Opinion

A New Time Requires a New Civics

As students return to school across the country, they are entering an unforgiving climate. Some of these climate challenges are literal – the disasters of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Some of them are manifested through a toxic political climate: We perhaps have never faced a more polarized electorate. Events like Charlottesville and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals decision threaten to tear away our country’s moral fabric while instilling fear in young people. And some are educational, in the form of a climate that has resulted in a struggle for the heart of public education as the debate on school choice heats up.

These unprecedented times provide an opportunity to reflect on how we are preparing young people to face this tumultuous world as they return to the classroom. Should we ensure they remain in a bubble, focused on their own learning within school walls? Should we focus on teaching them the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly globalized and challenging jobs market?

These are all important endeavors. But now, more than ever, it is incumbent to prioritize educating young people to become active citizens, leaders capable of tackling the problems they face in their community head on. We need a nationwide revitalization of civics education – bringing the subject back into the curriculum. But just as importantly, civics must be revitalized for the 21st century. Civics cannot be the subject whose very mention makes people fall asleep. It can, and must, be the most exciting and the most important class in school.

Focusing on civics for young people can seem like a trope. Every year, we speak about how we must re-emphasize the subject. In the wake of a historically vitriolic 2016 election, reference to the original goal of public education – to ensure that young people are capable of assuming the mantle of our democracy as informed citizens – is returning in vogue as educators and officials speak of the importance of “civics education.” Indeed, it is indisputable that we are not adequately prioritizing the discipline of civics in America’s schools: Only a quarter of high-school seniors scored “proficient” in the most recent civics section of the National Assessment of Education Progress.

It is also easy to recite off a myriad of statistics that demonstrate that young people, or Americans generally, do not know how government works: Twenty-six percent of Americans can name all three branches of government; a third cannot name any at all; and more than a third cannot name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

These statistics are dire. It is challenging to be an effective citizen if you do not know how government works. The logic follows that civic engagement is poor because students have an inadequate understanding of how our political system works. Thus, strengthening democracy requires deepening young people’s grasp of essential facts – naming the branches of government, identifying the Bill of Rights and so on. To reverse this trend, a movement has begun to require that students can pass the citizenship test in order to graduate from high school. At face value, this may make sense.

But this is the wrong solution. When Sputnik was launched into orbit by the Russians, the response was not to ensure that all of America’s students memorized the Periodic Table. Instead, a nationwide movement began focused on educating young people to master science, technology, engineering and math. Yes, in order to launch a rocket into space, a mastery of the Periodic Table is probably necessary. But the skills required to solve complex scientific problems are more relevant.

Similarly, teaching rote civics is insufficient in tackling the most pressing problems in our democracy. Let us not fall into the trap of focusing on the facts that students do not know. We need a new approach: Action Civics.

In Action Civics classes, the discipline comes alive as students learn civics by taking action on issues they care about. Rather than sitting through a lecture on the three branches of government and taking a test, students might explore the issue of police-community relations, and learn about executive mayoral oversight of the police department, while simultaneously pursuing legislative policies that address the lack of body cameras in the city. After learning about the role of climate change in the recent hurricanes, they can pressure their local government to explore alternative forms of energy, or upgrade the town sewage system. As they learn about pH levels in chemistry class, they can measure their school’s water safety, and present their findings to the city sanitation department.

Suddenly, civics is not boring. It is the most relevant class in school.

As students return to their classrooms, so will their questions about the world we all inhabit. Given the natural storms that negatively impact us, will the country be safe? Given the political storms of a Charlottesville and an uncertain political climate, will the people of the country be safe?

Let’s use the crisis in our democracy as a moment to revitalize civics education. But at the same time, let’s not just return to the past. With Action Civics, we can make civics the most exciting class in school for young people. Imagine the wonders that can do for our democracy.


Scott Warren is the chief executive officer of Generation Citizen. Andrew Wilkes is the director of policy and advocacy for Generation Citizen.

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