Wisconsin is the latest state to introduce new civics education legislation. Since 2017, more than half the states in the nation have debated — and many have passed — similar laws. Most require students to pass a basic civics test before graduation.
Is that really necessary? Absolutely.
Any society that cares about its continuation makes passing down its basic principles and traditions a priority. The United States is failing miserably at that task.
The Fordham Institute rated four states as “exemplary” in civics education: Alabama, California, Massachusetts and Tennessee.
Twenty states were rated “inadequate,” including Wisconsin, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. That’s a polite way of saying these states are failing in their most important task.
Voter participation in the United States is embarrassingly low. Only 56% of U.S. adults can name the three branches of government. One in 3 Americans think the Constitution guarantees a right to home ownership.
Last fall, the University of Cambridge conducted a study which found that fewer than half of U.S. citizens are satisfied with American democracy. Another survey revealed only 30 percent of millennials think democratic government is “essential.”
Given all this, requiring civics education should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it has become — like everything else — a deeply partisan issue. The Wisconsin bill passed the Assembly on a largely party-line vote. Our politics have become so dysfunctional we can’t stop posturing long enough to have a serious discussion about what basic things to teach our children.
Whose fault is that? Well, there is blame enough to go around. In fact, if there is one thing both parties do exceptionally well, it’s finding ways to blame the other side. But democratic institutions cannot function in a culture of blame. That ought to be civics lesson No. 1.
Lesson No. 2 should be that compromise is a good thing.
It is impossible to have a representative government without compromise. Yet today, too many Americans think we can improve society by electing “fighters” to Congress instead of collaborators. The result is that we have legislators who think it is their job to fight for control of the curriculum rather than work together to ensure meaningful education.
If we did manage to work together, what would that look like? Well, for starters we could agree on four essential objectives.
The first is to teach basic knowledge of U.S. government. If citizens do not know how the government functions, they cannot be expected to participate in it or try to preserve when it is in crisis.
The second objective is to teach American history in a manner that is neither idealized nor cynical. History should provide us with a coherent narrative, not just a collection of figures, dates and events. A shared story serves to guide us into the future. That does not preclude competing interpretations of controversial events; it provides the context within with competing interpretations may unfold.
The third objective is to teach democratic skills, especially critical thinking, argumentative writing and debate. People who know how reason tend to use their words. Those who don’t know how to reason turn to force. Our system of government depends on having a critical mass of people willing to use words to advance their separate interests within the context of the common good.
Lastly, and most importantly, we must teach a shared set of civic virtues. I would argue for truthfulness, courage, temperance, stewardship and fairness. For too long, we have settled for teaching a hodge-podge of values. But virtues and values are critically distinct. Values are merely beliefs we hold about what is important; virtues are settled dispositions acquired through practice. Shared virtues establish a common culture.
The first three objectives can be accomplished by setting standards for graduation. The final objective, however, is not something schools can accomplish alone. It requires all of us, first to model the virtues we wish to see our children adopt and then to provide repeated opportunities to practice them.
It seems to me so obvious that it should not need saying, but it does: A democratic society, if it is to persevere, must be comprised of people with democratic dispositions.
Perhaps the Wisconsin Legislature could take that lesson to heart and work together to craft meaningful and robust standards for civics education. That would set the stage for the first three objectives while also modelling the virtues our children need to see from public figures.
Instead of using civics education as another talking point in endless rounds of partisan gamesmanship, our state legislators should be working together, consulting with organizations like the Fordham Institute and the Annenberg Public Policy Center. They should seek the input of educators to determine best practices for the classroom. They should take the issue out to the public for feedback, taking time to listen sincerely and make revisions. In short, they should engage in the messy, time-consuming, and often frustrating work of representative democracy.
Sure, the process would be controversial, and the result would not be a “win” for either party. But it would demonstrate genuine concern for the future of our nation while also modeling the virtues of democratic citizenship we seek to instill in our children.