A Renewal of Civics Education—And Engagement

By Victor Shi

The American democratic experiment—from who gets elected to hold public office to the policies that do and do not get passed—is premised in no small part on the notion of an informed citizenry. Indeed, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” Thus, it is imperative that Americans should understand, at a minimum, the basic structure and processes of their government.

Yet, all signs indicate the status quo offers a stark contrast to what Jefferson envisioned as essential to a functioning and, indeed, dynamic democracy. Take, for instance, a 2016 survey conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Public Policy Center finding that only one out of every four individuals could name the three branches of government. Or that only 23 percent of eighth-graders achieved an at or above average score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam.

These numbers suggest Americans have a dismally weak understanding of their own government which is troubling for the state of democracy, both short- and long-term. But such numbers also help explain why so many Americans continue to believe unfounded claims about the 2020 election. To date, nearly two-thirds of Republicans still believe that President Joe Biden was elected due to rampant voter fraud. Even more concerning, almost 30 percent of Republicans said they will never accept the results of the 2020 election, while also believing that former President Trump will be reinstated in August. 

This denial of Joe Biden’s presidency is a direct reflection of the misinformation that has been propagated by right-wing influencers, elected officials, far-right media, and former President Trump himself. However, these actors would not have been able to spread distortions and lies with such ease but for the pervasive lack of awareness about how our democracy and government work. The absence of this essential knowledge—combined with a widespread failure to think critically about information presented on social media, television, and other mediums of communication—has resulted in a public discourse in which shrill lies overwhelm sober truths.

To be sure, there is no solution that will automatically reverse the low level of understanding about American politics. But a crucial step that would dramatically improve civic literacy begins in one place and with one subject: the classroom and civics. With an increase in the quality and quantity of civics education, every student should walk away from high school with a basic understanding of the fundamentals of government: everything ranging from key constitutional cases, to how a president is elected, to the process behind passing a bill in Congress. This knowledge will equip them with the tools to become engaged constituents, voters, protestors, and citizens.

Yet elected officials balk at making the educational investments necessary to ensure that every American has necessary civic knowledge. Reports find that during the beginning of the 2000s, the federal government spent about $40 million per year on civics programs. However, starting in 2010, Congress began emphasizing STEM-related material (science, technology, engineering, and math, respectively). As a result, funding for civics education plummeted. So much so that estimates find only $4 million dollars is currently spent on civics per year, paling in comparison to the whopping $3 billion dollars spent annually on STEM subjects. Surely, courses like biology and engineering have their advantages and should be funded, but such imbalances have a dangerous effect: a citizenry uninformed about its government.

In the wake of this precipitous drop in funding for civics education, many elected officials continue to forestall urgently-needed civics legislation. Conservative members of Congress are currently halting a bill that would “authorize $1 billion a year in grants to pay for more civics education,” deriding it as a “‘Trojan horse’ that would allow the Biden administration to push a liberal agenda.” That, in fact, is not the case. Embedded within the bill are provisions stating that the federal government will not make curriculum decisions. The legislation instead proposes “to better balance a test-driven K-12 education system that focuses heavily on math and reading with a subject — civics — that has gotten less attention and far less money in recent years,” according to the Washington Post.

A bill that would allow students to gain vital knowledge about American government and democracy should pass with overwhelming bipartisan support, even in our hyper-partisan era. But in case it does not, state and local governments should take the mantle and pass bills funding and promoting civics education, fulfilling their cherished roles as “laboratories of democracy.”

However, the buck can’t stop there. Teachers and school administrators also play an integral role in spearheading not only  civics education, but also, more importantly, civic participation. It goes without saying that learning about the history of American government, discovering why it works in the way that it does, and thinking critically through the issues facing the government would result in a more informed population. But students shouldn’t just learn about American politics from a distance; when and wherever possible, they should actively participate in American democracy— preferably, starting as early as the middle or high school years. Maybe then the U.S., which set a 100-year record with our 2020 turnout of 66%, could come within striking distance of our more engaged democratic peers, including Sweden (over 87% voter turnout in 2018) and Denmark (nearly 85% voter turnout in 2019).

To build, strengthen, and cement a sense of civic responsibility, middle school, high school, and college teachers and administrators should provide as many pathways to participation as possible. Whether through hosting town halls, registering students to vote during lunch periods, or even just holding discussions of current events, if every school in America made politics accessible to all students—regardless of political party—we’d see an electorate that is both more educated and engaged. 

One of my high school teachers perhaps encapsulated it best when he said, “I strive to get students to follow the ‘civics lifestyle’ beyond the confines of my classroom.” While civics should initially be taught and nurtured in the classroom, once the functions of democracy and government are understood, it should be something that is embedded in everyone’s life. 

After all, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people requires people to be informed and to play an active role in it. We must live up to the ideals of our democracy; but first, we must understand them.

Title Image Credit: Anna Shaposhnik / Daily Trojan

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