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Can Civics Education in Colleges Strengthen Democracy?

Only if it goes well beyond calls to improve civic knowledge, cultivate responsible citizenship and nurture tolerance and civility.

October 6, 2021

Civics education is once again on the educational agenda.

A bill that would require high school students in Oklahoma to pass a U.S. citizenship test to graduate recently passed the state’s House of Representatives. In Florida, a bill introduced in the state Legislature would allow school districts to introduce civic literacy projects; participation in community service would then count toward eligibility for the state’s Bright Future college scholarships.

Prompted, in part, by the intensifying political partisanship, the summer 2020 racial justice protests and the controversies surrounding The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” the push for civics education reflects a variety of political agendas.

Some of the motivations are certainly commendable -- like increasing voter turnout and civic engagement. Others are more narrowly partisan, such as a mistaken belief that high school social studies teachers and college instructors are “teaching kids to hate their country.”

Some of the most recent calls for civics education come from the upper echelon of the academy. One example: Johns Hopkins University president Ronald Daniels’s new volume, What Universities Owe Democracy.

Daniels’s tenure as president of Johns Hopkins has not been without civics-related controversy. Recent examples include:

  • A firestorm that erupted over a series of tweets by a Hopkins chemistry TA, including one that asked if it would be acceptable to reduce the grades of Zionist students who “support your ethnic cleansing.”
  • Disputes over how the university should respond to claims by a Hopkins-educated physician and Republican member of Congress who greatly exaggerated the incidence of postvaccination cases of myocarditis and pericarditis in calling on the University System of Maryland to reverse its decision to mandate vaccination among its students, faculty and staff.
  • PETA protests at the Hopkins commencement and new student orientation over brain procedures that a professor conducts on barn owls as part of a study of selective spatial attention.
  • Demonstrations sparked by the university’s hotly contested plan to establish a private campus police force.

Then there’s an issue that cuts to the institution’s very heart: whether Johns Hopkins, a Quaker, owned slaves.

In his new book, Daniels argues that American colleges and universities have shunned their responsibility to educate students about the ideas that animate democracy and the institutions that make it function. To be sure, he argues, universities do contribute to liberal democracy by promoting social mobility, checking power with facts and modeling pluralism. To that end, Hopkins, under his tenure, did end legacy admissions. But Daniels wants universities to do more: to infuse debate into campus programming and institute a democracy requirement for graduation.

A full-throated, spread-eagle defense of liberal democracy, Daniels’s book regards as it is the system “best equipped to mediate among the different, competing, and often irreconcilable conceptions of the good and to ensure appropriate care for individual autonomy and dignity.” Universities, in turn, should “serve and enrich liberal democracy.”

But whether Hopkins, with an undergraduate enrollment of just 6,331 (15 percent Pell Grant eligible and 6.7 percent African American) and an endowment of $8.8 billion, is doing everything it can to advance social mobility, cultivate meaningful exchanges of ideas across difference and connect and support the city of Baltimore, is another question.

His argument, like many others in behalf of civics education, rests on certain claims:

  • That Americans are profoundly ignorant about the nature of their political system. For example, a 2016 poll conducted for the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that a quarter of adults could not name the three branches of government.
  • That Americans are intensely distrustful of their government. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that only 17 percent of adults trust the federal government to do the right thing.
  • That Americans’ civic engagement is distressingly low. Not only are levels of voting much lower than in comparable countries, but participation in community organizations is low even by this country’s earlier standards. At the same time, over a 30-year period, the proportion of Americans who said that “staying informed about current affairs and public issues was ‘not an obligation that a citizen owes to the country’ more than tripled, from 6 to 20 percent.”

But, of course, the main reasons behind the increasingly vocal calls for civics engagement lie elsewhere -- in the perception that:

  • Passionate partisanship and political polarization have made it increasingly difficult for government to forge a consensus about how to address this nation’s challenges.
  • The politicization of virtually every pressing issue, including COVID vaccination, has made pragmatic policy solutions largely impossible.
  • The division of society into ideological silos is inhibiting the kind of conversations that a multicultural democracy requires.
  • Enlightenment values -- including a commitment to reasoned debate, calm and dispassionate deliberation, and tolerance of opposing points of view -- are in retreat.

In other words, it’s easy to understand the appeal of civics education. In the eyes of its proponents, civics education has three broad goals:

  1. To strengthen students’ grasp of essential civic knowledge. Civics education seeks to ensure that all students acquire a level of understanding, appropriate to their grade level, of the major themes of U.S. history from the nation’s founding onward, the nature of the American system of government and how it has changed over time and the controversies and crises that the country has encountered and how these predicaments and watersheds were resolved or overcome.
  2. To cultivate the civic skills that are essential to engaged and responsible citizenship. These include the ability to weigh evidence, read closely, explicate and analyze primary sources, understand conflicting perspectives, and make evidence-based arguments.
  3. To help students develop the civic dispositions that are essential for the successful functioning of a diverse, democratic society. These include the values of tolerance, empathy and open-mindedness; respect for complexity, nuance and differing perspectives; and a willingness to engage in respectful dialogue.

Still, we must ask,

  • Should colleges and universities be in the business of promoting democratic values (as opposed to simply teaching about the institutions of government, a staple of American Government 101 courses)?
  • If so, what, exactly, are these values? Is this simply a commitment to free inquiry, dialogue and freedom of speech? Or is it something less anodyne -- for example, actively combating racism, sexism, classism and many other -isms while promoting fairness, justice and equity?
  • Is it within the power and competence of colleges and universities do anything to combat illiberal ways of thinking or to tackle the mounting distrust in science and credentialed expertise -- apart from doing what they already do, which is exposing students to knowledgeable and accomplished faculty?

The biggest question is whether civics education is actually a good idea. After all, aren’t some of the freedoms that Americans enjoy the freedom to ignore politics and to hold and express views that others might find reprehensible?

But given the possibility of a huge federal investment in civics education, it’s not surprising that some college presidents have become staunch advocates of this idea. If, somehow, federal financial support were to materialize, how might colleges and universities actually ramp up civics education in ways that go far beyond how these institutions have handled (or mishandled) Constitution Day?

I can think of several possible approaches:

1. Introducing students to political philosophy. We might ask our students to take part in the centuries-long debates over why governments exist, what makes a government legitimate, what are a government’s chief responsibilities and purposes, and what factors make for good or bad governments. In an introductory course, students might discuss issues relating to:

  • Rights, including various kinds of rights (such as moral and legal rights) and their basis, as well as issues involving conflicting or competing rights, and critiques of liberal and libertarian conceptions of rights.
  • Citizenship, including who should be eligible and what rights or responsibilities citizenship entails.

2. Re-examining American political history. This approach would look critically at the evolution of the American system of government, the ongoing debates over the extent of federal power; immigration; civil rights; economic and social policy; the role of protests and conflict in expanding the electorate and reshaping government policies; and the reasons why the United States has failed to fulfill its democratic, egalitarian aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Such an approach might also address the issue of American exceptionalism. As James Q. Wilson and Peter Schuck wrote more than a decade ago, any balanced account of American exceptionalism need not imply national superiority; it simply points to some basic truths.

The United States is distinctive in:

  • The complexity of its political system.
  • The absence of a strong socialist party or labor movement.
  • Its acceptance of high levels of inequality.
  • The limits of its welfare and health-care systems and relatively low expenditures on pensions, unemployment insurance benefits, family allowances and childcare, and uneven spending on education.
  • Its high rate of murder and violence and the number of people incarcerated.
  • Its litigiousness and number of lawyers.
  • Its relative success in integrating immigrants.
  • The strength of its research universities

Above all, the United States is distinctive in:

  • Its emphasis on negative rights (that protect individuals from infringements on their freedom) as opposed to positive rights (that impose legal obligations on government).
  • Its early acceptance of the principle of birthright citizenship.
  • Its attitude and treatment of nonwhite people, combining elements of caste and class.

3. Requiring students to take part in a form of community service, civic engagement or service learning experience. If civic engagement is going to be more than a résumé-burnishing exercise or an act of noblesse oblige, then it must address a genuine need identified by the client and result in tangible outcomes. Also, like any other service learning opportunity, the lines of influence must extend both ways. It must be a real partnership with frequent interaction and interchange.

Civics education has a noble (if unrealistic and perhaps paternalistic) goal: to ensure that all students, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, have “the tools to understand” our system of government and our collective history. As he put it, “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

But if institutions are to pursue this path, it’s essential that our colleges and universities do this on their own terms, true to their foundational academic principles. Fostering dialogue and preaching the value of tolerance, civility, public spiritedness and reasoned discourse are all well and good.

But I believe we serve our students and our society most effectively if we do precisely what we do best: promote critical thinking, foster free inquiry, challenge received opinions and interrogate any claim by any authority, and only expect rigor, nuance and well-grounded arguments in return.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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