Can Civics Save America?

Teaching civics could restore health to American democracy, or inflame our mutual antagonisms.

An illustration of a red and blue knight fighting with pencils.
Getty / The Atlantic

The early months of the Biden presidency have revealed a conflict between two approaches to policy. One is liberal and universalist, the other progressive and particularist. One pursues equality through programs that include as many Americans as possible; the other targets groups, sometimes narrowly defined ones, in the name of equity. One minimizes cultural flashpoints; the other heightens them. One tries to weaken the Republican opposition with broadly popular ideas; the other, pushed by activists, draws conservatives into battles that intensify polarization. One has a chance to build a governing majority; the other risks consigning the Democratic Party to the dismal fate of the British Labour Party.

So far, this conflict has generally been muted, but it’s bound to get worse, because it represents a deep and unresolved ideological tension among Democrats. It shows up in policy areas as different as universal basic income, vaccine distribution, and standardized testing—even in the unlikely field of civics, where there’s a quiet but consequential fracas going on.

Civic education sounds dull, dutiful, and antiquated, like paper drives or the Presidential Physical Fitness Test—but today it bears all the passion and distemper of our fraught politics. Last year, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that a majority of Americans of both parties rank civics as their top choice for how to “strengthen the American identity,” ahead of national service (preferred by Democrats) and religious activity (favored by Republicans). Civics, if left undefined, is the one solution for polarization that both sides support.

It’s also the most bitterly contested subject in education today. Civics is at the heart of the struggle to define the meaning of the American idea. Think of the battle lines as 1619 versus 1776—The New York Times Magazine’s project to reframe American history around slavery and its legacy, and the Trump administration’s counterstrike in the form of a thin report on patriotic education. Teaching civics could restore health to American democracy, or inflame our mutual antagonisms. Events are currently pushing in both directions.

During the past half century, the teaching of civics and United States history has withered away in American schools. The public’s trust in government has eroded, and with it the unexamined consensus through which traditional civics was taught to passive students in lessons on articles of the Constitution. Attention and resources have flowed to math, science, and engineering, and to test preparation in numeracy and literacy, while social studies is deemphasized (it was omitted from the Common Core standards) and the quality of instruction deteriorates. Intense partisanship has made civics a political battlefield that schools mostly avoid through neglect. Some states require a semester of high-school instruction or, at most, two; other states don’t teach civics at all. Occasional efforts to institute national standards for U.S. history and civics either explode in partisan warfare (as in 1994) or else go quietly limp (as in 2003).

One result of the disappearance of civics is Americans’ notorious ignorance about our system of government. According to a 2017 survey, just one in four Americans can name all three branches; a third can’t name any; 37 percent can’t name a single right protected by the First Amendment. Paul Carrese, a political scientist and the director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, told me this “historical and civic ignorance” contributes to the polarization that is generated on social media. “It’s easier for the technology to have such a powerful effect if you start with no foundation,” he said. “The winds are blowing and you have no ballast. The whole cycle lends itself to a particular teacher, a particular district not resisting the pull to the left, the pull to the right, not having that ballast to say, ‘We need to teach this in a more sophisticated way.’”

Schools fail to give students not only a knowledge of basic facts and concepts, Carrese said, but also “the realization that free people will disagree about just about everything.” The art of self-government depends on a capacity for argument, persuasion, compromise, and tolerance of disagreement—civic virtues that need to be learned and practiced. In my experience as a parent, progressive schools tend to teach a form of U.S. history that assumes everyone thinks alike. It’s deficient in both civic knowledge and civic virtue. The same is no doubt true in most conservative schools. If Americans of all stripes now hold righteously dogmatic views that we can neither ground in facts nor justify against counterarguments, one overlooked cause is the fading of civics from American education.

Then came the Trump presidency. Every day brought a reminder of the importance of civics. Democratic norms, constitutional principles like the separation of powers, the need for shared knowledge of facts: These became headline news. The recognition that American democracy is in peril brought civics back from the dead—suddenly it was a neglected thing that might rescue us. In 2018 and 2019, more than 30 states took up a total of 80 pieces of legislation to renew or strengthen civic education in middle and high schools.

In 2019, a group of scholars and educators began an ambitious effort to lay out a vision for how American children in the 21st century should learn about their multi-everything, relentlessly divided democracy. The project was started by Danielle Allen, the Harvard classicist, and Louise Dubé, who leads a Massachusetts education outfit called iCivics. They brought in, among others, Carrese of Arizona State, “to lend more of a conservative perspective,” Dubé told me. “It’s been a very deliberate effort to negotiate across a very wide diversity of political views.” Funding came from the U.S. Department of Education (then led by Betsy DeVos) and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Around 300 people ultimately worked on the project, whose 33-page report, Educating for American Democracy, came out in March.

Rather than euphemizing hard truths and eliding divisive arguments, the report faces them in clear language. “In recent decades, we as a nation have failed to prepare young Americans for self-government, leaving the world’s oldest constitutional democracy in grave danger, afflicted by both cynicism and nostalgia, as it approaches its 250th anniversary,” the report announces at the top. Its solution is not a new nationwide curriculum (sure to self-immolate in partisan fights) but a “roadmap” of pedagogical guidelines, informed by broad themes such as “civic participation” and “institutional and social transformation,” and also by 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?”

Educating for American Democracy tries hard not to choose sides in the culture war. It stakes out the classical liberal ground of inquiry and reason. Its purpose is not to tell schools what to teach or students what to think, but to guide the education of students in how to think—how to debate and disagree, how to learn about the past while acting on issues of the present, how to balance American pluralism with a shared national story. The report sets out to reconcile love of country and its ideals with rigorous criticism of its failings. The authors have coined phrases like “reflective patriotism” and “civic friendship” to contain the tension inherent in the enterprise. They place a burden of subtlety and sophistication on the teachers who will bring their guidance into classrooms.

“This is not a mandate, not a curriculum,” Dubé told me. The education system is too localized for that, and the public too polarized. “The implementation really does need to be reflective of the values of the community in which Educating for American Democracy lives. Our goal is not, as it was in the past, for there to be a standard way of teaching this. That’s very hard for some people to accept, but I think that’s the only way to succeed.” She added that students are more likely to retain facts when they are absorbed in debating important questions and learning how to participate as citizens—which would put them in the same position as the Founders of the republic. “You wouldn’t want students taking action knowing nothing,” Dubé said, “and you wouldn’t want students who are encyclopedias with no knowledge of how to get things done in the real world.”

In the middle of our protracted domestic civil war, it might be a goo-goo fantasy to imagine that civic education can do what a majority of both Republicans and Democrats hope. Reports like Educating for American Democracy have a way of producing fine ideas that die quiet deaths. But I came away from reading it, and then speaking at length with the conservative Carrese and the liberal Dubé, with the feeling that an effort to make young Americans more skilled and empowered as democratic citizens must begin with something like this.

Simultaneous with the report, a bill is moving through Congress that would appropriate $1 billion to support the teaching of civics and U.S. history at every level. The bill, called the Civics Secures Democracy Act (coincidentally, an earlier version was the Educating for American Democracy Act), has bipartisan support—the Senate co-sponsors are Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. Though “the report and the bill in Congress have nothing to do with each other,” Dubé said, they stand on the same precarious middle ground. “They’re working in parallel. Clearly, the Civics Secures Act is providing funding at a level, if it were to pass, that would be necessary to do the big, bold change and progress making that EAD is calling for.”

The report and the bill have come under immediate attack from the right. The pro-Trump outlet American Greatness called the report “a Trojan horse for woke education.” National Review, the Federalist Society, and the Heritage Foundation all warned of a conspiracy to impose a national left-wing agenda on American schoolchildren. In a barrage of polemics by the writer Stanley Kurtz, National Review zeroed in on the term action civics, described in the report as “learning by direct engagement with a democratic system and institutions, and reflection on impact”—in short, activism. Kurtz and other conservatives deplore activism and seem to believe that children in 21st-century America can be made to sit quietly at their desks as they did in 1957, learning how a bill becomes a law, and leave it at that. But, as Carrese told me, “We’re not talking about organic chem here. We’re talking about citizens being self-governed, meaning they have to participate in self-governing. Aristotle would say this is a practical science.”

Right-wing critics want to strip civics of any trace of activism, or even debate, on contemporary issues. They accuse the Biden administration of conspiring to impose “action civics,” along with critical race theory, on school systems across the country. The conservative National Association of Scholars has urged Republican legislators to withdraw their sponsorship of the Civics Secures Democracy Act. Despite the growing pressure, Cornyn and other Republicans continue to support it—so far. But the logic of polarization makes it hard to believe that a bipartisan bill can survive.

In the middle of this controversy, with the future of civic education at its most hopeful and most perilous, on April 19 the Department of Education published a proposed rule for a pair of small grant programs in American history and civic education. The grants support pilot programs and trainings for teachers; in 2019, a typical grant went to Buffalo, New York, to train a few dozen teachers and a few hundred students in using computer mapping tools to enhance their geo-spatial understanding of geography and civics.

The new rule proposes two new priorities for these grants. The first priority is to promote “information literacy skills” that will help students “meaningfully participate in our democracy and distinguish fact from misinformation.” The second is to “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.” In case the language might leave educators with any uncertainty, the rule’s background discussion cites “the New York Times’ landmark ‘1619 Project,’” as evidence of a growing acknowledgment of the importance of teaching “both the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society.” The same discussion praises schools for “working to incorporate anti-racist practices into teaching and learning,” citing the historian and Atlantic contributing writer Ibram X. Kendi. The rule states that grant applicants must “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history,” “support the creation of learning environments that validate and reflect the diversity, identity, and experiences of all students,” and “contribute to inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.”

Proposals for the Federal Register are typically obscure things. This one was probably generated by the turning of a bureaucratic wheel somewhere deep in the Department of Education—a hasty assembly of trendy concepts and popular sources in language with the consistency of clotted cream, giving little thought to the implications. But Mitch McConnell and dozens of other Republican senators spotted fuel for the culture war and quickly issued a statement denouncing the proposal. It has attracted several thousand public comments, almost all negative. Many are cut-and-paste one-liners from indignant conservatives, but a few are critiques by leading academics, who point out that both the 1619 Project and the writings of Kendi are highly contended and far from the final scholarly word.

Sensing a booby trap that could blow up its project, the executive committee of Educating for American Democracy has just weighed in, using the careful compromise language of the report: “We can deliver full and accurate histories that can empower all learners as civic agents standing on an equal footing with one another. This requires, however, not only bringing the wrongs to the surface but also bringing forward the positive visions of democratic possibility and constitutional self-government that all the peoples of this country have developed over time.”

It’s easy to understand why the authors of Educating for American Democracy want to defuse the administration’s proposal. It not only runs counter to the spirit and letter of their report; it also makes the realization of their vision that much more difficult. “Inclusion” is an uncontestable value, but “validation” and “identity safety” are not the proper goals of education—in certain contexts they might even be in opposition to it. We don’t have to guess what sorts of proposals this language will produce, because curricula that match its description are already being taught in certain school districts in Illinois, Texas, Oregon, and elsewhere, where they have kicked up fierce opposition, and not only on the right. You don’t have to be Stanley Kurtz of National Review to see progressive orthodoxy in the new rule.

Unlike Educating for American Democracy, the Biden administration’s rule, like its conservative critics, imposes a fixed view of civics and U.S. history in place of inquiry, debate, and disagreement. By intent or blunder, the left and right are colluding to undermine the noble, elusive goal of giving American children the ability to think and argue and act together as citizens.