New civics education law misses the mark

Thinking ‘civically’ can’t really be legislated

WHEN THE NATION has an itch, the schools get a scratch. As a result, Massachusetts students are getting a new civics requirement, which Charlie Baker signed into law Thursday.

Many in the Commonwealth and around the United States have developed concerns over the past few years about the health of our democracy. Without question, this has been a response to the Trump presidency. But such concerns have also emerged in response to declining rates of voter participation, increasing comfort with nondemocratic forms of governance, and the various challenges posed by dark money and electoral meddling.

But while there is general agreement about the fact that something should be done, there is less certainty about what might work. The schools, in such cases, always end up as the target. Why? Because they’re easy to act upon: they are overseen by the state, and they have a sizable captive population. Consequently, the Legislature hasn’t had to think particularly hard about how to scratch this itch.

Civics education has a long and storied history in the United States, and there is certainly a place for it in the schools. Unfortunately, this bill fails to address the problem. And that’s because civics education isn’t something that can be easily legislated from the top-down. Despite the nod in this bill to civics “projects,” the bulk of instruction will likely focus on textbook learning aligned with curricular standards. There may eventually be an aligned standardized test.

If the new bill disappoints, Massachusetts won’t be alone. The way civics is usually taught in American public schools often begins and ends with the structure of government, emphasizing factual knowledge like how a bill becomes a law. Again, that is because such an approach is easy to legislate.

Advocates for civics education have long campaigned for a different approach—one that would emphasize guided discussions, active learning experiences, participation in school governance, and intensive simulations. And scholars, myself included, have argued that civics education should emphasize mindsets and dispositions over facts and figures. Consider the skills that expert citizens have. They vote, certainly. But they also know how to engage meaningfully with perspectives and values different from their own. You don’t learn those skills by reading a textbook.

What would a great civics education class look like? It would expose students to a range of moral dilemmas, social circumstances, and ideological perspectives. It would challenge young people to work together, across differences, to address real-world problems that lack straightforward solutions. It would be anchored in ethical and deliberative experiences. And it would draw on emotionally engaging resources that are rarely included in the school curriculum, the most important of which are interactions with real people.

If we are serious about the health of our democracy, and we are intent on acting through the schools, we need to think beyond standards and requirements. We need to reconceive of the civics classroom as a laboratory of sorts—one where students learn by trial and error to “think civically.”

This is not the sort of approach that can be legislated from the capital. It can only happen through creative local efforts, rooted in communities and tied to a range of different organizations.

There is no easy answer to this problem. But there is another model—one different from the persistent effort to enact new standards.

Meet the Author
Once upon a time, America had a wide range of civics education programs operating out of a stunningly diverse set of organizations. Groups like the Ford Motor Company, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the YMCA—to name a few—created programs designed to foster civic education among immigrants and citizens alike. Such programs were voluntary, so they didn’t reach everyone. And they operated without a clear set of uniform standards, so they weren’t all top-notch. But the grassroots nature of these programs also allowed them to develop the kinds of creative approaches to citizenship education that sometimes actually work.

We can support these kinds of programs, inside and outside of schools. But such efforts will only work if they are accompanied by the freedom to exercise boundless creativity—in other words, we need to have faith in today’s citizens that they can educate tomorrow’s. Because, in the end, the challenges to our democracy won’t be met with a new state law; they will only be met by a new state of mind.

Jack Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment. He is currently completing a book about Betsy DeVos and the effort to dismantle public education. Follow him on Twitter @Edu_Historian