Constitutions are often called upon to give weight to political rhetoric. It was name-checked 16 times in a Jan. 6, 2021 speech by the former president as he urged citizens to march to the Capitol and prevent Congress from carrying out its constitutional duty to certify the 2020 election results.
Emotions around the Constitution may be strong, but the Annenberg Center for Public Policy (APPC)’s 2022 Constitution Day Survey found that understanding of them is not. Fewer than half of Americans can name all three branches of government, down from 56 percent in 2021. (One in four can’t name either one.) There was a sharp decline in respondents’ ability to name the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“We need to increase the literacy of society as a whole — if we don’t do that, we’re going to have real problems,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, APPC director. “We cannot respect, protect and exercise rights if we do not know we have them.”
An October 2022 poll by the nonprofit iCivics found overwhelming bipartisan support for more civics education, with nearly 7 in 10 saying it is more important today than it was five years ago. This is reflected in recent policy and funding developments, said Shawn Healy, senior director for policy and advocacy at iCivics.
The Civic Secures Democracy Act proposes $1 billion per year for civic education. The bill does not pass Congress in 2022, but the language of the bill feeds into an omnibus spending bill and more than triples funding for civic education. Bipartisan legislation introduced in February will add the study of citizenship and governance to the National Endowment for the Humanities, opening up a significant new source of support.
CivXNow, a cross-party coalition of more than 280 members, has developed a “menu of country policies” outlining goals for improving the quality of K-12 civics education. In the last two years, 16 states passed 17 laws that align with his recommendations, Healy said. According to iCivics Executive Director Louise Dubé, legislatures in 18 states are currently considering 50 bills designed to advance civics education.
Needs, opportunities and strategies to advance civic education will be highlighted at the first National Citizenship Learning Week, March 6-10. iCivics is sponsoring the event in collaboration with the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), the National Archives Foundation, the Farvue Foundation, Microsoft, and the SN Charitable Foundation.
Soft Skills for a Harsh World
Civic learning and social studies have been sidelined over the last two decades, starting with the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, says NCSS Executive Director Lawrence Paska. Currently, 13 states have no citizenship course requirements and only seven require a full year of government or citizenship instruction. Federal investment is about 5 cents per student per year, compared to $50 for STEM.
“That means we have potentially an entire generation of students who may not be adequately prepared for college careers and civic life,” Paska said. More investment in materials, professional development, and civic-based learning opportunities for students is needed to fill this gap.
“Citizenship is where you learn how to build difficult and fragile consensus, where you learn to communicate through and understand really difficult issues,” said Andrew Wilkes, chief policy officer and advocacy officer for Generation Citizen, a civics education advocacy organization.
The soft skills students develop in civics classes are necessary for success in the workplace, says Janice Brunner, the group’s general counsel and head of community engagement at Travelers. “Learning about democracy and our values as a nation teaches students to participate in decision-making – electoral or otherwise – and inspires them to step up in their communities to help solve challenges in constructive and neighborly ways.”
Megan Brandon led civics education efforts in her Texas school district before joining Generation Citizen as program director. The state passed laws limiting discussion of topics traditionally covered in civics lessons, one of the first trends to frustrate and demoralize teachers. The energy and momentum embodied in the upcoming Citizenship Learning Week offers hope, said Brandon.
Study Week Program
The Citizenship Learning Week program involves a mix of in-person and virtual events that address various national and local issues around civics learning. The opening forum will take place at the National Archives. The final event on March 10 will be filled with a question and answer session involving Deputy Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor, students and teachers. (Former Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 after stepping down from the court.)
Twenty states have officially endorsed this week and dozens of partner organizations have hosted sessions that range from a podcast on experiential learning in rural Arkansas to a three-day in-person conference hosted by the Washington State Council for Social Studies with the theme “No Easy Answers. ”
A session from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Center for Citizenship Education will revolve around individuals and groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in discussions about the founding era. Generation Citizen hosts sessions focused on careers in civic action, with a panel composed of government officials, community organizers and activists.
“Anyone in state or local government can participate in the opening forum either in person or virtually to learn about the latest research and trends in civic education, to get a sense of its potential and where it has been marginalized for years,” said Paska.
Boards of education and state administrators in nine states are revising or looking over their social studies standards, Wilkes noted. Arguments around what should be taught, and how lessons about American democracy should be framed, play into even grassroots levels such as the PTA meetings, he says, and the research and practice embodied in Citizenship Learning Week are of particular importance. at such a time.
Can he win? A campaign advertisement created by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy for a civics curriculum takes the comments from the Gettysburg address out of context. Lincoln actually said “we here are so determined that these dead will not die in vain” and that the battlefield has been consecrated by those who fought there.
A Way Forward
Neglecting civic education has amplified concerns about the health of America’s democracy. Only 1 in 5 Americans say they can trust the federal government to do what is always or most of the time right. One in 5 believes violence may be necessary to save the country, and 1 in 5 told Pew researchers that the QAnon conspiracy theory is good for the country.
“There is a deep feeling across the political spectrum that something is wrong,” Healy said. “Maybe focusing on new and innovative ways to approach civics education is the way out of this dire situation we are in.”
APPC’s Jamieson emphasized the importance of curricula addressing local government functions. Most people won’t have the opportunity to have a direct impact on the federal government as individuals, he said, but they can have a direct impact on city and county governments. He also wanted to see journalists and public officials pay attention to the true state of common knowledge when they talk about government or politics and build basic information into their communications.
“I wanted to see what the world would look like if we focused on civics and social sciences every day, K-12,” said Paska. “Can it help our next generation to be ready to face challenges and opportunities to be active in social life? I think so.”