Should schools turn children into activists? And should Uncle Sam help?

Pretty much everybody favors better “civics education” in
our schools and colleges. Pretty much everybody who thinks about such matters
is alarmed that barely a quarter of U.S. school kids were at or above the
“proficient” level on the 2010 NAEP assessment of civics—and that achievement
at the twelfth-grade level is slipping even though just about all
students “take civics” in high school. Almost everyone has encountered ample
examples of students (and adults!) who cannot answer the most rudimentary
questions about how the government is organized, what “separation of powers” or
“checks and balances” means, how many senators their states have (much less their
names), and more.

It
is, indeed, a modern platitude that “we must do something to improve Americans’
knowledge of civics and government.”

But
there is a problem in civics education, a sort of dividing line, about which
there is far less agreement across society. On one side, we find an emphasis on
infusing kids with basic knowledge about government, an understanding of the
merits (as well as the shortcomings) of American democracy, and a sense of what
can still be called patriotism: the belief that this country and its values
need to be defended. (Stanford’s Bill Damon does a terrific job of elaborating
on this viewpoint in his recent book, Failing Liberty
101
.)

On
the other side, we find much greater emphasis on civic participation and
activism, on voluntarism and “service learning,” and on what is often termed
“collective decision making” (or problem solving) and “democratic engagement,”
which often boils down into the communitarian view that issues facing society
are best dealt with through group action, by people joining hands and working
together rather than through the political process.

I
will admit, after watching the antics of Congress, many state legislatures, and
the current GOP presidential candidates, that American society would benefit
from more “working together” than our elected officials have displayed of late.
(And I keep recalling the late David Broder’s remark that the death of Ted
Kennedy marked the passing of the last of the Senate’s great “deal makers,”
willing to compromise and work across party lines to accomplish something
worthwhile, even if it wasn’t everything that either party wanted.)

Still
and all, schools have a special responsibility to the young people in their
care, which is to be exceptionally careful about providing lessons and
activities of a political nature or enlisting them in adult causes, however
worthy some may deem them. And Uncle Sam has a special responsibility not to
“take sides” in the big debate—or, if it does, to come down on the side of
patriotism. Unfortunately, a new report out of the U.S. Department of
Education, one that appears to enjoy Arne Duncan’s strong personal backing,
suggests that the executive branch is tilting toward the other side.

One
is reminded, without pleasure, the ruckus that President Obama stirred up with
his first back-to-school address in 2009—and the controversial
“lesson plan”
that the Education Department prepared to accompany it.

The
“democratic engagement” faction within civics education has recently
re-energized and is pressing hard on schools to
push kids into activism.

The
“democratic engagement” faction within civics education has recently
re-energized—even without Mr. Duncan’s help—and is pressing hard on schools to
push kids into activism. You can see a vivid example of this in a recent
publication called (cutely) A
Crucible Moment
and billed as “a national call to action.” Although
it’s primarily aimed at colleges and universities, its authors make plain that
its message is meant for primary and secondary schools, too. (Those authors,
however, include absolutely nobody from the K-12 world.)

The
publication sets forth a quintet of “essential actions,” among which I find
three at least a bit troublesome, particularly when applied to compulsory
public education of impressionable children rather than the voluntary education
of young adults:

  • “Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic
    learning—embracing U.S. and global interdependence—that includes
    historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage
    diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem
    solving.” Global
    interdependence? Collective civic problem solving?
  •  

  • “Capitalize
    upon the interdependent responsibilities of K–12 and higher education to
    foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined
    values, and action as expectations for every student.” Values
    examined by whom? What sort of “action”?
  •  

  • “Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances,
    locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower
    people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers
    of knowledge.” What
    exactly are “generative civic partnerships” and who in particular is supposed
    to be “empowered” to do what?

 

Are
you with me so far? But you may be thinking that this is all kind of academic
and irrelevant, isn’t it, just one more pious commission report?

Well,
it would be, but for one big attention-getter: Uncle Sam putting his thumb on
this side of the civics-education scale.

Check
out the Education Department’s brand-new official publication, Advancing
Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action
.
Although
this thirty-pager comes out of the Department’s postsecondary wing and is, once
again, meant mostly for higher education, it, too, makes no real age-specific
distinctions and explicitly urges the nation’s K-12 schools to, for example, “both expand and transform
their approach to civic learning and democratic engagement, rather than engage
in tinkering at the margins. At no school, college, or university should
students graduate with less civic literacy and engagement than when they
arrived.”

Duncan
himself made a pretty big deal of this at a recent White House conference where
he remarked that “Unlike
traditional civic education, civic learning and democratic engagement 2.0 is
more ambitious and participatory than in the past. To paraphrase Justice
O'Connor, the new generation of civic education initiatives move beyond your
‘grandmother's civics’ to what has been labeled ‘action
civics
.’"

Hmm,
“action civics”?

To
be sure, most of what the Department proposes to do itself in this realm is
consistent either with longstanding federal practice (e.g. research, data) or
with ingrained Obama-administration priorities (e.g. “public-private
partnerships”). But there are policy hints that go farther, such as suggesting
that the forthcoming ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should include a program to
“assist states, local education agencies, and nonprofits in developing implementing,
evaluating, and replicating evidence-based programs that contribute to a
well-rounded education—including civics, government, economics, and history.
Other disciplines included in the program could incorporate evidence-based
civic learning and democratic engagement approaches—such as service-learning.”

Read
that last bit again and ask yourself if this is really a proper federal role in
K-12 education, keeping in mind that the kids to be affected probably cannot
even name the mayor of their town or the governor of their state, nor have much
idea what political parties are and how legislation gets passed (or not).

It’s
well and good for the Education Department to seek a broadening of the K-12
curriculum and an overdue consolidation of too many discipline-specific
curriculum-related programs into a single block grant. It’s not acceptable,
however, for them to push “action civics” on our nation’s schools.

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