Should Schools Turn Children into Activists? And Should Uncle Sam Help?

By 01/20/2012

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Pretty much everybody favors better “civics education” in our schools and colleges. Pretty much everybody who thinks about such matters is alarmed that barely a quarter of U.S. school kids were at or above the “proficient” level on the 2010 NAEP assessment of civics—and that achievement at the twelfth-grade level is slipping even though just about all students “take civics” in high school. Almost everyone has encountered ample examples of students (and adults!) who cannot answer the most rudimentary questions about how the government is organized, what “separation of powers” or “checks and balances” means, how many senators their states have (much less their names), and more.

It is, indeed, a modern platitude that “we must do something to improve Americans’ knowledge of civics and government.”

But there is a problem in civics education, a sort of dividing line, about which there is far less agreement across society. On one side, we find an emphasis on infusing kids with basic knowledge about government, an understanding of the merits (as well as the shortcomings) of American democracy, and a sense of what can still be called patriotism: the belief that this country and its values need to be defended. (Stanford’s Bill Damon does a terrific job of elaborating on this viewpoint in his recent book, Failing Liberty 101.)

On the other side, we find much greater emphasis on civic participation and activism, on voluntarism and “service learning,” and on what is often termed “collective decision making” (or problem solving) and “democratic engagement,” which often boils down into the communitarian view that issues facing society are best dealt with through group action, by people joining hands and working together rather than through the political process.

I will admit, after watching the antics of Congress, many state legislatures, and the current GOP presidential candidates, that American society would benefit from more “working together” than our elected officials have displayed of late. (And I keep recalling the late David Broder’s remark that the death of Ted Kennedy marked the passing of the last of the Senate’s great “deal makers,” willing to compromise and work across party lines to accomplish something worthwhile, even if it wasn’t everything that either party wanted.)

Still and all, schools have a special responsibility to the young people in their care, which is to be exceptionally careful about providing lessons and activities of a political nature or enlisting them in adult causes, however worthy some may deem them. And Uncle Sam has a special responsibility not to “take sides” in the big debate—or, if it does, to come down on the side of patriotism. Unfortunately, a new report out of the U.S. Department of Education, one that appears to enjoy Arne Duncan’s strong personal backing, suggests that the executive branch is tilting toward the other side.

One is reminded, without pleasure, the ruckus that President Obama stirred up with his first back-to-school address in 2009—and the controversial “lesson plan” that the Education Department prepared to accompany it.

The “democratic engagement” faction within civics education has recently re-energized—even without Mr. Duncan’s help—and is pressing hard on schools to push kids into activism. You can see a vivid example of this in a recent publication called (cutely) A Crucible Moment and billed as “a national call to action.” Although it’s primarily aimed at colleges and universities, its authors make plain that its message is meant for primary and secondary schools, too. (Those authors, however, include absolutely nobody from the K-12 world.)

The publication sets forth a quintet of “essential actions,” among which I find three at least a bit troublesome, particularly when applied to compulsory public education of impressionable children rather than the voluntary education of young adults:

  • “Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning—embracing U.S. and global interdependence—that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem solving.”Global interdependence? Collective civic problem solving?
  • “Capitalize upon the interdependent responsibilities of K–12 and higher education to foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student.” Values examined by whom? What sort of “action”?
  • “Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances, locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge.” What exactly are “generative civic partnerships” and who in particular is supposed to be “empowered” to do what?

Are you with me so far? But you may be thinking that this is all kind of academic and irrelevant, isn’t it, just one more pious commission report?

Well, it would be, but for one big attention-getter: Uncle Sam putting his thumb on this side of the civics-education scale.

Check out the Education Department’s brand-new official publication, Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action. Although this thirty-pager comes out of the Department’s postsecondary wing and is, once again, meant mostly for higher education, it, too, makes no real age-specific distinctions and explicitly urges the nation’s K-12 schools to, for example, “both expand and transform their approach to civic learning and democratic engagement, rather than engage in tinkering at the margins. At no school, college, or university should students graduate with less civic literacy and engagement than when they arrived.”

Duncan himself made a pretty big deal of this at a recent White House conference where he remarked that “Unlike traditional civic education, civic learning and democratic engagement 2.0 is more ambitious and participatory than in the past. To paraphrase Justice O’Connor, the new generation of civic education initiatives move beyond your ‘grandmother’s civics’ to what has been labeled ‘action civics.’”

Hmm, “action civics”?

To be sure, most of what the Department proposes to do itself in this realm is consistent either with longstanding federal practice (e.g. research, data) or with ingrained Obama-administration priorities (e.g. “public-private partnerships”). But there are policy hints that go farther, such as suggesting that the forthcoming ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should include a program to “assist states, local education agencies, and nonprofits in developing implementing, evaluating, and replicating evidence-based programs that contribute to a well-rounded education—including civics, government, economics, and history. Other disciplines included in the program could incorporate evidence-based civic learning and democratic engagement approaches—such as service-learning.”

Read that last bit again and ask yourself if this is really a proper federal role in K-12 education, keeping in mind that the kids to be affected probably cannot even name the mayor of their town or the governor of their state, nor have much idea what political parties are and how legislation gets passed (or not).

It’s well and good for the Education Department to seek a broadening of the K-12 curriculum and an overdue consolidation of too many discipline-specific curriculum-related programs into a single block grant. It’s not acceptable, however, for them to push “action civics” on our nation’s schools.

-Chester E. Finn Jr

This post was originally published in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly

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