University of Arizona
The educators charged with developing the new civics curriculum for Arizona’s public universities have their work cut out for them. The state already requires students to pass a citizenship test to graduate high school, so the college-level offering has to go deeper.
“If you do another course that’s like, ‘how many electors are in the Electoral College?’ students’ eyes just glaze over,” said Suzanne Dovi, a professor at the University of Arizona who is leading the university’s committee on developing the forthcoming American Institutions and Civic Knowledge curriculum.
To keep students engaged, Dovi and her colleagues are seeking to tie civics back to students’ individual interests and goals.
That means general education students at the University of Arizona will each take one broad survey course followed by an additional course of their choosing that goes into depth on a specific topic, such as American capitalism. Dovi said she hopes the more focused courses will allow students to explore how their specific passions intersect with American institutions.
The state’s two other public four-year universities will devise their own way of fulfilling the American Institutions requirement, mandated by the Board of Regents in 2021.
At U of A, the survey course will be piloted this fall, with the full requirement going into effect in fall 2026.
Dovi is scheduled to teach one of the survey courses. While it has to meet several curricular requirements developed by the regents—including studying founding federal documents and landmark Supreme Court cases—she wants to make sure it is not too repetitious of Arizona’s high school curriculum.
To that end, she is focusing the course on the concept of flawed democracies, looking at what American institutions do right and wrong, and giving students the tools to make such assessments themselves. Core assignments will include writing a modernized Declaration of Independence and conducting a “democratic audit” of the United States, she said.
Other courses at U of A that will fulfill the requirement are still in development; some may adapt existing survey courses in the history department, for example, to become American Institutions courses.
The requirement comes at a time when many politicians and educators are pushing for colleges and high schools nationwide to strengthen basic civics instruction in an effort to create a more informed electorate.
While university-level civics requirements are not new—the University of Utah has had an American Institutions general education requirement since before 2000—more colleges have begun adding them.
In 2018, Missouri’s Legislature passed a law requiring all public university students to pass a civics exam. Purdue University, a public institution in Indiana, began requiring students to fulfill a civics literacy requirement to graduate in 2021; the requirement consists of completing an “educational activity,” such as attending a civics-related event or listening to a civics podcast, and passing a civics exam. At the high school level, 40 states and the District of Columbia require some degree of civics education, and at least 14 require their students to pass a citizenship test. (Arizona was the first state to implement such a requirement.)
These requirements haven’t necessarily had the desired effect. One study found that students who took a mandated civics test in high school were not significantly more likely to vote than their peers.
Why American Institutions?
Arizona’s universities are adding the American Institutions requirement amid a larger reshuffle of their general education requirements. Regent Larry Edward Penley said the board has been planning to update the requirements for at least five years, with the aim of tailoring them more to each university’s unique goals and identities.
Penley also noted that the requirement is not the same as a traditional civics requirement, which typically focuses on “how our institutions, our branches of government, were built,” he said. “In the end, we expect graduates to be educated individuals … we also expect them to be good citizens.”
Donald Critchlow, the Katzin Family Professor of History at Arizona State University, is the head of the university’s new Center for American Institutions. While the center is not associated with the new requirement, it shares a similar goal of increasing “confidence” in American institutions, he said.
He lauded the American Institutions requirement, noting that recent classes of students have known less and less about the way the country functions—but have continued to hold strong views about its operations. He hopes that the American Institutions courses will help them gain the context and information they need to develop informed opinions.
“The students need to understand, as the regents believed, just how institutions work and what they are,” he said. “I have students all the time in the classes that will not know whether the Supreme Court justices are elected or selected.”
Dovi, on the other hand, is less bothered by what her students know or don’t know than by their hopelessness about the future of the country and their lack of faith in the government’s ability to make things better.
“They’ve given up on our government. There’s a kind of political despair,” she said. “They have different reasons for despairing about the government, but there’s this sense that we don’t find solutions.”
She hopes learning more about the U.S. government’s historical successes will empower students to believe that change is possible.
Critics argue that the American Institutions requirement is redundant, given that Arizona high schoolers already study civics. Anna Ochoa O’Leary, who heads the department of Mexican American studies at the University of Arizona, said the regents haven’t made clear how it differs from the high school requirement or what the intended educational outcomes are.
“Do you want more voting? Do you want them to be more engaged in our politics?” she asked.
She also noted that U of A offers a number of courses, including some in her own department, that already incorporate instruction on American institutions—in many cases, critiquing the ways those institutions have harmed people.
Patrick Robles, the U of A student body president, noted that while he is a proponent of civics education—he credits it with changing his life in middle school—some civics courses can, however inadvertently, promote American exceptionalism and uncritical patriotism, as Florida’s revised civics curriculum has been accused of doing.
“I believe it’s important that we have civic education at the university level, but it must not be at the expense of us blindly following the American urban legend that has historically been present in history classes,” he said. “I believe it’s possible to have civic education while also being critical and demonstrating America’s ugly past, as well as demonstrating how we can learn from these experiences.”
Penley said that he and the other regents fully meant for the requirement to be nonpartisan.
“The approach that we’ve taken has been one of engagement with faculty,” he said. “The belief here is that individual faculty members are going to put these courses together around some general constraints the board has set up in their policy. That tends to ensure that certain ideological perspectives will not be insisted upon because of the collaborative process.”
Dovi said the committee working to implement the new policy at the University of Arizona is as ideologically diverse as the regents intended, including both progressive and conservative professors—and one member of the Federalist Society, she said.
In her American Institutions class, she certainly plans to present her students with materials that span the political spectrum.
“If you aren’t reading something that offends you, I’m not doing my job. This class should make you angry and proud,” she said. “I want angry and proud citizens.”