School & District Management

Americans Say Civics Is a Must and Religion a Maybe in Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 05, 2019 5 min read
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Americans overwhelmingly believe civics should be taught in school, and almost 70 percent of them think it should be a requirement to graduate.

And a surprising majority, 77 percent, say students should have the option to take a comparative religion class and 58 percent said they should be able to study the Bible, according to a new survey. A very small number said that those topics should be mandated, however, in contrast to the finding for civics.

The data released in the annual PDK poll are just a sampling of the entire survey. But these questions hit on a number of specific curriculum areas that have received increasing attention of late. Broadly, they suggest that Americans see the value in understanding how the foundations of government and religious traditions shape communities and civic life.

Here’s the problem: Obliquely, the poll findings underscore the difficulty of translating broad, generalized support into school programming. When the survey analysts divvied up the data, they found some deeper divides by political and religious affiliation.

This isn’t a particularly shocking finding given the way recent political and social events have raised tough questions for teachers. Consider, for example, the debates about topics like removing Confederate monuments, the institution of slavery, and the representation of LGBTQ individuals in the curriculum, all of which Education Week has written about over the past two years. But when so many topics are the subject of controversy and polarization, how do we decide what to teach?

The findings are based on a random national sample of nearly 2,400 U.S. adults, plus an additional oversample of 1,000 parents and 550 teachers.

Religious Study on the Rise?

One somewhat surprising finding: Most Americans like the idea of religious study in the schools. They were particularly open to the teaching of comparative religion courses, but more than half of those surveyed also supported Bible elective courses.

A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case established that schools could not teach devotional study of the Bible or other religious texts, but that secular classes (like the Bible as literature or historical artifact) pass Constitutional muster.

The problem, experts say, is that this line is easy to cross, and as is so often the case when teachers close their doors, it’s hard to know what they’re actually teaching. Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University who has studied the teaching of the Bible in schools, found in two separate reviews of curriculum for supposedly secular Bible classes in Texas that many of them were shot through with conservative Protestant theology.

Lately, the issue has been further politicized because of a push by conservative legislators, like the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, to introduce Bible-literacy legislation alongside a package of “religious freedom” bills. President Trump earlier this year took the debate national by tweeting his support of states that had introduced versions of this bill.

“I think it is detrimental to the larger cause of religious literacy for the specific issue of Biblical literacy to be hijacked by Christian nationalists,” Chancey said in an interview. “There is a legitimate case to be made for Biblical literacy as part of cultural literacy, but many people cannot help but be skeptical when the primary proponents of the measures are trying to use it to privilege their own religious views over those of everybody else.”

Indeed, support for Bible studies in schools cleaves cleanly down racial and political lines. Evangelical Christians, Republicans, rural Americans, and black Democrats were more likely to support such a class than other subgroups.

Chancey said he thinks the educational case is stronger for teaching comparative religion, given the diversity of the country and the interconnectedness of the world. But that too poses some challenges, given that religious debates are often so inseparable from other geopolitical events. Witness, for example, an ongoing lawsuit in Newton, Mass., which claims that several schools are using biased or incorrect materials to teach about Israel and Palestine.

“The biggest flashpoint for teaching about world religions is Islam, and the way representations of Islam have been poltiicized especially since 9/11,” Chancey noted. “There are groups who believe that portrayals of Islam are not accurate unless they are negative, and of course, that is both unfortunate and also unconstitutional.”

Civics on the Rise, But Questions About ‘Values’ Remain

In what’s sure to be greeted warmly by the vocal civics education community, the poll found widespread support for teaching civics. Ninety-seven percent of Americans said it should be taught, and more than two thirds said it should be a requirement in schools.

Education Week found last year that only eight states require a yearlong civics class; it’s far more common to require just a semester, and 24 states don’t even require that.

(If these findings whet your appetite for more, you’ve come to the right place: Please check out our Citizen Z project, which takes a deep, substantive look at the issue of civics teaching today.)

There were divides here among subgroups. Parents with a college degree were more supportive of civics education than those without one. More to the point is that, as with religion, there is significant concern that other topics could be included under the guise of civics. About 29 percent of parents were worried the classes would contain political content they disagree with; that figure was higher among evangelical Christians and Republicans, where more than a third expressed those concerns.

The civics portion of the survey also contained a section querying Americans on whether they thought certain values should be taught in school. Interestingly, teachers were even more excited about this than adults, with 85 percent supporting it to 79 percent of adults overall.

The most interesting finding here? Americans continue to believe that honesty should be taught in schools, with 97 percent agreeing with that value, the same percentage as in PDK’s 1999 survey. But other values have changed quite a lot: Acceptance of others with different sexual orientations went up to 74 percent from just 55 percent in 1999, while patriotism fell from 90 percent in 1999 to 81 percent this year.

Here again the findings differed based on political affiliation; liberals and Democrats were more likely to say schools should teach young people to accept people with different sexual orientations than Republicans or conservatives.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.