Social Studies Opinion

There’s a Major Conflict at the Heart of Our Democracy. Civics Education Should Embrace It

Rubbernecking and traffic jams might help students understand some of our thorniest issues
By Michael J. Feuer — November 21, 2023 4 min read
Tired man driving city traffic jam at evening. After work day, sleepy driver in car on road.
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What do climate change, traffic jams, school choice, affirmative action, and mass vaccination have in common? The short answer: They all involve tensions between individual rights and social consequences, arguably one of the more vexing and persistent problems of liberal democracies. Current and future educators and policymakers need better understanding of the challenges posed by such conflicts. At the risk of adding yet more demands on teachers and school leaders beleaguered by criticism and pressure to do things differently, it is worth considering whether and how lessons about such issues might enrich educator preparation and classroom life.

There is a sturdy theoretical and empirical foundation to guide us in that direction. A staple of social science, especially the study of public policy, is a set of models showing how rational choices made by good people can cause unwanted—and sometimes downright awful—social outcomes. Take the all-too familiar problem of rubber-necking, where smart and well-meaning highway drivers cause backups that no one wants. The story is simple and should resonate well with high school students (especially those with cars): Driving on the northbound lane, you see an accident on the southbound side and slow down just long enough to have a look, with negligible effect on your travel time. It’s a rational calculation of benefit (seeing what’s going on, maybe offering a helping hand) and cost (travel delay). Those behind you, though, who want to avoid rear-end collisions, have rapidly diminishing choice. The inevitable multiplier effect traps all the other drivers into a situation they didn’t bargain for. As explained eloquently by the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, the logic of choice that drives (!) this unfortunate outcome points to a broader family of frustrating phenomena.

So ubiquitous are these kinds of situations that they are sometimes classified under “tragedy of the commons,” the title of one of the most cited articles in all of science. The human ecologist Garret Hardin offered in that paper the example of herders in an open pasture. Each one seeks to maximize individual gain, which leads them all to increase their herd without limit and brings about, in Hardin’s phrase, “ruin to all.” There are also situations in which parties to a common problem would gain from cooperating but find it too hard—or costly—to coordinate their activities. In these ways, individual decisions that seem sensible lead to unnecessarily inferior outcomes—unless society comes up with ways to shape private behavior. As the Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom forcefully argued, democratic societies have devised governance mechanisms, not necessarily state-sponsored and coercive, that further the collective good. Thanks to people’s moral instincts as expressed in these arrangements, the commons do not always lead to tragedy.

In that spirit, understanding risks associated with unregulated individualism should be part of good civics education. Granted, the K-12 curriculum is already crowded, and some will worry that more civics will detract from efforts to raise student achievement in the STEM—science, technology, engineering, math—subjects. But this need not become a zero-sum game. Take climate change: Assuming agreement that it is caused at least partially by the actions of individuals, corporations, and countries all advancing their own interests, the question becomes whether and how democratic societies can impose on themselves limits that will redound to the common good. Now, think of how such questions might enrich both a chemistry class and a “problems of democracy” course. Students in both would benefit from learning about the technology of fuel combustion in the context of political and economic solutions to climate change.

Another problem that involves a blend of STEM and civics is vaccination policy. Do parents’ preferences to refuse to vaccinate their children against communicable disease, on religious or other grounds, justify the spread of infection? Framing that question in terms of individual rights and social wrongs can strengthen the conversation by steering it away from purely ideological arguments. Again, students would learn about the inherent tension, without necessarily being told which direction to lean.

Who pays for social benefits ... warrants increased emphasis in the high school curriculum.

Debates over school choice reflect the same conflict. Mathematical modeling shows that when families seek to maximize their children’s educational experience, the result can be unwanted racial resegregation of schools and neighborhoods. The goal of looking at school choice in the classroom is not to drive toward a particular answer. Rather, it is to have students more confident in their ability to untangle the issues and consider how to balance an individual pursuit, such as the “best” schooling, with a social one, such as integration.

The debate over affirmative action and race-conscious college admissions is another area where the analytics of collective action can enrich the discussion. A socially desirable outcome, namely increased diversity, may be viewed as penalizing qualified individuals who believe they were unfairly denied admission. Who pays for social benefits, a classic problem of public policy, warrants increased emphasis in the high school curriculum.

Teachers will surely have their own points of view about these thorny questions. But most teachers aspire to equip students with the skills to reach their own judgments, guided of course by facts and moral clarity. A key message in such teaching is that government is not the only or best mechanism to mitigate “tragic” consequences of unregulated self-interest: Enlightened public policy in liberal democracy should be open to choices.

Civics can mean different things, but there is general agreement on the importance of building knowledge about the complex workings of democracy. Especially in capitalist systems such as ours, concepts of collective action should play a more prominent role.

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