportunity they have identified.4

We must provide students with the opportunity to acquire the above-described citizenship skills. Civics is not an accumulation of dry facts and abstract ideas. As with any endeavor that we wish to perform well, it must be practiced. You don’t learn to play the piano by reading a textbook about the piano or even memorizing famous scores. You don’t learn to make persuasive oral arguments by studying the science of speech or even watching great speeches. You learn to play the piano by playing the piano. You learn to make persuasive oral arguments by practicing such arguments. And you learn the skills of civics—the habits and attitudes of democracy—by engaging in civic activities.

America needs a “crash course” in civics. More important, we need to instill an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizens into our collective experience. Perhaps the need has grown so acute because civics education, like other areas of social studies, has been pushed to the back burner in American schools, a victim of the single-minded focus on English language arts and mathematics wrought by our recent national obsession with standardized testing. But, in a very real sense, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have proven the vibrancy and strength of American democracy. Despite the horror of their circumstances, they fell back on an education that provided them with the knowledge and skills to demand change from local, state, and national elected leaders. It is up to us to see that their citizenship education experience is provided to all American students.


Bob Graham is a former U.S. senator and governor of Florida. The author of four books, including America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall—and Win, he currently leads efforts to encourage citizen engagement and train students to become future leaders through the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Highlights from her career include serving as the president of the United Federation of Teachers, as an AFT vice president, and as a history teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights.

*For more on these threats, see “Hope in Dark Times” and “History and Tyranny” in the Summer 2017 issue of American Educator. (back to the article)

For more on the proliferation of fake news and the importance of civic reasoning in a social media environment, see “The Challenge That’s Bigger Than Fake News” in the Fall 2017 issue of American Educator. (back to the article)

For more on developing arguments and teaching evidence-based writing, see “For the Sake of Argument” in the Spring 2018 issue of American Educator. (back to the article)

Endnotes

1. Proceedings of the conference are available at www.shankerinstitute.org/event/crisis-democracy-conference.

2. Lee Drutman, Larry Diamond, and Joe Goldman, Follow the Leader: Exploring American Support for Democracy and Authoritarianism (Washington, DC: Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, 2018).

3. Zhaogang Qiao, Ying Zhang, and Guodong Liang, “Does More Education Promote Civic Engagement?,” Journal of Postdoctoral Research 5, no. 9 (2017); and Thomas S. Dee, “Are There Civic Returns to Education?,” Journal of Public Economics 88 (2004): 1697–1720.

4. See Bob Graham and Chris Hand, America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall—and Win (Los Angeles: Sage/CQ Press, 2017).

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