Civic education is vital to saving our democracy

“Teaching civics is vital to ensuring that our democracy in America survives and to ensuring that students see themselves as having a role and a voice in our country,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten at TEACH on July 8. “It’s how we provide a counter to the propaganda and the noise that permeates our political culture. It’s how we lay the groundwork for a future generation that’s engaged, that’s informed and that’s empowered.” To discuss why it is critical that educators have the freedom to teach and engage their students in meaningful lessons around democracy, Weingarten was joined by Fair Fight founder Stacey Abrams and Harvard University professor Danielle Allen, two experts at the forefront of the fight for democracy.

Civics education session at TEACH

Noting that the AFT has focused on democracy since its founding, Weingarten said, “I want to be clear that dedication to democracy is not about politics. It’s about who we are as a country.” And although civics was Weingarten’s favorite subject to teach, “Today civics is more than a personal passion, obviously, it’s a dire necessity. We’re witness to widespread attacks on the right to vote and the most serious threats to our democracy in our lifetime.” 

“I’ve watched with alarm as these threats against voting have proliferated and reached the highest level of government all across the country,” said Weingarten. “It’s clear that civic responsibility and our teaching about civic responsibility is essential right now.”

Weingarten asked Allen how we teach about democratic citizenship and engage students in action civics when democracy itself is at risk in the face of such attacks.

“It’s true that our democracy is at stake and civic education is an important part of that,” said Allen. “We have to start by recognizing that civic education isn’t a red America or blue America. Civic education is for all of America.” 

“Democracy also depends on free thinking,” Allen said. “We have to have our reflection, our intellectual power that we can bring to bear on decisions for our community. So at the end of the day, we have to build big coalitions of people from across political points of view that recognize that civic education is for everybody.”

Voting rights have been the focus in several state legislatures since the 2020 election. Weingarten noted that voting access has become a political issue. She asked Abrams how we can teach the importance of robust voter access for everyone and the dangers of voter suppression.

Voter suppression has become a partisan argument, said Abrams. “The way our nation is broken down politically, there’s one group that has benefited from lack of access and another group that is harmed by that lack of access,” she said. “The group that’s harmed tends to vote one way, and the group that enjoys access, unfettered, tends to vote a different way. Our responsibility is to make certain that we take it outside of the conversation of partisanship and remind people that this is a prerequisite of citizenship. And the way we do that is by connecting the dots between what we vote for, who we vote for and what we get.” 

Abrams continued: “The moment we recognize that when you break democracy, you break it for everyone, is the moment we leave behind the partisanship veil that we like to hide behind and return to the question of what kind of society do we want to have and who should be allowed to participate.”

With critical race theory in the news, Weingarten asked Allen what advice she has for teachers as they approach teaching about race, slavery, racism and discrimination. Allen said thanks to the work of historians, we can tell a complete and honest history of early America, the good and the bad, from a variety of perspectives. “For every educator out there committed to telling that complete, honest story, I just want to let you know you are doing the good work, and we are with you,” she said. 

When Weingarten asked Abrams what role teachers could take in the fight to preserve and protect democracy, Abrams said that as the daughter of civil rights activists, she grew up believing in the responsibility of voting. Abrams said her parents helped her understand the history of voting, how hard it was to get the right to vote and why some people in power made it so difficult for other people to participate. “For educators, it’s that connection of the dots that grows voters. Children know when things are right, and you will know that better than anyone. They know when something’s unfair. They know when something should be done better. They know when something’s hyper-inefficient. They may not use that language, but they know there’s a problem. And one of the best ways to grow a voter is to start early by connecting the dots, so they understand what voting delivers.”

“One part of growing a voter is making sure that they understand why we vote. … The second is making sure they understand that their experience and their family’s experience of voting is not transferable. … People need to understand that while your family may make it through that voting line in 17 minutes, there are other families that stand in line for seven hours. And you cannot base the success of our democracy on the easiest experience. We have to base it on the hardest experience,” said Abrams. “The third piece is that we’ve got to explain that voting is not magic. One of the worst ways to get people to vote is to tell them if you go and vote, the world changes. That is a bald-faced lie. … The minute we raise young people to believe that if they vote, things change, that first moment of disillusion is sometimes the most profound. And if we lose young voters, they do not return until there’s something cataclysmic. And so part of it is saying it’s not magic, it’s medicine. … It’s how we build our capacity as a nation to get better and stronger.”

For some, the misinformation around the 2020 presidential election and the events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol have eroded faith in our civic institutions. Weingarten asked Abrams and Allen if there is a way to rebuild that faith.

“The rejection of the election on Jan. 6 and the subsequent challenges we’re seeing, they are very, very loosely tied to who won or lost in 2020 and 2021. They are directly and inextricably linked to who showed up. We saw a sea change in the composition of our electorate,” said Abrams. Now, she explained, that sea change is being leveraged to justify new restrictions on voting. 

Allen added that investing in local journalism would help combat the problem of disinformation and misinformation: “We have to actually rebuild people’s understanding of what counts as evidence-based journalism and what counts as investigative journalism, including around local issues.”

Both Allen and Abrams agreed that passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would also help to preserve our democracy. 

[Adrienne Coles]