action civics goes mainstream and gets controversial

The phrase “action civics” was coined last year by a group of people and organizations that encourage k-12 students to choose, discuss, and study social issues and take collaborative action. I’m a charter member of the National Action Civics Collaborative and wrote about the first Action Civics Conference on HuffPost.

Much to my surprise, on Jan. 10, Education Secretary Arne Duncan explicitly quoted our phrase. “The new generation of civic education initiatives,” he said, “move beyond your ‘grandmother’s civics’ to what has been labeled ‘action civics.’” He cited Mikva Challenge, one of the leaders of the National Action Civics Collaborative, as an exemplary program.

That reference caught the attention of Chester E. Finn, Jr., an often insightful conservative voice on education. In a column entitled “Should Schools Turn Children into Activists? And Should Uncle Sam Help?,” Finn expresses some concerns about “action civics.”

He begins with the premise that “pretty much everybody favors better ‘civics education,” adding that everyone “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.”

I share Finn’s concerns about civic knowledge, but I would note that the NAEP is designed to yield scores in the ballpark of the ones we get. The specifications for the test require, for instance, that a certain proportion of the items be “advanced,” meaning that only 5% of students will be expected to answer them correctly. So the idea that “barely a quarter of students” scored at proficient is mainly an artifact of the test specifications. The greatest value of the NAEP is for tracking trends over time and comparing groups of students. Overall, the trends in the NAEP civics have been remarkably flat, and I would describe the test as a hard one. But, just like Finn, I would like to see kids do better.

Finn proceeds to describe the key debate in the field pretty accurately and fairly:

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. …

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.

That description seems about right. I’m on the “democratic engagement” side, but I am afraid I have to agree that it often degenerates into apolitical and unintellectual service. I’d only add that the “communitarian view” is itself controversial among people who support something like “action civics.” If, for you, the real goal is free and robust debate about social issues, or critical use of the mass media, or political activism (important to Mikva), or “public work,” then you may not like to be called a communitarian.

If you read Finn carefully, you’ll notice that he sees some value in the democratic engagement side. (E.g., “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.”) His main rhetorical strategy in arguing for the “basic knowledge” side of the debate is to raise questions about phrases found in a recent report to which I am a signatory. For instance, he asks:

  • Values examined by whom? What sort of “action”?
  • What exactly are “generative civic partnerships” and who in particular is supposed to be “empowered” to do what?

Those are fair questions. For one thing, they point to actual linguistic vagueness in some of our documents. For another, Finn has a right to be worried lest people whose political views he doesn’t share start requiring kids to examine his values and take action against his policies.

If I had to frame a full response, here would be some of my leading points:

  1. The frightening declines (i.e., changes over time) do not involve young people’s political knowledge, but rather their actual experience participating in voluntary groups and deliberating with others who hold different views. Test scores in civics are flat; the number of credits earned in social studies has risen; but membership in groups, attendance at meetings, and discussion of issues have fallen badly.
  2. That first point should alarm conservatives at least as much as liberals, because it is evidence of a shrinking civil society and a weakening voluntary sector.
  3. Social studies teachers are not a bunch of liberals intent on turning kids into Saul Alinsky; they are very mainstream and perhaps a bit conservative about both politics and pedagogy.
  4. Despite segregation by race, class, and ideology, all classrooms contain students who hold diverse political views. Good pedagogy requires evoking their diverse views and getting them to disagree well (with evidence and civility).
  5. My own core commitment is to open-ended politics. I don’t believe neutrality is possible or that the pursuit of neutrality is desirable. Any teaching does and should impart values. But you can create discussions and decision-making processes that are outside your control, that go where the group takes them. Open-ended interactions are scarce at a time when politics is manipulative and strategic, education is closely constrained, and people have segregated themselves into ideological silos. For me, creating space for open-ended politics is the heart of “action civics.”

About Peter

Director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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