Civics education must be American democracy’s bedrock

Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.

By Claire E. Scheuren – January 11, 2021  

My father was a civil engineer who studied history within a practical frame of how things work.

It was his theory that “societies collapse from lack of maintenance,” and he was referring to the actual physical maintenance of infrastructure systems. Water supply, bridges, and roads.

Very obviously, when societal systems don’t work, they fail all of us.

If my father were alive today, I believe that he would see the application of his belief to the ideals of democracy, the underpinnings of our structure of government. Values and ideals, after all, have to be maintained, too, just like bridges.

When skyscrapers are constructed, in order to support the enormous weight of the structure, heavy ‘piles’ are driven deep, as part of an essential foundation that transfers all that weight to solid bedrock.

The ideals upon which our democracy rests are like those foundation piles. If they are not driven deep enough, they cannot support the weight of the great work of a free, just, and economically vital society.

At present, there is ample evidence that America’s democracy is in grave danger, failing like an ignored, neglected, and poorly maintained dam.

Where to begin? As H.G. Wells famously said, “We are in a race between education and catastrophe.” We have lost a collective, coherent, and contextual understanding of democracy that public education should inform. Educational philosopher Neil Postman argued, “Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.” 

It has become increasingly evident that the lack of effective, practical teaching of civics and the necessity of civic engagement by ordinary citizens is a critical missing link in U.S. education.

According to the Center for American Progress’s 2018 report on The State of Civics Education, no state in the U.S. currently provides sufficient and comprehensive civics education; only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics, while 30 states require a half year and the other 11 states have no civics requirement. Most significantly, the report cited that no state has experiential learning or local problem-solving components in its civics requirements.

Another challenging indicator, reported by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, is the huge decrease in federal funding for civic education which was $150 million in 2010 and is now $5 million, about $0.05 per student.

Not surprising is that the most recent Nation’s Report Card issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that shows only 24% of American students perform at or above proficiency levels in civics.

Now is the time to resuscitate our long-neglected civic capacity by engaging in large scale civics education as the blueprint for rebuilding the foundational infrastructure of our democracy, ideals for everyone, regardless of political affiliation.

These efforts should begin in elementary school and be reinforced at each level, through high school and adult education, with a coherent and engaging curriculum that underscores the necessity of understanding how government works and the role of the citizen in making it work.

In the midst of today’s chaos of challenges, it is legitimate to ask whether a rededication to a renewed commitment to the teaching of American Civics can create a deeper and stronger foundation to protect us from the present dangers to democracy, internal and external.

Considering what we are going through as a nation, this could be the exact right time to begin.

Claire E. Scheuren, Founding board member and past-Chair of Project Vote Smart and Exercise Democracy

Arizona Daily Star