Why Civics Class Should Be Sexy

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American government may not be a game of thrones. But it's all about power -- and when it's taught right, students will find it riveting.

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Joshua Roberts/Reuters

In a recent episode of HBO's Game of Thrones, a treacherous courtier tells the queen regent he knows the true identity of the young king's father. "Information is power," he hisses. Immediately, she orders her guards to seize him, shutter his business, and kill him -- and then, just as quickly, she makes a show of casually changing her mind. As her men release the shaken courtier she retorts, "Power is power."

American politics is not a game of thrones. But it is an arena for the exercise and pursuit of power. Indeed, our constitutional democratic market republic is far more complex, with far more permutations of potency than any king's court ever had. To understand civic life and history in the United States is to understand power, public and private, in its fullest possible expression.

Why, then, doesn't anyone teach it like that?

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has devoted her post-Supreme Court career to reviving civics, points out that the point of free, compulsory public schooling was to make citizens. But over recent decades, the quality and availability of civic education in our schools has been in serious decline.

This is partly because the left has pushed schools away from an Americanizing mission, while the right has made any interesting substantive debate about American history or society subject to toxic controversy (see the Arizona law banning ethnic studies). These and other forces -- like the push to promote STEM subjects -- have left civics neglected, underfunded, and decidedly unsexy.

The results are distressing, if not surprising. Nearly two-thirds of our students today are below proficiency in national tests of civic knowledge. Less than a third of eighth graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

A few encouraging innovations have arisen in response. O'Connor has launched iCivics.org, an online platform that uses video games to teach civics to over a million middle schoolers. Participant Media's TakePart.com will debut a series next week called 60-Second Civics, explaining things like the Electoral College with lively animated videos tuned to Gen Y sensibilities. Rock the Vote has created a pop-infused "Democracy Class" program for high school students.

But in most classrooms where civics is still being taught today, something central is missing. Students get facts and explanations of process. Sometimes they get a real encounter with an issue like poverty or sustainability. What they almost never get is this: a systematic understanding of how to get what they want.

I propose to revive civics by making it squarely about the thing people are too often afraid to talk about in schools: power, and the ways it is won and wielded in a democracy.

Imagine a curriculum that taught students how to be powerful -- not only to feel empowered but to be fluent in the language of power and facile in its exercise.

It would teach them that civic power -- the capacity to effect desired outcomes in common life - can derive from ideas, wealth, status, charisma, collective voice, and control of violence. It would show how power throughout our country's history has been exercised and justified, for good and for ill.

A power civics curriculum would focus on a host of hard skills often ignored in procedural or fact-centered civics lessons:

  • How to see the underlying power dynamics beneath every public controversy.
  • How to read the power map of any community.
  • How to organize and mobilize people to achieve an objective.
  • How to force certain issues into public discussion.
  • How to challenge entrenched interests.
  • How to apply pressure on elected officials. 

These kinds of how-to's would make historical set-pieces like the Ratification or the Missouri Compromise suddenly much more vivid. They would illuminate contemporary fights over health care. They could be used to shed light on the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or the antecedents of both.

This approach -- a pedagogy of the self-governing -- would best be learned and taught by doing. A power civics curriculum should be hands-on and project-based, giving students the chance to move people and catalyze action.

There do exist excellent experiential civics curricula where students create community projects and advocate for policy. The Civic Action Project developed by the Constitutional Rights Foundation is one promising example. But "lab" approaches like these are the exception today, not the rule. Every classroom should be teaching youth the strategies and laws of civic power.

Does all this seem unseemly? Perhaps one reason why so few civics courses go this route is that the whole topic feels so Machiavellian--which is to say European, medieval, calculating. It's too Game of Thrones.

But pick up any book by, say, Robert Caro -- whether about Robert Moses and the making of modern New York or young Lyndon Johnson and the path he took from Texas Hill Country to the White House. Take a look at why your city council chose one development proposal over another. Ask why Congress can't bring itself to disfavor its donors. You will quickly recognize what you weren't ever taught as a kid: There is a secret curriculum that explains how stuff actually gets done in America. In a democracy, that knowledge should be democratized.

Could power civics be abused to create amoral tacticians who use their skills for evil? Sure. Such a risk, though, is inherent in the revelation of any knowledge, from microbiology to law. This just underscores the need for ethical context -- for the why that comes with the how -- and some civic character education.

In the end, teaching civics while avoiding the topic of power is like teaching physics while avoiding thermodynamics. It's a bland pretense, demotivating to teacher and pupil alike.

All young people want to understand how to be more powerful and effective, individually and in groups. Give them that understanding -- teach them power -- and they will be highly motivated to keep learning. They will be curious about the origins of today's social and economic arrangements. They will develop an eye for ways to reform those arrangements. They will cultivate an appreciation for what is exceptional about the system we've inherited. They will feel more responsible for combating rot and sclerosis in that system.

They will, in short, become a generation of great citizens. That would be powerful. And it just might save the republic.

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Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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