Is Trump's Victory the Jump-Start Civics Education Needed?

America’s classrooms are responsible for preparing students to be good citizens. This election indicates that they may be failing to do so.

Two boys' backs face the camera. They are wearing American-flag apparel.
Evan Semon / Reuters

The 2016 campaign produced the unthinkable: the election of a presidential candidate whom members of his own party described as a classic authoritarian. How is it possible that tens of millions of Americans supported a presidential candidate who consistently rejected basic constitutional principles that previously had been accepted across the political spectrum? Donald Trump won despite trampling on cherished American ideals, including freedom of religion (proposing a ban on Muslim immigrants), freedom of the press (calling for opening up libel laws to go after critics), the rule of law (endorsing the murder of the families of terrorists), and the independence of the judiciary (questioning the bias of a judge based on ethnicity).

What set Donald Trump apart, wrote the University of Texas historian Jeffrey Tulis to The New York Times, is that “no other previous major party presidential candidate has felt so unconstrained by … constitutional norms.” A former top aide to President George W. Bush wrote that in the Republican nominee, “we have reached the culmination of the founders’ fears: Democracy is producing a genuine threat to the American form of self-government.”

In the coming months and years, analysts will seek to discern all the contributing factors to the rise of an authoritarian American president—including legitimate concerns about the effects of economic globalization and the culture in Washington, and illiberal concerns about the country’s changing demographics and the role of women in society. But among the most important culprits is the American education system.

Public schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues. In that sense, the Trump phenomenon should be a Sputnik moment for civics education. Just as Soviet technological advances triggered investment in science education in the 1950s, the 2016 election should spur renewed emphasis on the need for schools to instill in children an appreciation for civic values and not just a skill set for private employment.

As we outline in a new report for The Century Foundation, entitled “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education,” the Founders were deeply concerned with finding ways to ensure that their new democracy, which through the franchise provided ultimate sovereignty to the collective views of average citizens, not fall prey to demagogues. The problem of the demagogue, the Founders believed, was endemic to democracy, and they saw education as the safeguard of America’s system of self-governance.

The Founders wanted voters to be educated so they could discern serious leaders of high character from con men who do not have the nation’s interests at heart. Beyond that, public education in the United States was also meant to instill a love of liberal democracy: a respect for the separation of powers, for a free press and free religious exercise, and for the rights of political minorities. Educating common people was the answer to the oligarchs who said the average citizen could not be trusted to choose leaders wisely.

The founder of American public schooling, the 19th-century Massachusetts educator Horace Mann, saw public education as the bedrock of the country’s democracy. He wrote: “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” Teachers, the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, should be regarded “as the priests of our democracy.”

Yet in recent years, democracy has been given short shrift in American public schooling in two important respects: the curriculum that is explicitly taught to students does not place democratic values at the center, and the “hidden” curriculum of what students observe on a daily basis no longer reinforces the importance of democracy. The failure of schools to model democracy for students is critical, as the Rochester teachers’ union leader Adam Urbanski has noted, because “You cannot teach what you do not model.”

The explicit civics curriculum has been downplayed in recent years. With the rise of economic globalization, educators have emphasized the importance of serving the needs of the private marketplace rather than of preparing citizens for American democracy. On one level, this approach made some sense: As the country celebrated two centuries of continuous democratic rule, the paramount threat seemed to be economic competition from abroad, not threats to democracy at home. So the bipartisan education manta has been that education should prepare students to be “college-and-career  ready,” with no mention of becoming thoughtful democratic citizens. In a telling sign, in 2013, the governing board of the National Assessment for Educational Progress dropped fourth- and 12th-grade civics and American history as a tested subject in order to save money.

Likewise, in recent years, promoting democratic values in the school environment itself by respecting the voices of parents and teachers alike—a sort of "implicit curriculum"—has not been a priority. Indeed, many education reformers took their cue from the scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe, whose 1990 book, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools, argued that “direct democratic control” over public education appears to be “incompatible with effective schooling.” Reformers didn’t like the influence teachers’ unions exercised in democratic elections, so they advocated for market-driven reforms that would reduce the influence of elected officials such as non-unionized charter schools, as well as for state takeovers of urban districts.

But the costs of neglecting democratic values in education are now glaringly apparent on several levels.

Civics literacy levels are dismal. In a recent survey, more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. Education Secretary John King said only a third of Americans could identify Joe Biden as the vice president or name a single Supreme Court justice. Far worse, declining proportions say that free elections are important in a democratic society.

When asked in the World Values Survey in 2011 whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, about 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from about 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase from about 16 percent from a decade and a half earlier. Some 26 percent of millennials said it is “unimportant” that in a democracy people should “choose their leaders in free elections.” Among U.S. citizens of all ages, the proportion who said it would be “fairly good” or “very good” for the “army to rule,” has risen from one in 16 in 1995, to one in six today. Likewise, a June 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that a majority of Americans showed authoritarian (as opposed to autonomous) leanings. Moreover, fully 49 percent of Americans agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”

And in 2016, the United States elected as president an individual whom the Brookings Institution Scholar Robert Kagan called “the most dangerous threat to U.S. democracy since the Civil War.”

Moving forward, schools need to put democracy back into education. Rigorous courses in history, literature, and civics would cultivate knowledge of democratic practices and a belief in democratic values. As a 2003 report out of the Albert Shanker Institute noted, the classes should tell America’s stories—warts and all—and include the ways in which groups have used democratic means to improve the country. The Institute suggests the curriculum should include an honest historical account of the brutal suppression of African Americans and other minorities, women, workers, and gays, but also the movements to abolish slavery, gain women’s suffrage, establish labor laws, and civil-rights legislation. “From these … accounts,” the Shanker Institute noted, “students will recognize the genius of democracy: When people are free to dissent, to criticize, to protest and publish, to join together in common cause, to hold their elected officials accountable, democracy’s magnificent capacity for self-correction is manifest.” In addition, children should be taught what it is like to live in nondemocratic countries in order to appreciate what they might otherwise take for granted.

But that is not enough. In addition to teaching democratic values directly, what if educators and policymakers thought more carefully about addressing what is taught to students implicitly through how they choose to run schools? Are parents and community members a part of decision-making or are they shut out by state takeovers and billionaire philanthropists call the shots? Are teachers involved in determining how schools are run, or are they bossed around by autocratic principals? Do students have access to economically and racially integrated schools where they are treated equally or are they segregated into separate and unequal schools or tracks within schools?

As the superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Newark, New Jersey, one of us (Janey), showed how local districts can include parents, teachers, and community members in decision-making in a way that is very visible to students. Rochester, for example, developed a peer-assistance and -review program, providing teachers a role in helping colleagues improve their craft and, in some cases, a voice in terminating the employment of those not cut out for the profession. Washington created a “D.C. Compact,” which provided community members with input on a variety of matters, including standards and curriculum.  Newark created a high-performing teacher-led school that modeled workplace democracy for students and produced great achievement gains.

At the local level, a growing number of school districts (including Rochester) are also promoting democratic values through socioeconomic and racial school integration of student bodies at the school and classroom levels. Integrated learning environments underline the democratic message that in America, everyone is equal. By contrast, when American schoolchildren are educated in what are effectively apartheid schools—divided by race and class—the democratic message of equal political rights and heritage is severely undermined.

Likewise, demagogues can more effectively inflame passions against “others”—Muslims, Mexican immigrants, or African Americans—when, growing up, white Christian schoolchildren do not personally know many members of these groups. A large body of research finds that integrated schools can reduce prejudice and racism that stems from ignorance and lack of personal contact. As Thurgood Marshall noted in one case, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”

Providing an excellent, integrated education also promotes democracy by improving educational attainment, which increases political participation. Controlling for family socioeconomic status and academic achievement, a 2013 longitudinal study found that students attending socioeconomically integrated schools are as much as 70 percent more likely to graduate high school and enroll in a four-year college than those attending high-poverty schools. In turn, 2012 Census data show that about 72 percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree or more voted, compared with around 32 percent of those with less than a high-school education. Indeed, failing to provide a strong education to low-income and minority students can be seen, as the Harvard political philosopher Danielle Allen notes, as a form of voter suppression.

In 2016, democracy succumbed to the dilemma of the demagogue in what the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt called “the most frightening election of my lifetime.” To ensure that authoritarianism has no further purchase on our society, shouldn’t America invest more heavily in civics education, improving both the curriculum we teach students, and the democratic practices within schooling that young people observe?  Democratic values are not inborn; they have to be taught anew each generation. All nations, the late historian Paul Gagnon noted, provide an excellent education to “those who are expected to run the country” and the quality of that education “cannot be far [from] what everyone in a democracy needs to know.”