Why Civics Class Should Be Sexy

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.


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.

Presented by

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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