by Lee Trepanier
Over the past decades, the controversy over civics education in the United States has only gotten worse. The political left believes that civics education should be an engine of social change with students exposed to subject matter such as the 1619 curriculum. Those on the political right have responded with state legislatures proposing to ban critical race theory and other left-wing ideologies in the classroom. Parents are upset at schools, teachers are confused about what can be taught, and students are caught in between, being pushed and pulled by both sides of the political spectrum.
The controversy over civics education should not be surprising, since the education of children is one of the preeminent concerns of the state. As Aristotle observed, the education of the young determines the continuity and stability of the political regime. The recent student scores by the National Assessment of Education Progress for eighth graders therefore are troubling for the prospects of American democracy, with the lowest score ever recorded for U.S. history and the first-ever drop in civics. Even more disturbing is the 2020 Annenberg Center survey which shows 44% of Americans can’t name the three branches of government; 65% don’t know that a Senator serves six years and a Representative two; and 39% don’t know what a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling means. If civics education is to cultivate well-informed citizens who participate in our democracy, then we as a country need to do a better job.
But how do we proceed in a society that is polarized between progressives and conservatives about what should be taught in our schools? Is there a middle way forward from these contentious debates? In my discussion of three controversial topics in civics education, I propose there is.
A Common Set of Values
While Americans agree there should be a common set of values which all students should be taught, we are divided over what they should be and what place they should have in civics education. On the one hand, conservatives argue that schools should teach all students the values of liberty, the rule of law, and the constitutional machinery of our government (e.g., separation of powers, federalism, the Bill of Rights). These constitutional institutions secure our liberty, allow us to disagree peacefully, and are foundational to the American Republic.
On the one hand, progressives propose a different set of values for all students centered on diversity, equality, and social justice. The role of schools is to help students become agents of social change. The current progressive project is to change our conception of political identity with a focus on the country’s history of racism that remains with us today. For progressives learning the content of the values is less important than changing the world.
While these two perspectives seem at odds with each other, another way to think about the question of a common set of values is from the lens of piety: an obligation and devotion to one’s family, country, and God. The virtue of piety enables citizens to fulfill their obligations to their country and neighbors, and to do so willingly and joyfully. It is the gift that binds us together as a nation and links us to our past and projects us forward in our future.
Conservatives are correct that the foundational values and institutions of this country need to be passed on to the next generation in order for the republic to sustain itself. Our students should have a sense of gratitude towards our democracy, grateful for those who came before them to pass on this democratic experiment to them, rather than adopt a stance of superior presentism. At the same time, our schools should teach students not to be jingoistic or nationalist about American democracy. We may be an exceptional country but exceptional does not mean being the best.
Progressives are correct that sometimes change is necessary for our democracy to thrive, for piety does not equate to always accepting the status quo. Piety may demand citizens to undertake obligations to make the country better. Particularly with regards to race, America has failed miserably in providing equality for all under the law. But by pointing out this problem, progressives should make the distinction between the nation’s foundational values and the nation itself. If systemic racism exists, it is the fault of the nation, not necessarily its foundational values. Schools should teach about America’s racial failings but also how our leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., tapped into our values to right these wrongs, expand liberty, and promote equality. Failing to do this leaves our students cynical and pessimistic about our country.
America’s Original Sin
A second contentious issue in civics education is how to teach slavery and segregation in American history. While both conservatives and progressivists agree that schools have often done a poor job teaching students about race, there is little agreement on how to move forward. Conservatives argue that with the full legal restoration of rights, liberties, and privileges of citizenship to African Africans in the 1960s Civil Rights legislations and Supreme Court rulings, the sin and shame of slavery is wiped out. Albeit delayed, the promise of the American Founding was fulfilled and white Americans need no longer feel guilty about what their ancestors did.
Progressives, however, contend that because white American norms, mores, and values dominate in the United States, these conventions need to be acknowledged and dismantled. Or, in its more extreme form, confessions need to be coerced out by white Americans on account of their “privilege.” The current manifestations of this movement are Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, and the 1619 Project.
Both conservatives and progressives have valid points and raise the difficult and perhaps unsolvable question about a country’s relationship between its past and present. Instead of engaging in a tic-for-tac dialectic, let me propose another way to think about the issue of slavery in America. If, metaphorically speaking, slavery is the “original sin” of America, then we need to remind ourselves that original sin by definition cannot be erased. We can acknowledge it, we can address it, and we can make amends for it, but we cannot eliminate it. To do so is to claim that we can transcend history.
Thus, both conservatives and progressives are both incorrect in their account of America’s “original sin.” Neither white denial nor white fawning are satisfactory because they assume the sin of slavery can be overcome. But it can’t. Instead, Americans should acknowledge that they live in a broken world and work to mend it, while knowing that it will never be fully mended. We should accept and acknowledge the original sin of slavery and work to heal the nation, while knowing that we as a country will never be fully healed. To do so is to accept our limitations as human beings, as citizens, and as a country.
Actions Civics or Civics Knowledge?
A third controversial issue in civics education is whether it is one of primarily “doing” (i.e., political activism) or “knowing” (i.e., learning knowledge). Progressives argue that students learn better by doing (often referred to as “action civics”), therefore, teachers should encourage students to participate in civics rather than simply reading about it. This means activities like protest marches or writing to members of Congress, showing students how civics works and preparing them to be responsible citizens.
Conservatives are skeptical of action civics because these activities tend to be for progressive causes rather than conservative ones, making it more akin to indoctrination than instruction. Doing civics also comes at the expense of teaching civics knowledge. In short, action civics appears to proselytize students to progressive causes.
This tension between doing versus learning is actually a more fundamental and enduring one. It can be understood as the tension between citizenship (action civics) and liberal education (civics knowledge). Liberal education is fundamentally to study something for its own sake because of the belief that this is intrinsically valuable and makes one “free.” For example, Aristotle claimed that music was necessary and useful but this was not why one should study it. One studied such things because it made one free as a fully realized human being not bound by the constraints of necessity or utility.
By contrast, citizenship education is not “for its own sake” but so that students might fulfill their obligations to the state as a citizen. If citizens don’t actually partake in democratic politics, then the country falls apart. Just as students need to be free to investigate and explore things for their own sake, students also need to participate in politics to learn how to become responsible citizens to sustain the republic.
Both citizenship and liberal education are necessary—doing and knowing civics—but schools need to recognize they are inevitably in conflict with one another. The conflict is not one of progressive-conservative but instead something more fundamental and human: the different demands required of human beings. Rather than being bogged down in debates about action civics versus civics knowledge, schools could teach both while explaining to students and their parents that the tension between these two will always exist and never be reconcilable.
To address these controversies about civics education, Americans need to find a middle way forward between conservatives and progressives in educating the next generation of citizens. We can see that conservatives and progressives have different ideas about civics education but rather than taking arms up for one side or the other, we can take a step back, pause, and rethink about how we want to teach our children.
American civics education has swung from one pendulum to another. At one point the country glorified its past, neglected its turpitudes, and projected its moral self-righteousness forever into the future. At the other end is an education where nothing is valued, revered, or respected, when the Founding Fathers are dismissed as racist and misogynist, and when values like liberty, civility, and tolerance are perceived as types of inauthentic existence. Both ends of the pendulum are equally destructive for the country. To ensure the future of our common democracy, we need piety instead of platitudes, acceptance of our limitations, and recognition that some conflicts will always be irreconcilable. This is a healthier way forward in teaching civics to our children rather than indulging in the ideological fantasies of the political left or right. And in this age of heightened polarization, coarse public discourse, and the seeming politicization of everything, it may be the only way.