Civic education has failed us. This, at least, is one of the explanations for the surprising election of Donald Trump. Stories since then have recorded the fall of one political norm after another. Clearly there are consequences to our patterns of disengagement.
The forces pointing to the decline of civic education usually have their own solutions at hand and are getting too far with little information from practitioners. Let’s channel the professional insights from civic educators into a conversation where classroom experience can crowd out partisan talking points instead of the other way around.
#CivicEDchat is a practitioner’s conversation, once a month via Twitter. This first conversation is grounded by Eric Liu’s suggestion that Donald Trump is “reviving American democracy.” Liu is the founder of Citizen University and author of You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen. Writing for The Atlantic, he describes the latest flurry of activity like this:
The conservative Federalist Society is fielding new inquiries from left and right about its Article I Project, which aims to restore congressional primacy against an overreaching executive. Civic start-ups like Free the People are sparking interest among Millennials in a hip libertarianism. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute held a symposium recently positing that Trump’s arrival is a “Sputnik moment” for civic education.
Let’s compare notes on the shifts we have seen in students’ participation or their interest in it. Prior to November 2016, headlines about low scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or political knowledge surveys worked to generate jokes. The current level of concern is creating new policies. Cities and states are turning to organizations promoting citizenship tests for graduation requirements or action civics curriculum. There’s a significant distance between those approaches.
Liu suggests we can change the punchlines about political participation. Evaluating proposals comes down to understanding the model of citizenship motivating them. Liu offers one distinction to consider:
The surge will likely outlast his presidency. Americans today are rushing to make up for decades of atrophy and neglect in civic education and engagement. But as they do so it’s important to remember that citizenship is about more than know-how. It’s also about “know-why”—the moral purposes of self-government.
What’s your best prescription for the future of civic education? Please join us on Twitter for #CivicEDchat where we can show our work and spend an hour thinking together about the remedies.