Why We Need Civics

We’re failing to teach what it means to be American.

An illustration of a pencil that is engraved with the word "democracy"
Getty; The Atlantic

Throughout my career studying and practicing American foreign policy, I’ve frequently been asked, What keeps you up at night? Is it China? Russia? Terrorism? Climate change? Another pandemic? While these issues all demand our attention, in recent years, I have found myself saying something else: The most urgent threat to American security and stability stems not from abroad but from within, from political divisions that jeopardize the future of American democracy and even the United States itself.

The obvious follow-up question is what to do about it. My answer draws inspiration from the holiday of Passover, when Jews celebrate their liberation from ancient Egypt. The annual retelling of the Exodus story is inspired by a command in the Bible: “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” Jews are instructed to make sure that every generation understands both what it means to be a Jew and what being a Jew requires. Only through recounting their history have they been able to preserve their identity, despite millennia of persecution and, until recently, not having a homeland.

The front cover of The Bill of Obligations
This article is adapted from Haass’s forthcoming book.

Passover offers everyone, not just Jews, an important lesson: No group of people should assume that its identity will be automatically inherited by the next generation. For a people to understand and appreciate its collective identity is a matter of teaching, not biology. This is no less true for nations than for religious communities.

One major reason that American identity is fracturing is that we are failing to teach one another what it means to be American. We are not tied together by a single religion, race, or ethnicity. Instead, America is organized around a set of ideas that needs to be articulated again and again to survive. It is thus essential that every American gets a grounding in civics—the country’s political structures and traditions, along with what is owed to and expected of its citizens—starting in elementary school and continuing through college. It should be reinforced within families and communities. It should be emphasized by our political and religious leaders, by CEOs and journalists.

Alas, that is not the world we live in. There is a good deal of talk about the budget deficit, but our civics deficit may be of even greater consequence. Only eight states and the District of Columbia require a full year of high-school civics education. One state (Hawaii) requires a year and a half, 31 require half a year, and 10 require little or none.

At the college level, the situation is arguably worse. According to a 2015 study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities, less than a fifth require any civics coursework. As Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, has written, “Our curricula have abdicated responsibility for teaching the habits of democracy.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that Americans know little about the history, ideals, and practices of their own political system.

The best remedy to this problem is to require that all high schools and colleges have their students complete a course on American citizenship and democracy.

This is easier said than done. At the high-school level, educators and students have limited time and resources. Each academic subject competes for attention with every other subject, not to mention extracurriculars. And relatively few teachers are trained to teach civics well. On top of all this, the scale and decentralization of American public schools—consisting of roughly 13,000 districts, 130,000 schools, 3 million teachers, and tens of millions of students—make any kind of national commitment enormously difficult to implement.

In some ways, the challenge is even greater at the country’s approximately 4,000 two- and four-year colleges and universities. Resistance to a civics requirement would come from many directions. Professors tend to dislike teaching basic courses, preferring more specialized offerings that reflect their research interests. Students typically want maximum freedom to choose what they study; the priority for many, not surprisingly, is to pursue fields that promise the best professional prospects. Many students are pressured to specialize early, leaving little time for other pursuits. Administrations and boards of trustees, for their part, have failed to make civics a priority and largely shy away from introducing core curricula that in any way constrain their students.

Because of these and other challenges, establishing a national mandate for high-school and college civics courses will demand a wide array of support: from state governments that oversee high-school funding and requirements, from parents who pay for their children’s education, and from administrative bodies that certify institutions of higher education. For private schools that are less subject to public influence, requiring civics can and should be used as a selling point.

Perhaps the hardest challenge is to decide what, exactly, counts as “civics.” The battles between the “1619 Project” and the “1776 Project”—two divergent narratives about the arc of American history—and over how to teach matters relating to race demonstrate how politically charged it can be to determine what children learn. This is especially true for public high schools and publicly funded institutions of higher education.

But civics need not be all that controversial. An effective civics course would describe the foundational structures of American government: the nature of the three federal branches, and how they relate to one another and to state and local government. It would distinguish between representative and direct democracies, explain the two-party system, and cover fundamental matters such as checks and balances, judicial review, federalism, impeachment, filibusters, and gerrymandering. Teachers should emphasize both the rights and obligations of citizenship, and expose students to the basic texts of American democracy, including the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and pivotal Supreme Court decisions.

More difficult is deciding what to include in the way of history. What events to highlight? How to present them? As a rule of thumb, any single framing of American history should be avoided. Where there is disagreement, various perspectives should be presented.

Civics courses should not try to settle the most contentious contemporary or historical matters, or advocate for any particular party or policy. Instead, they should present facts, describe significant events, and lay out the major debates of our past and present.

Designing a civics curriculum that is both useful and broadly acceptable won’t be easy. But there is perhaps no more urgent task if American democracy—and identity—is to survive another two decades, much less another two and a half centuries.

This article has been adapted from Richard Haass’s new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.