The myth of civic education

Learning about our government is supposed to unify us. What if it can't?

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Civic education is hot again.

In the last year, several states have introduced programs to encourage political literacy. Meanwhile, a panel of centrist scholars proposed an elaborate "roadmap" for teaching American history and government from K to 12. Rival blueprints were developed on the political right, while in higher education, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels issued a call to academic arms in the pages of The Atlantic (which he expands in a forthcoming book). Other plans are sure to follow.

This revival of interest in civics textbooks and instructional styles follows a familiar script. Decades ago, fears of civic ignorance provoked an early outbreak of the culture war. This time, the coincidence of an iconoclastic racial justice movement and conspiracist populism have provoked recurring fears of national dissolution. If only schools and universities cultivated a shared understanding of our past and principles, the thinking goes, we might find it easier to resolve our differences here and now. That's an appealing idea. But it's probably wrong.

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The civics-class-as-a-national-unifier myth has roots extending to the common schools movement of the 1840s. As University of Texas history professor Steven Mintz points out, however, its underlying assumptions are rarely stated — perhaps because they don't hold up to scrutiny. Although it comes in different versions, the case for civic education is based on three main claims. They may seem plausible, but there's good reason to doubt they're true.

First, advocates of civic education presume we're less informed about our history and institutions than were generations past. Surveys find many Americans can't list all three branches of government, name a single Supreme Court justice, or recognize major events and figures from the past. Clearly we don't know much about history.

But did we ever? Systematic comparisons are hard to find. The claim that Americans used to know more than we do now relies heavily on literary anecdotes or documentary sources like hard tests that used to be administered at surprisingly early grades.

That evidence is highly selective. Before World War I, for example, the high school graduation rate was less than 10 percent. Tests may have been more difficult for those who stuck it out, but students participating in formal education were only a small fraction of the total youth population. The graduation rate passed 50 percent around 1940, and it was not until the 1960s that the median American had completed high school. It's unlikely those generations learned substantially more in civics class because most of them never completed a high school civics class.

What polls we do have from the period confirm that civic ignorance is nothing new. In 1943, 77 percent of Americans were unable to say anything about the Bill of Rights. In 1954, just 11 percent could say how many states would elect members of the House of Representatives in upcoming elections. An even smaller proportion of Americans could name the three branches of government in 1952 (19 percent) than in 2021 (56 percent).

Textbook knowledge isn't the only kind, of course. Even if you can't explain political institutions or name the people who participate in them, you might still know how to vote, express your opinion, or organize to promote some shared interest. But the second argument for civic education is that these two forms of knowledge are related if not identical. The more you know, the assumption goes, the more likely you are to be motivated and capable of political activity

There's a lot of research supporting a correlation between education and political engagement. It's not clear, though, whether classroom instruction has much causal influence in itself. The correlation is likely more due to effects of higher education in general than civics education specifically. For example, although they found college students who took courses in social sciences had higher rates of political engagement, sociologists Andrew Perrin and Alanna Gillis identified a similar if weaker effect for study in the arts and humanities.

A historical comparison is useful here, too. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has made a career of documenting the decline of civic association and political engagement since its peak in the middle of the 20th century. The same period saw a vast increase in educational attainment. If more time in school meant healthier civic life, you'd see the opposite result.

The connection is also lacking in more recent data. It's true voter turnout has been increasing in recent presidential elections, arguably tracking with larger numbers of Americans earning college degrees. Yet in 2020, the spike in voting was driven by voters who did not graduate from college. Their level of civic knowledge didn't change. They just turned out for a candidate they liked.

Indeed, former President Donald Trump's success in appealing to non-college white voters points to the problem with the third element of the case for civic education. Advocates tend to assume more educated citizens will find it easier to establish working relationships with each other. Even if they don't agree about everything, a combination of institutional understanding, moral reflection, and historical awareness will arguably help them agree to disagree. The implicit contrast is to ignorant brutes who gravitate to demagogic leaders and resentful agendas.

But political science scholarship suggests educated voters have their own pathologies. The shocking finding of The American Voter project of the 1950s, which launched the modern study of political behavior, is that more educated and informed voters are also more consistently ideological than those with less schooling and information. In recent years, that has meant they are more monolithically liberal.

Maybe the right kind of civic education would counteract these tendencies. As actually practiced, it's a source of division more than unity. The case for civic education envisions a new harmony established by converting more Americans into college-educated progressives. But that's very different from learning to live with genuine disagreements.

We should also admit that even if those assumptions were correct, implementation would remain an open question. American schools notoriously struggle to impart basic literacy and numeracy. Advanced political understanding may be beyond their capacity — and therefore a distraction from basic subjects in which they can be more effective.

For all these reasons, I'm skeptical that pouring money into civic education is very useful. At the least we should acknowledge incentives to overstate its benefits. Civic education is popular because curriculum mandates are easy. They appeal to a faith in the transformative power of classroom instruction that runs deep in American culture. That faith is much stronger than available evidence that civic education actually works.

This doesn't mean components of the civics curriculum aren't worth teaching. Political philosophy, American history, and other subjects that get swept under the dusty rug we call "civics" deserve an honored place in our schools, particularly in the higher grades. To attract students' interest and enthusiasm, however, they must be taught as subjects of inherent value and interest, not as a mere means to elusive social benefits. That change of frame would require much bigger changes to American education than any new curriculum can effect.

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