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Assessment Opinion

Civic Education for the Entire Brain

By Derek A. Webb — September 17, 2007 4 min read
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Fear not Jay Leno, America. For the past several years, the late-night comedian has mocked Americans’ civic ignorance in his “Jaywalking” feature on “The Tonight Show,” accosting strangers and asking them basic questions about American history and government. Typically, the results are abysmal … and hilarious.

But results from the 2006 National Assessment of Education Progress, released in May, show that students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades have registered slight but significant gains in their knowledge of U.S. and world history since the test was last administered, in 2001. (“Test Gains Reigniting Old Debate,” May 23, 2007.) Seventy percent of 4th graders (up from 66 percent in 2001), 65 percent of 8th graders (up from 62 percent), and 47 percent of 12th graders (up from 43 percent) scored at or above basic levels of knowledge in history on the 2006 test.

These are grounds for modest celebration. But there are also reasons for concern. While students seem to be gaining in their factual knowledge of American history and civics, they have demonstrated no progress in acquiring civic skills and dispositions, necessary prerequisites for their becoming the critically minded, engaged citizens we so desperately need. The results of the civics portion of NAEP showed a small but significant increase in civic knowledge for 4th graders, but no significant progress for 8th or 12th graders since 1998. At the 4th grade level, the civics test focused on factual knowledge. At the 8th and 12th grades, the focus shifted to skills such as interpreting texts, analyzing and making arguments, and assuming the responsibilities of citizenship.

This failure has not received the kind of attention it deserves in the subsequent conversation about the NAEP results. Nearly all the attention has instead been on whether our students have made adequate progress in acquiring historical knowledge and to what degree the federal No Child Left Behind Act, now up for reauthorization by Congress, has advanced or diminished that progress.

This preoccupation with the factual and quantifiable is understandable. But knowledge of history is only one part of a broader education in U.S. citizenship that young people need to receive. It is good that our students are reading history texts and recalling what they have read. It is also encouraging that more of them can recognize Independence Hall than could six years ago. But civic education has always been about more than just memory and recall. It has also been about developing skills such as critical reasoning and analysis that enable students to understand the meaning of the events they are memorizing. According to the civics results, for instance, only 28 percent of our 8th graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Furthermore, civic education historically has been designed for the heart as well as the head. Abraham Lincoln advocated as much when he said in 1838: “Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap. Let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges.” Our efforts to teach civics today, by contrast, seem to be making little headway in cultivating public-spiritedness, civility, and respect for the rule of law—attributes crucial to the success of democracy, and too often absent in today’s political climate.

How should educators and policymakers respond to these findings? I offer three suggestions. First, we should remember the importance of teaching civic skills and dispositions as part of a civic education for the entire brain. Citizenship is a whole-brain affair, encompassing memory, reasoning, and feeling. Why shouldn’t our civic education address these as well?

Second, we should bring back the straightforward history courses that have been displaced by more generic reading courses under the No Child Left Behind law. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is surely right to say that the history gains on NAEP can be attributed to the law’s greater emphasis on reading. But the fact that our students are not thinking any better about this material suggests that reading more is simply not enough. Our students need to read historical materials in the context of well-designed history courses taught by well-trained history instructors who can help them make sense of what they are reading.

Third, we should recall that civic dispositions have been shown to develop through extracurricular activities, such as meeting with elected officials, taking part in student government, and completing service-learning projects. In our zeal to improve the reading and math scores of lower-performing students, we should not forget to emphasize and fund these other kinds of activities as well. Broaden our civic education to include the entire brain, and watch the test scores rise.

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Derek A. Webb is the inaugural Wilson Carey McWilliams Fellow in American Politics and Political Theory at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, in Charlottesville, Va. His dissertation is titled “Paving the Rights Infrastructure: Civic Education in the Presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.”

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