Category Archives: advocating civic education

Teaching Honest History: a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain

AFT President Randi Weingarten invited Georgetown historian Marcia Chatelain and me to discuss controversies about American history and race in public schools on her podcast. I enjoyed the whole conversation and learned a lot.

You can listen here.

At one point, we discussed the idea of “teaching both sides.” I said that many issues do not have two sides. One view may be correct, or there may be many valid perspectives. I worry that looking for exactly two sides on every issue reinforces partisan polarization. Nevertheless, I see value in identifying issues that have two worthy sides and delving into them. I said that I choose school choice as a signature issue in my public policy course because there are valid arguments on both sides, and it is an opportunity to think about deep value conflicts.

Marcia Chatelain proposed that we really should teach both–or all–sides. Students should study the whole range of opinion. I volunteered that perhaps students should read John C. Calhoun’s defenses of slavery, and she agreed. White supremacy and slavery are parts of history.

I liked her argument and concurred with it. In retrospect, I’d only add that the best way to deal with controversy may vary by discipline. History encompasses all the opinions that people have held, and an important step in historical interpretation involves suspending one’s own judgment to understand what people–even very bad people–were trying to say. Philosophy (and the study of public policy) are inquiries into what is right. In those disciplines, it is more appropriate to be selective and evaluative. At the same time, history is crucial background for reasoning well about ethical and political issues. Anyone who is trying to decide what we should do now ought to know what Calhoun argued, because his deeply and widely held views remain part of our reality. In this sense, history and ethical/political reasoning are complementary, but they do imply different skills–and different educational choices.

See also: “Just teach the facts”; discussing school choice; school choice is a question of values not data; 50 Core American Documents; two dimensions of debate about civics; NAEd Report on Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse, etc.

a simulation to teach civic theory and practice

My book entitled What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life will be released in April 2022. It summarizes the concepts and ideas that I believe are most useful for people who want to improve their communities and the world. It is based on many years of teaching undergraduates and advanced graduate students and seasoned practitioners, while studying and promoting civic education in K-12 schools.

Obviously, my list of concepts and how I think about them are completely debatable. But what if we wanted to teach many people some set of such concepts without explaining them all (as in a book or a series of lectures)? Could we teach these ideas experientially, so that students consulted manageable bites of theory as they worked together on civic problems? And could we make the learning scalable, so that students could experience it in many schools, colleges, and community settings?

I am thinking about an online simulation along these lines. …

The setting would be a fictional community–maybe a smallish US city with a declining industrial base and a diverse population. (Other versions could be built with different settings). Players could consult summary statistics about this community at any time, such as its unemployment rate, the ratio of arrests by race, or the number of people using its main park. Those statistics would be affected by the players’ choices and behavior–as well as by random factors beyond their control.

Each player would simulate a fictional character who would have personal characteristics, values, and goals; various roles (e.g., a parent of a child in the public schools; the mayor of the city); some money; and the ability to make menu-driven choices at any moment. These choices would sometimes be affected by other players’ actions. Examples might be expanding or contracting one’s own business, voting for various candidates in a mayoral election, or attending a protest, among others.

There would also be organizations: governmental agencies (such as the school board), private associations, and media platforms.* Players would have roles in these organizations, such as a member, a leader, or a subscriber. They would be able to start new associations and media platforms. Governmental agencies would be able to create new agencies under certain circumstances.

Each organization would be able to make choices, such as how to allocate its resources and govern its assets. It would have rules for making these choices, for determining who belongs and holds various roles, and for changing its own rules. For instance, the members of the school board might be elected, they might make decisions regarding the schools by majority vote, but only the city government could change these rules. Meanwhile, a private association might be structured so that anyone could join and might simply be a space for conversation, with hardly any rules.

Players would not be able to communicate with each other at will. True, in a real city, it might be possible for anyone to get any official’s email address and contact that person. But a senior official is unlikely to give a random person much attention–if any. To simulate the friction and inequality of communication in the real world, players would only be able to contact others through organizations, and each organization would have rules for interaction. For instance, members of the school board would be able to message each other freely. When they were together in a group chat, their messages would be open for anyone to read (simulating a public meeting). They could message all parents on a one-way basis. And they could maintain a message board where parents could post comments for them to read. A protest group or a newspaper would have different rules for communication. This means that if you wanted to influence the mayor, you might have to join an association in which the mayor is active, or persuade the newspaper to cover your issue and hope that the mayor reads messages from the newspaper.

The game would start with characters already holding memberships in organizations, and organizations already having rules. Characters might even have drafts of messages ready to send that would start the business of the community. (For instance, the editor of the newspaper would have almost everyone as a subscriber and would have a draft message ready to send to solicit news tips.) Once the game got underway, characters would begin to change their status in many ways and communicate with each other. As a result of all their choices, the community’s statistics would gradually shift.

Finally, each player would have a student page for work outside the game, such as short written assignments that could be graded. Here the student would also see links to accessible summaries of concepts relevant to current events in the game. For instance, if your character is dealing with a good (such as green space or public safety), you would see a link to a wiki-like entry on types of goods, drawn from Elinor Ostrom, that could inform your behavior and give you material to write about. If your character faces a conflict, you would see a short reading on negotiation. If your character is involved in a protest, you would see an entry on social movements.

I can also imagine a hybrid version, with face-to-face meetings of characters plus “meta-discussion” of issues that arise in the game occurring during class time.

*The organizations would not include for-profit firms or markets. My instinct is that fully simulating an economy would make the game too complex, even though the economy is certainly relevant. The focus would be civil society and the state, with the market somewhat to the side. However, individuals and organizations would have economic choices to make, and some characters would have disproportionate economic influence as business owners or investors. Getting them to make helpful individual choices would often be an important strategy for shifting the community’s outcomes.

two dimensions of debate about civics

It is good that Americans disagree about civic education. We are a free and diverse people who care about youth and the future of our republic. Agreement is not to be expected and could even be problematic. The question is whether we can disagree well while also giving our students an appropriate array of choices that they can assess for themselves.

I think there are almost as many ideas about the ideal approach to civics as there are people in the debate, and it is a mistake to assume that the field has polarized into just two or a few camps. Many individuals hold nuanced and complex views.

If I had to try to categorize views, I definitely would not use one continuum from left to right. I see two different axes that may help to organize the debate–as long as one remembers that hardly anyone chooses an extreme point on either continuum, and many see value across the whole map.

The vertical axis runs from favorable to critical of the US political system and society. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently tweeted that his state’s schools will teach “unapologetic American exceptionalism.” In this context, “exceptional” doesn’t usually mean atypical; it means better. That places Gov. Lee pretty close to the top of my graph. Someone who wants students to focus on historical and current injustices would fall near the bottom.

The horizontal axis runs from classroom-based work (reading, discussing, and writing about texts) to experiential learning. It may also reflect a debate about whether knowledge or skills are the most important outcomes. Lee added, “By prioritizing civics education in TN schools, we are raising a generation of young people who are knowledgeable in American history and confident in navigating their civic responsibilities.” He seems to be open to engagement as an outcome, so maybe he would support the whole top half of my graph.

These two axes are distinct and orthogonal. The most common forms of experiential civics–approaches like service-learning and student government–are often pro-system. They belong above the middle of the chart. In the Positive Youth Development field, service-learning is understood as “contributing positively to self, family, community, and, ultimately, civil society” (Chung & McBride 2015). Service-learning may also encompass critical reflection about systems (Mitchell 2008), but I think the critical aspect has been rare and often superficial.

On the other hand, if you really want to teach some version of critical theory in a K-12 classroom, you are probably interested in assigning and discussing texts. (That is why it is called “theory.”) So you likely fall the left of the middle of my chart–on the same side as the people who want to assign classical texts that they appreciate. The pedagogy is similar; the debate is about which texts to assign, which topics to discuss, and which interpretive lenses to use. Meanwhile, many of us strive to assign texts with diverse perspectives and cultivate a robust discussion within the classroom.

For what it’s worth, my own emphasis is on learning how to build and manage associations. I’d use an academic pedagogy (reading, writing, and discussing texts, data, and models) for a pragmatic purpose: making civil society work. I’d let the students decide the ultimate objectives of their own associations. This approach implies a canon of texts (Alexis de Tocqueville, Gandhi, Robert Michels, Jane Addams, Mary Parker Follett, Saul Alinsky, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Jenny Mansbridge, Elinor Ostrom …) that is neither pro- nor anti-system, as a whole.

I would never claim that this is the only important approach, but I think it is undersupplied.

See also: NAEd Report on Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse; an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany; The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap; etc.

results of the Civic Spring Project

Last spring, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars (formerly the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation) jumped into action to support community-based organizations that would help young people to address the crisis of the pandemic. Their Civic Spring Project funded Groundwork Elizabeth (NJ); The Institute of Engagement (Houston, TX); Kinston Teens, Inc (NC); the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence (KY); Youthprise (MN), and the Newark (NJ) Youth One Stop and Career Center. Along with funds, these organizations received in-kind support and were included in a professional learning community.

Now CIRCLE has published a detailed evaluation. (I did not play any role in it, although at an earlier stage, I was one of many colleagues who had advised on the design of the project and then helped to select the grantees.)

Almost all the youth in these projects said they learned the kind of content that they would learn in a civics class, which demonstrates that hands-on, out-of-school projects can teach the facts and skills that we also value in an academic context.

Sixty-one percent felt that they had made their communities better places to live. For instance, “the Kentucky Student Voice Team members extensively documented the experiences of Kentucky students during the pandemic and used those findings to inform policymakers. … Minnesota Young Champions recruited young Minnesotans to engage in advocacy work to extend unemployment benefits to young people.”

CIRCLE also presents nuanced findings about the conversations that included youth and adults or that convened people from various programs and roles. They report some challenges: power dynamics, lack of clarity about roles, and some issues with communication. For instance, “The same behaviors regarding [the Community of Practice] were interpreted differently–the CoP planners intended for flexibility and responsiveness, but CoP participants perceived this as unclear purpose and lack of intentionality in the planning, schedule, design, and implementation of the CoP. Different stakeholders held different goals and they were communicated at different times and through different fora.”

Collaboration is hard, especially when people come from different walks of life; and we’re not very good at it these days. (See my recent Medium post.) A classic problem is permitting flexibility while also giving clear direction. We get better at these tasks with practice and reflection, which is exactly what this project offered.

civic education and the science of association

I have a new post up today on Medium, thanks to McGraw-Hill. It’s entitled “Reimagining Civic Participation Through the Science of Association.” It begins …

America’s constitutional democracy depends on us — the people — to organize ourselves in groups of all sizes and for many purposes. Voluntary associations address community problems, they make it possible to limit the scope of government, and they empower people to express their diverse beliefs and passions. Freedom of association is both a constitutional right and a pillar of American society.

Unfortunately, human beings do not automatically know how to associate well. Challenges arise that lack obvious solutions. How can we resolve disagreements so that disappointed participants don’t quit or just drift away? What is the best response when some members shirk their fair share of the work? What is an effective way to prevent leaders from dominating a group or even stealing its assets? How should an association communicate its purpose and values to busy outsiders?

The Science of Association

Answers to these questions (and many others) constitute what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the science of association.” Visiting the United States in 1831, he credited the success of our young republic to the people’s skill at this “mother science of a democracy.” He observed that Americans had perfected this “science” better than any other nation and had used it for the most purposes.

The traditional way to learn how to associate was to join functioning groups and watch how they worked. In The Upswing (2020), Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett show that associational life grew and strengthened from about 1890 until about 1960 as Americans developed the science of association to unprecedented levels.

But then rates of membership shrank just as steeply. Today, most citizens do not feel they associate much at all. Just over one in four Americans report that they belong to even one group that has responsible leaders and in which they can actively participate. (Of these groups, religious congregations are the most common; online groups are also fairly frequent.)

When functioning groups are scarce and fragile, we cannot count on them to teach a younger generation to participate. However, schools can play a role in reversing this decline. [Read more here about what schools can do.]