It’s one of my proudest moments as a civics teacher—and I didn’t have to say a word: I had helped the students in my American history class prepare to debate whether the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified. But once the debate began, I just stepped back and listened. My 11th-graders backed their strongly held opinions with facts, played devil’s advocate and respectfully challenged each other’s reasoning. For a teacher, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Boy, could we use more of that kind of thoughtful yet passionate discourse and engagement in civic life today. Republicans in the United States Senate are letting politics trump their constitutional duty to give President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a full and fair hearing and an up-or-down vote. The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination is normalizing hate speech and promoting the use of violence against peaceful protesters with calls to “beat the crap out of them,” among other threats.
America needs a crash course in civics. More important, we need to ingrain 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 standardized testing mania in which “what gets tested is what gets taught” (which, prior to recent changes in federal accountability rules, was only math and English). But, in a very real sense, American democracy is being tested, and we need an informed, engaged citizenry that is deeply involved in civic life. Civic education in our public schools is essential to achieving this—after all, the purpose of public education is to prepare our young people not only for college and career, but also for citizenship.
We need to send young people into adulthood knowing their rights, responsibilities and power as citizens. They need to have a sense of agency in their lives, to realize that they can be change agents in their own communities and neighborhoods, and that they are the “people” in “we the people.” The most important role in a democracy is not president or prime minister, but citizen.
For adults, we need to create an adequate understanding of local, state and national government and how it functions—regardless of ideology, candidate or party—so they have a critical lens through which to examine promises and policies. Take the misinformation about the Common Core State Standards, for example. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump repeatedly claim they’ll abolish those standards if they’re elected. But states—not the president—choose whether or not to adopt these standards, and 42 states have chosen to adopt them. And the new Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits the federal government from requiring any particular set of standards. The constant repetition of clear falsehoods exploits the widespread lack of understanding of federalism and is intended to further erode the public trust.
An hour watching cable news, a scan of my Twitter feed or a day talking with people (outside of Washington, D.C.) makes it clear that we are engaged in a fight for the very soul of our country. People are angry—with good reason. They are anxious about the changing economy and their ability to get by, much less get ahead. And they don’t think their representatives in Congress are doing anything to make things better. But rather than stoking fears and frustrations and turning people against each other, we need to acknowledge that anger and the unrealized aspirations underneath it. Educating people about what citizens can do in a democracy can help move their anger to action.
The Supreme Court nomination process underway is one such teachable moment. In President Obama’s eloquent remarks introducing Merrick Garland, his nominee to the Supreme Court, Obama asked senators not to make the confirmation process “an extension of our divided politics” but to “reflect on the importance of this process to our democracy.” Indeed. Ours is a system of laws rooted in our Constitution. At its best, it rises above the momentary fray and considers, instead, our children, our children’s children, and the democratic values and institutions we bequeath to them.
Regardless of party or ideological leaning, every American should have a sense of civitas. Whether that sense is ingrained, instilled by family or informed in public schools, it is vital to the strength of our democracy. It can be taught in school through approaches like project-based learning, where students solve problems and work in teams. It can be strengthened through service learning. It can be developed in debate societies. As my civics students realized, knowing your rights, understanding your power, and making a difference all make learning civics and civic engagement pretty cool.