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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

What’s the Point of Civics Education?

Not even one-fourth of teachers rank knowledge of political and civic institutions as a top-three concern
By Rick Hess — October 31, 2022 3 min read
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As a guy who taught high school civics back in the last century, I have some admittedly old-fashioned notions about civics instruction. For instance, it may sound archaic to some, but I still think civics should entail teaching students about our political, social, and economic systems; the rights and responsibilities of citizens; and how to engage in the political process.

Apparently, all of this puts me wildly out of step with the times. At least, that’s the obvious takeaway from a new RAND Corp. survey of K-12 teachers, examining how they think about civic and citizenship education. The national study, released earlier this month, utilized questions drawn from the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study.

The researchers found that few teachers seemed to believe that civic education requires teaching students about the core institutions or knowledge upon which civil society rests. Asked for the top three aims of civic education, just 23 percent of teachers said one of them is “promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions.” Just 2 in 5 said a top-three aim was “promoting knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities,” and just 11 percent thought a top-three priority was developing students’ capacity to defend their point of view.

I was gobsmacked by the results. I mean, I’ve always thought it fairly uncontroversial to assume that students need to know how judges get appointed or how Congress works if we expect them to be informed, engaged citizens. And I thought the whole “rights-and-responsibilities of citizens” thing was one place where we could all pretty much agree, at least in principle.

Yet, not even one-fourth of teachers rank knowledge of political and civic institutions as a top-three concern?! Not even half think promoting knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities makes the top three?! Barely 1 in 10 think it’s important that students be able to articulate their beliefs?!

I honestly don’t know what to make of that. I’m tempted to blame the question wording or the survey instrument, except that the questions are pretty straightforward, and the survey has been used around the globe.

Some readers, I suspect, will say, “See, I knew it! This is a consequence of politicizing civics education.” As regular readers know, I have plenty of concerns along that line. Except, the evidence doesn’t really suggest that that’s a major factor. For instance, just 27 percent cited promoting environmental activism as a top-three aim, just 20 percent named “anti-racism,” and just 5 percent mentioned preparing students for future political engagement.

What teachers seem to be embracing instead is a notion of civics education that is largely content-free. The most frequently cited aim, offered by about two-thirds of teachers, is “promoting students’ critical and independent thinking.” The only other aim named by even half of teachers was “developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution.”

I’m all for critical thinking. But critical thinking about what? Clearly, it’s not about social, political, or civic institutions; the rights-and-responsibilities of citizens; how to defend one’s beliefs; or how to engage in the political process. This is critical thinking as a pleasant-sounding placeholder. Thinking critically about pressing conflicts (much less resolving them) inevitably requires historical understanding and substantive knowledge. That seems to have gotten lost.

In an era when researchers have reported that just 26 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government or that only about 1 in 3 Americans can pass the nation’s citizenship test, the consequences of ignorance are glaring. We see the effects daily playing out on social media, in our tribal politics, and in performative civic leadership.

We desperately need civics and citizenship instruction that prepares students to do better. That means helping students cultivate the requisite knowledge, skills, and habits. But the first step, it would appear, is convincing teachers that this is worth doing.

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