Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

The Insurrection Highlights the Need for Civics Learning

By Jinnie Spiegler — February 22, 2021 8 min read
shutterstock 1888600195
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

What if the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, attacked police officers, and threatened legislators’ lives had received robust civics and anti-bias education in high school? Would it have made a difference?

Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

On Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, Congress met in the U.S. Capitol to count electoral votes and certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. This is a formality that takes place every four years under our country’s system for choosing its president and vice president. While this was happening, a violent mob of right-wing extremists, white supremacists, and others, who came to Washington to disrupt and overturn the results of the presidential election, stormed the Capitol. Their goal was to disrupt the count of Electoral College ballots that would formally certify Joe Biden’s victory.

As House and Senate lawmakers held their floor debates, angry rioters—many wearing and carrying white-supremacist symbols—invaded the Capitol, spewing violence, rage, and hate. Five people died, including one Capitol Police officer. Two police officers died by suicide shortly thereafter. Former President Trump was impeached for incitement of the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

Teachers and the Insurrection

While these events unfolded, many teachers were midway through their teaching or about to start class. They scrambled to figure out what to say and do regarding this unprecedented event—on Jan. 6, the next day, and perhaps for several days after that or longer. As some teachers noted on social media, every one of those attackers and insurrectionists was once a student sitting in a classroom.

Would it have made a difference if they had sat in a civics classroom and learned about the states’ responsibility for federal elections, vote counting, and disinformation? Would learning about bias and injustice in school have had an impact? Unpacking civics learning and exploring the intersection of civics and anti-bias education may help to answer those questions.

Civics Education in Schools

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the quality and prevalence of civics education. Some states have enacted laws to fortify their civics-class offerings and requirements. The more popular strategy has been for states to adopt a standard that all high school students pass the U.S. Citizenship test as a graduation requirement. However, critics of this measure contend it does little to assess comprehension of civics principles and content, including the foundations of government, rights and responsibilities, and public engagement in civil discourse.

Civics Knowledge

If we dissect some of the actions and rhetoric leading up to the insurrection, we uncover critical civics lessons about democratic principles and foundations of government. A key learning is that the integrity of the voting process matters. As all eyes watched the Nov. 3 presidential election returns, we saw that the winner could not be called right away. This was due, in large part, to several swing states having close vote tallies and a high percentage of votes cast by mail-in ballots due to the pandemic. Also, many state laws require that counting can only begin on election night.

Various media outlets explained this process to the public and continued to monitor the tallying. And then, even though millions of legitimate votes had not been counted and several important swing states had not been called, former President Trump publicly and repeatedly declared victory. While we watched and waited for several subsequent days, Trump continued to insist he won while asserting that the election was stolen. If people knew and understood how these elections operate in their states, would the lie of election fraud have taken hold in so many people’s minds? If people had foundational knowledge about how individual states determine their state’s election and voting laws and policies, there could have been more critical thinking and anticipation about the timing and outcome of the election.

Several other gaps in the understanding of basic civics emerged during this time. There were the attempts to disenfranchise millions of voters, especially in cities where voters of color predominate, which underscored that voter-suppressions laws of the past decade made their mark and continue to threaten voter enfranchisement. And, while Biden won both the Electoral College and the popular vote, the election reinvigorated a discussion about why we have the Electoral College and whether it is aligned with our representative democracy.

The “rule of law” and how it manifests is another key civics concept. The rule of law is not an actual rule or law, but rather it is the important principle that all people and institutions are subject and accountable to laws. That accountability includes lawmakers, law-enforcement officials, judges, and the president of the U.S. We are now grappling with how to hold those in office accountable, which not only includes the president but other elected officials who may have played a role in “the big lie” that led to the insurrection.

Civics Skills

In addition to civics knowledge, various civics skills are relevant to what happened at the Capitol. Media literacy is the ability to think critically about the media we consume—from television commentary to social-media posts to online news and information. It is an essential skill for informed civic engagement. Young people and others should be able to discern fact from fiction, consider point of view when reading new information, and most importantly, see disinformation, fake news, and propaganda for what they are—forms of “false news.” We know that fake-news websites contributed to misinformation shared and amplified during the 2016 presidential election. And we also know that the disinformation campaign perpetuated by Trump and others during the 2020 election played a role in the insurrection; many of those who participated came because they believed they were fighting to “Save the Steal.”

When the election was called for Biden on Nov. 7, the Trump administration began to file state lawsuits, as is their right, continuing to allege voter fraud. They lost 61 out of 62 lawsuits, but that did not stop them from using media outlets and the largest megaphone in the world to spread lies about election fraud. Even with each state certifying their results and the election being called the most secure in U.S. history, the Trump administration continued this disinformation campaign. Could media literacy have played a mitigating role?

Another essential civic skill is the ability to have respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree. As young people begin to form their opinions and perspectives, they benefit from grappling with and learning from different viewpoints. Learning how to engage in dialogue (as opposed to debate) focuses on understanding differing perspectives rather than winning arguments. Civil discourse can be difficult, especially if you are in discussion with people whose positions do not value equitable rights for all or who discount your very humanity. Equity is foundational to respectful conversations or civil discourse.

Civics education, at its core, is about understanding how government works and how to access government to achieve equity, justice, and a fair shot for all. Civics education helps students reflect on how they relate to their government and what to do when they disagree with what their government does. A powerful civic skill is knowing how to engage in meaningful action. Voting is one way to be civically engaged, and while critically important, voting should be the bare minimum of active participation in civic life. Advocacy and activism are fundamental to making change. Activism has been instrumental in making social improvements and progress on issues of justice and equity throughout our nation’s history. As many young people watched the insurrection and what led up to it, it is important to help students identify what they want to change and the actions they can take to make a difference.

Civics Disposition and Anti-Bias Education

Our approach to civics education weaves together the principles and practices of anti-bias education with civic learning. While teaching about democracy and the foundations of government, we stress the values of respect, inclusion, equity, and active participation as important pillars of a democratic society. We also encourage educators and students to begin by establishing a civic mindset and look at civics through an anti-bias lens. We believe this framing will deepen student civic participation by encouraging them to understand and challenge bias, discrimination, and inequity in schools, communities, and society.

Examining current events enlivens and makes relevant anti-bias and civic learning. Current events often provide an opening to discuss bias and equity because so many news stories shine a light on how bias and injustice show up and have an impact on our world. Discussing current events often pushes us to understand more about how government works, how the rights and responsibilities of others can be realized, and how to actively participate in making our democracy work better for all people. Exploring civics principles through current events can be motivating for students because it will help them understand the news with more depth.

A key takeaway from the insurrection on Jan. 6 is that the mob was called to action under the umbrella of bias, hate, racism, and white supremacy. We cannot understand and reflect on the insurrection without exploring the history of white supremacy, which includes (1) the system of white supremacy that our country was founded on that continues to operate today and (2) white-supremacist that were present at the Capitol. White supremacy was front and center on Jan. 6, as we all watched the Confederate flag and other racist and antisemitic symbols and language being brandished through the Capitol. We must not discount the power of that and heed it as a cautionary event. The Pyramid of Hate is instructive in considering that when biased attitudes and actions go unchecked, they can lead to bias-motivated violence like what we witnessed at the Capitol attack.

We can never be certain that civics and anti-bias education could have played a role in preventing the attack on the U.S. Capitol. We do know that the knowledge, skills, and disposition of civic engagement and challenging bias are worthy endeavors in the education of our nation’s children.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Webinar
Close the Gender Gap: Getting Girls Excited about STEM
Join female STEM leaders as they discuss the importance of early cheerleaders, real life role models, and female networks of support.
Content provided by Logitech
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies College Board Releases AP African American Studies Framework, Runs Into Anti-CRT Laws
The new AP course recently made headlines after Florida officials banned the pilot course in the state for allegedly defying state law.
6 min read
In this June 23, 1963, file photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King joins Detroit's Freedom March. During the critical era of the 1950s and '60s, King, who led the 250,000-strong March on Washington in 1963, and Malcolm X were colossal 20th century figures, representing two different tracks: mass non-violent protest and getting favorable outcomes "by any means necessary."
In this June 23, 1963, file photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King joins Detroit's Freedom March. During the critical civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, King, who led the 250,000-strong March on Washington in 1963, and Malcolm X, were colossal 20th century figures, representing two different tracks: mass non-violent protest and getting favorable outcomes "by any means necessary."
AP
Social Studies Opinion How to Teach Black History: A Resource List
Here are some books, websites, databases, and podcasts to deepen your students’ Black historical knowledge—and your own.
LaGarrett J. King
5 min read
Illustration of a pair of hands gently holding a vase filled with vibrant red flowers.
Xia Gordon for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion The Five Questions for Building Your Black History Program
Schools and districts must do better to highlight the importance of dedicated Black history instruction.
LaGarrett J. King
6 min read
Illustration of black faces looking out from behind vibrant blooming flowers.
Xia Gordon for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion Africana Studies Can Save Education—and the World
The goal of our dominant education framework is to produce workers, not whole, self-actualized human beings. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Ismael Jimenez
4 min read
Illustration of the map of Africa casting a shadow on documents and opened books.
Xia Gordon for Education Week