Social Studies Opinion

Same Old Civics Ed. Won’t Save Us

We must fight white supremacy in the classroom, not dodge it
By Nicole Mirra & Antero Garcia — January 19, 2021 4 min read
A view of the National Mall in Washington, on Jan. 19, 2021, ahead of the 59th Presidential Inauguration.

Amid the calls for civic education that have followed the insurrectionist mob violence incited by President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol, his President’s Advisory 1776 Commission has released a report calling for a “restoration” of civics that in effect sanitizes and whitewashes this country’s history in the name of national unity.

Yet the vision of civics put forth by this report—a collection of historical half-truths and blindly patriotic propaganda—is a better fit for a dictatorship than for a democracy. Lurking behind its stated goal of wholesome national pride are calculated attacks on any historians and educators that dare to complicate and expand the story of this country.

We do not need this restoration of American civic education. We need a total reconstruction.

The 1776 commission report seems to emerge from an alternate universe in which Americans are not watching National Guard troops sleeping in a militarized Capitol or worrying that an “insider attack” will mar this week’s inauguration of Joe Biden.

Democracy is not neutral when it comes to values of justice and nondiscrimination, and public education must not be, either.

The commission calls for a focus on America’s greatness and suggests that teaching about the country’s faults in the pursuit of social justice is divisive. The report offers no evidence for its claims and could easily be written off as a partisan screed cynically released on the day commemorating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But the truth is that its rhetoric is not that far off from what students already hear in many American classrooms. Most civic education in this country involves a barrage of isolatedhistorical facts couched in a rosy narrative of steady incremental progress that does not match the reality young people see in their daily lives nor prepares them to advocate change.

Why do so many civic policymakers believe that the future of democracy hinges on what percentage of students can name the three branches of government or how vigorously they wave the flag?

Only when we come to see civics as a project for learning how to live together in a multicultural and multiracial society—a project that infuses every moment of the school day across all subject areas—will we find the momentum to save our flailing democratic experiment.

We suggest three principles that must guide the reconstruction of civic education:

1. Facts and patriotism are not the answer.

History shows us again and again that democracy survives through joint action and principled critique. Learning what it means to be an American—especially now—is tough, interpersonal work that cannot be reduced to multiple-choice-style knowledge. (After all, a group of elected representatives with a great deal of such knowledge about our government just tried to manipulate it to overturn a lawful election.) Civic education needs to focus on the lived experiences of young people. Students will learn the facts when they understand the value those facts bring to building the future they want to see.

2. It’s long past time to confront white supremacy.

Last October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declared white supremacists the “most persistent and lethal threat” facing this country. Young people have borne witness to police brutality and now political violence with roots in this destructive ideology. It must be the central concern of civic education.

Yet the 1776 commission asks us to ignore what is right in front of our eyes. Many are calling this moment Orwellian, but we think a reference to Octavia Butler is more appropriate. In The Parable of the Sower, a novel written by Butler in 1993 but set in the 2020s, a father tells his 14-year-old daughter that the destruction caused by inequity must not be discussed. “These things frighten people. It’s best not to talk about them.” Her response: “But Dad, that’s like ignoring a fire in the living room because we’re all in the kitchen.”

This topic is not too heavy for students to handle—they are living its effects. If our young people already have to think about life and death at school during active-shooter drills, they are ready to discuss how the continued legacy of white supremacy threatens the present and the future of this country. We need teachers to help excavate and wrestle with this inheritance.

3. Every teacher is a civics teacher.

Civic education is not the exclusive domain or responsibility of social studies teachers. Teachers of all subjects can and must connect their subject areas to real-world issues if schools hope to sustain democracy. Indeed, many want to do so but hesitate because of a lack of professional development and fear of pushback from communities when wading into controversial issues. But who is taking up this mantle regardless of the barriers? A recent Education Week survey suggests that teachers of color are doing this important work. Our own work in teacher education and youth civic learning echoes and supports this finding.

School administrators need to follow their lead in supporting discussions about pressing civic topics, and teachers need training to facilitate those discussions in ways that promote safety, equity, and empathy for the students of color who make up the majority of public school enrollment.

At the same time, educators need to honor the transformative learning that is happening in family and community environments and cannot be reduced to fit any school accountability frameworks. Democracy is not neutral when it comes to values of justice and nondiscrimination, and public education must not be, either. We must resist bad-faith calls for objectivity or respect for “both sides” of issues when one of those “sides” is grounded in hate and dehumanization.

The American public needs to coalesce around a renewed civic education that gives young people a clear-eyed understanding of their country—faults and all—and honors their energy and ingenuity for tackling the mortal threats facing democracy today. The survival of the republic depends upon it.

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