Magazine Feature

Educating for Democracy

Effective civics literacy develops critical thinkers who can connect history and current events to engage in democratic action in building an equitable and just society.
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Illustrations by Nicole Xu

A common understanding of the purpose of civics education is that it should teach students about the mechanics of American democracy, yet only seven states require high school students to complete one year of civics or government studies. While many states require high school students to complete a half-year civics course, 13 states have no civics course requirement at all. The states with no required civics course are as geographically and politically diverse as those with one- or half-year requirements. Research shows a striking lack of knowledge among adults in the United States about the function and purpose of the nation’s government and democracy, revealing a significant need for effective civics education.

In March 2021, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities released The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy. The road map includes questions such as, “How can we offer an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is simultaneously honest about the past without falling into cynicism and appreciative of the founding without tipping into adulation?” The framework, designed by more than 300 experts with varying political views, had bipartisan support, yet conservative activists characterized the road map as an attempt to impose both “critical race theory” and “action civics.”

Responding to the 2020 worldwide protests over George Floyd’s murder, Republican politicians have waged a culture war to prevent educators from teaching students about white supremacy’s effects on civic engagement. Since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken action to restrict teaching about honest history and racism in the U.S. through attacks aimed at critical race theory (CRT), which is often misrepresented. CRT basically examines and critiques American institutions, such as government and legal systems, from a race-based perspective and is most often taught in law school and higher education. According to Robert Kim, a leading expert in education law and policy, “[CRT] also poses key questions, such as: Has the American legal system and traditional civil rights litigation been effective at achieving racial justice? And if not, what should be done about that?”

Education Censorship Opposes the Principles of Democracy

Anti-CRT laws are being passed under the guise of protecting students—white students in particular—from “psychological distress,” which Republican lawmakers are defining as “assigning fault, blame, or bias” to a race or sex “because of their race and sex” or claiming members of that race or sex are “inherently racist”—consciously or unconsciously. This deliberate misrepresentation of CRT attempts to erase history viewed as “uncomfortable” by a small, vocal group of people. Centering that group’s “feelings” restricts all students’ learning and their development of critical thinking around history and issues of racism.

“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.

Florida’s Individual Freedom Act, also known as the Stop WOKE Act (WOKE as used here is an acronym for Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees), forbids schools from teaching any material that could make students feel “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” because of their race, gender, sex or national origin. The law allows educators to teach “how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination” and how laws enforced racial discrimination but says nothing about who wrote and implemented those laws or how those laws violate principles of civic engagement. Lessons may also include “how recognition of individual freedoms overturned these unjust laws” but “may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”

While what anti-CRT legislation does not want students to learn is clear—anything abstractly related to race consciousness and the humanity of those previously excluded—these laws offer little guidance on what should be taught about civics literacy, leaving educators to wonder how to teach civics classes.

Illustration of various people talking at a table.

The History of Civics Education

The attempt to codify what students should know about civics dates to 1892, when the National Education Association (NEA) started an initiative to develop the first standardized curriculum. The NEA commissioned a Committee of Ten to recommend a nationwide system of education. The Committee of Ten organized nine “conferences” based on a survey of subjects common in schools, including languages (Latin, Greek, English and other modern languages); mathematics; physical and biological sciences; geography and geology; and history, civil government and political economy. Each conference—made up of 10 white men—met for three days to answer questions to guide the creation of a standardized educational curriculum.

The Conference on History, Civil Government and Political Economy was tasked with structuring what students should learn to be active participants in society, what history should be taught and what content should be covered in the study of civil government. The conference results have been long-lasting:

“Your Conference would, however, express the belief that the theoretical questions of government, such as the origin and nature of the state, the doctrine of sovereignty, the theory of the separation of powers, etc., are very difficult to teach to children; … a system of ethics can better be taught by example and by appealing to common sense and to accepted standards of conduct, than by formal lessons. On the other hand, the simple principles underlying the laws which regulate the relations of individuals with the state, may be taught by specific instances and illustration; and the machinery of government, such as systems of voting, may be constantly illustrated by the practice of the communities in which the children live.”

As the conference makes plain, history and civics are distinct but inseparable disciplines, and in the conference’s design of what students should know about history and civics, the former instructs the latter. The committee writes, “To sum up, one object of historical study is the acquirement of useful facts; but the chief object is the training of the judgment, in selecting the grounds of an opinion, in accumulating materials for an opinion, in putting things together, in generalizing upon facts, in estimating character, in applying the lessons of history to current events, and in accustoming children to state their conclusions in their own words.”

Here, the conference outlines what the dynamics between civics, history and ethics could look like. But their ideal operates on the premise that the experience of Black Americans had nothing to offer education. The purveyors of the nation’s first standardized curriculum did not consider the horrors of enslavement in America or the failures of Reconstruction as worthy of study. This exclusion is not surprising given the members of the conference, which included a professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton: future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s belief that Black people were an “inferior” race was underscored in the conference’s proposals. His racist interpretation of history is imprinted on the development of the U.S. social studies curriculum and has yet to be scoured.

James W. Loewen, historian and author of the 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, chronicled textbooks that insulated Wilson’s reputation from his racist deeds. He analyzed the absence of Wilson’s racist and imperialist views in textbooks. For example, textbooks did not mention Wilson’s takeover of Haiti or his extensive record of racism in office. Loewen’s lament about the omission of Wilson’s transgressions resonates today:

“Omitting or absolving Wilson’s racism goes beyond concealing a character blemish. It is overtly racist. No Black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero are written from a white perspective. The cover-up denies all students the chance to learn something important about the interrelationship between the leader and the led.”

While schools might not explicitly avow Wilson’s sympathy for the KKK or espouse blatant anti-Black views, the exclusion of white America’s tireless incitement of Black suffering throughout history tacitly endorses Wilson’s anti-Black notions. This negation directly conflicts with the Committee of Ten’s ideals of teaching civics and history.

Still, the conference’s original formulation of teaching civics and history can instruct us on how to succeed where the committee failed: Civics education must connect history with present experiences to help students develop their ability to critically analyze the ethics of political institutions at the local, state and national levels.

Teaching Responsible Civics in U.S. Schools

Generation Citizen, a national, nonpartisan civics education organization, advances a student-led form of civics education known as community-based action civics. “The work is making sure that the connection between culturally relevant education in the classroom and the importance of that being a catalyst for racial equity and cross-generational collaboration in our democracy is fully connected,” says Andrew Wilkes, chief policy and advocacy officer for Generation Citizen.

“The way to get students to learn about the power of government and civics is through issues that affect their own lives.”
—Ann Beeson

Generation Citizen works with educators to deliver interactive, hands-on civics lessons and collaborates with school districts to adopt progressive civics teaching practices—instruction that goes beyond traditional document analysis or learning how a bill becomes law. For example, Generation Citizen helped San Francisco students create a three-bin classroom waste system and meet with the office of the Board of Supervisors to plan waste drop-off days and a beautification event. “It’s important to make sure that student access to action civics education is maximized across the board,” Wilkes says. “We see that as a key step towards fulfilling our mission of young people being equipped and empowered to exercise their civic voice, beginning in adolescence.”

The essential task in responsible action civics education is guiding students to develop questions about their surroundings and lived experience. Ann Beeson, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s chief program officer, says this means asking young people, “How do you define community?” Beeson—formerly a senior fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, an institute at the University of Texas at Austin that prepares students to make “constructive and impactful civic contributions”—says the process of inspiring civic engagement in students starts with inquiry. “When you ask, ‘How do you feel about your community? What about your neighbors, how are they doing? What are the issues where you live?’ students are going to talk about all sorts of things,” Beeson says. “They are going to talk about challenges with public transportation, their parents work three jobs.”

In one civics project, students at a majority-Latine/x school in San Antonio noted bad food in the lunchroom and began investigating their access to quality food by asking, “Why is the food so bad in our school?” The inquiry led students to make connections between food and government policy. “They discovered that there was a serious inequity between their public school budget and the budget of the white kids’ school across town,” Beeson says. “They started learning about other food equity issues as a result.”

Bills like the Stop WOKE Act are purposely abstract, thus increasing fear and uncertainty among teachers so they cower away from teaching the history of racism in the U.S. The laws are constructed in the passive voice to condition students to believe white people were not the primary actors in infringing on the freedoms and civil rights of Black people. If students believe that slavery and segregation were a matter of happenstance, then they have no ethical responsibility to change a society shaped by that history. Separating history from its contributing role in modern ethical dilemmas is an attempt to restrict the questioning of systems of injustice and to limit understanding of civic engagement’s direct connections to activism.

The idea of infusing education with progressive practices is often disingenuously presented as indoctrination. However, in 1893, the Committee of Fifteen, a subcommittee that analyzed the Conference on History, Civil Government and Political Economy, reported the importance of recognizing “the danger of too little stress on the progressive element in the growth of nations and its manifestation in new and better political devices for representing all citizens without weakening the central power.”

“The way to get students to learn about the power of government and civics is through issues that affect their own lives,” Beeson says—a method that stands in opposition to current efforts to hoist a malicious veil over historic inequities. It’s essential for responsible civics education to counter diluted models that do not address racist actions or the activities progressive movements can employ to defeat them.

We must meet the dictum to “prepare students for society” through education that supports building a multiracial, inclusive democracy and society for the betterment of all people. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1947: “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

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