The Educator's Room: Freedom on the Edge: Civic Education’s Role in Preserving Democracy

Original article from The Educator's Room

November 20, 2012 
By Cari Harris 

The General Election two weeks ago once again reminded Americans both of the thrill of democratic participation, and the frustration of a system that can often seem cumbersome.  Despite the huge event of a General Election, amongst democratic nations, the United States has the lowest voter turnout.  In 2008, we reached our highest turnout since 1960 – which was only 60% of eligible voters.  What that means is that only about half of eligible voters are regularly participating (and even less in midterm and local elections), and with that vote split almost in half, only a little more than a quarter of voting-able citizens are deciding the future of our government for us.  How did we come to value the process so little, and why do Americans continue to be uniformed about how our democratic system works?

As a Civics teacher, I often tend to look at the foundation of how young Americans are informed about the sometimes precarious nature of representative democracy, and how their actions can affect it.  Thomas Jefferson believed tyranny could not be prevented unless the country provided for the “illumination of the minds of the people at large.”    Other Founders agreed, including Benjamin Rush, who suggested that “developing republican citizenship formed the foundational purpose of public education” and that schooling should create a “national identity.”  However, when the Constitution was ratified in 1787, it included no explicit right to an education.  Subsequently, there was no federal mandate to standardize or maintain any particular level of national civic education in pursuit of maintaining a representative democracy.  Despite the fact that most democratic constitutions that followed the United States Constitution make education a basic right, amendments to the U.S. Constitution have not addressed education at all.

Education reformer Horace Mann contended in the mid-1800’s that the reason education should be an inalienable right was its connection to the broader democratic ideal: “Under our republican government, it seems clear that the minimum of this education can never be less than such as is sufficient to qualify each citizen for the civil and social duties he will be called to discharge.” Charles Quigley, Director of the Center for Civic Education defines “Democracy Education” as  “civic knowledge, civic skills…and community service.”  This is a more modern and well-rounded view of civic education, which as a curricular idea has not changed much since John Dewey argued that it is the “responsibility of American schools to teach the facts and principles of American democracy to the largest group of new and emerging citizens—high school students.”

There is a broader academic discussion of civic education that focuses on the connection between a strong standard of civics education and the maintenance of a democratic republic.  Recent studies have shown a clear connection between the diminishing voter turnout in general elections and disengagement that comes from misunderstanding the system.  Because Americans tend to believe the Constitution is a “self-executing mechanism” (“it takes care of itself, why do I need to know anything?”), indifference arises where people see no need to invest themselves in the political system.  In reality, our system of government requires the very careful attention and participation of a knowledgeable citizenry.

As Diana Reisch notes, Civic Education encompasses not only what students should learn, buthow they learn.  “Civic Education requires of students not only factual knowledge of our history and government, but also the capacity to understand and be able to engage in consensual decision-making in a pluralistic society.”   This argument extends Civic Education beyond the traditional history or government classes and into other courses, such as language arts, drama, journalism, economics, and health class.  Educating for citizenship takes forms outside the classroom as well, including community involvement programs, peer mentoring and governing student associations, and service projects.  All of these ideas germinate at the local level and vary widely across the country.  Their effectiveness is difficult to measure due to the inequities in school resources to provide programs, and a lack of national Civics standards to which schools can subscribe.

Because society does not stop advancing, a common cultural and historical literacy is invaluable to a country’s collective knowledge.  It is quite possible that though the Framers did not mention education formally in the Constitution, they did intend the federal government to play a significant role.  John Adams wrote that it was crucial to “spread the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country,” and that the “whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”  Civic Education is essential for a basic political knowledge that empowers civic participation.

Clearly there is value-added political and community participation when the population receives a standard level of civic education.  Robert Putnam refers to this as “social capital” in his book Bowling Alone.  He found that a higher level of equity in education access adds to a community’s social capital, which, in turn, helps students to achieve higher levels of academic achievement.  In a general education sense, the standardization of curriculum and national knowledge creates a social sense of unity that can follow students into college and affect their motivation to participate civically.  Setting those standards at a rigorous and holistic level could go a long way to producing a citizenry capable and ready to face the challenges of democracy.

If young Americans are not exposed to a basic Civic Education and thus unable to understand, appreciate and then act on principles of democracy and a representative republic, then the essence of this form of government is in peril, just as John Dewey warned in the early 20thcentury.  The fact that many states are unable to provide for thorough civic education requirements because of lack of resources or the pressure to perform on skills tests mandated by “Education Reformers,” indicates that inequality in education standards will continue until and unless a federal mandate and set of civic standards are established.  Without a Constitutional drive to set those standards (i.e., an explicit right to an education), it appears the status quo will remain into the foreseeable future.

You can read the original article here.

November 28, 2012
In: Civic Learning in the News

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