Social Studies

Drawing a Line Between Civics Education and Activism

By Liana Loewus — February 23, 2017 3 min read
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Rather than teaching students about the underpinnings of American society—democracy, freedom of the press, the Founding Fathers—civics education in many places has veered into promoting liberal activism, according to panelists speaking yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute.

AEI, a conservative think tank, hosted the event in light of the recent election, which some voices on both the left and right have cited as evidence of the need to improve civics education. For example, Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey recently wrote in the Atlantic, “How is it possible that tens of millions of Americans supported a presidential candidate who consistently rejected basic constitutional principles that previously had been accepted across the political spectrum?”

Rebecca Burgess, who moderated the panel and is the manager of AEI’s program on American citizenship, also wrote on the subject during election season, in a piece for The Hill titled, “Disgusted With Trump vs. Clinton? Blame America’s Civic Education.”

The hourlong discussion here opened with David Randall, the director of communications at the National Association of Scholars, a group that works on issues related to academic freedom and citizenship, giving examples of civics educators at high schools and universities encouraging students to attend protests for liberal causes. “You’re hearing an awful lot about civic engagement around the country, and it seems to be being used as a synonym for organized political protest virtually all on one side of the political spectrum,” he said. “A majority of college graduates don’t know that senators serve six-year terms and a majority of college graduates don’t know what the Emancipation Proclamation is ... there’s a connection between college students being educated for civic engagement but not being educated for civic literacy.”

Randall’s group, NAS, put out a paper in January arguing that higher education institutions have redefined civics as progressive political activism.

The School’s Role

The conflation of activism and civic engagement happens with younger students as well, according to Juan Rangel, the former CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, a Hispanic community-based organization in Chicago, and founder of the group’s charter school network. “The times give us an easy out by saying we’re going to create activists out of our kids,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s the role of the school.” (Rangel resigned in 2013 amid allegations that he awarded insider contracts, and he recently settled fraud charges with the Securities Exchange Commission.)

Rangel disagrees with the idea of taking students to rallies or protests, which he said is “more to indulge the adults than it is to teach our children.” The mostly Hispanic population at UNO’s schools instead meet with elected officials, participate in mock elections, and visit Ellis Island to learn about the history of immigrants in the United States.

The panel—which did not include any current classroom teachers—praised ongoing efforts to require all students to pass a U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate from high school. The Joe Foss Institute has been heading up this work, which has gained traction quickly, mostly in right-leaning states. More than a dozen states plan to implement the test, which asks basic questions about U.S. history and government.

“As a practical matter, if you get to the end of your civics education and you can’t do this, something has gone very wrong,” said Robert Pondiscio, the vice president for external affairs at the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “My only quibble is this should not be a high school graduation requirement, it should be an elementary graduation requirement.”

The panelists also took some time to praise what has become arguably the most influential advancement in history education of our time: the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

“What ‘Hamilton’ has done is just so beautiful,” said Charles Sahm, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, a research group committed to free-market ideas. “The fact that it’s told in hip hop by a multiracial cast—it has led underprivileged minority kids to come away from the show with a changed view of America and a changed view of themselves. Many will tell you that for the first time they see themselves as Americans. ... But the phenomenon of Hamilton makes a larger point—that American history, when told in a way that resonates, is fascinating.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.