Education Opinion

Civil Education: A Balm for Our Increasingly Polarized Society?

By Gary Marx — April 30, 2015 4 min read
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Assignment #1: How well are we preparing young people to become interested, engaged, and contributing members of a truly civil society? As you think about it, consider these questions: Do our students know how to gather, consider, and present evidence? Do they understand the importance of reasoned discussion? Do they have a commitment to comprehending, not necessarily accepting, a variety of points of view? OK, what’s your score? For schools? For your community? For your nation? Use a scale of 1 to 10.

Whatever our scores, we are fairly certain about one thing: We aren’t there yet. In fact, polarization is eating our lunch. Shouting matches have too often replaced civil discourse. While social media theoretically open the door to a world of information, growing numbers of people program their dashboards for apps and web sites that do nothing more than justify single, narrow, pre-determined conclusions.

Read more in Chapter 15 of Twenty-One Trends

In street language, here’s how polarization blares at us from newspapers, radio and television, and our choice of web sites or social media, even at the coffee shop: “It’s us versus them.” “This room isn’t big enough for both of us.” “Are you from a blue state or a red state?” “Forget about principle. All that matters is whether we win.”

What’s going on here? On the one hand, we intone the absolute necessity of developing good citizens for our families, schools, colleges, communities, nations, and the world. On the other, we shamelessly short-change civic education and the social sciences.

If we have any hope for a sustainable future, polarization and narrowness will need to bend toward reasoned discussion, evidence, and consideration of varying points of view. Yet, too often, we end up self-righteously fractionated, constantly in conflict, paralyzed by unresolved disagreements, and verbally attacked by people who haven’t been heard because someone hasn’t been listening.

New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman warns that we’ve become so partisan that the best we can hope for is “suboptimal responses” to our biggest problems, only reflecting “the sum of all interest groups.” Still, let’s remember what former U.S. President James Madison had to say. Writing in the Federalist Papers, Madison observed, “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.” Of course, as often as possible, we should resolve those differences in a way that serves the common good.

Civic Education, Social Sciences, and the Civic Mission of Schools.

Educators who believe in the civic mission of schools are generally appalled by political gridlock that slows or blocks their efforts to give all students, across all diversities, a shot at a better tomorrow. Many are caught in the classic tug between those who have a great deal and want more...and those who have very little and just want some.

What are the implications of this exploding dilemma for education? How can our education system bring greater civility to fractured and warring communities—whole societies, for that matter?

Let’s start by thinking about the skills, attitudes, and behaviors each of us needs to be declared “civil.” Among them are: empathy; ethical behavior; respect for others despite their differences; the ability to think, reason, and solve problems; the know-how to resolve conflict peacefully and democratically; and a commitment to engage people in discussion and listen to their ideas.

Add a willingness to collaborate and reasonably compromise, do research, network, consider multiple points of view, and build a case. Among basics are the need for media literacy, consensus building, and negotiating skills. Of course, another essential is getting a grip on the dynamic flow of trends and issues in a fast-changing world. All of the above should be coupled with creativity, imagination, and breakthrough thinking that can put us on the road to solving problems, seizing opportunities, and creating a more hopeful tomorrow.

Any civic educator will tell us that our students need to understand and have hands-on experience with public engagement and policymaking. Most would encourage them to take initiative in improving their communities. All of us, including our students, should be familiar with how government at every level is intended to work and how laws are made and changed. Top this preparation for enlightened citizenship with a working knowledge of concepts such as authority, privacy, responsibility, and justice.

Rebecca Mieliwocki, 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of Futures Council 21 for development of our book, Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century, puts it this way: As teachers, “our work knits the fabric of society together like nothing else.”

The Center for Civic Education urges all of us to aim for a civic temperament. That might just be the answer to what has too often become a polarized, gridlocked society.

Assignment #2: Identify ten things we should start doing now to make sure our students are ready to become active and contributing members of a truly civil society.

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