Category Archives: advocating civic education

Putting the US Constitution in its Place: A Broader Agenda for Civic Education

I put a draft chapter on Academia.edu in case anyone is interested in commenting. It is for a forthcoming volume edited by Carol McNamara about American citizenship.

The abstract:

Almost all American students are required to study the formal structure of the US government, and most perform fairly well on concrete, factual questions about the Constitution. But there is much more for competent citizens to learn. After I explore some valid reasons to include the Constitution in required curricula, I argue that the document provides a poor framework for civics as a whole, giving students a distorted view of the social world and failing to motivate them for ethical civic engagement. I conclude with a sketch of a curriculum in which the US Constitution has a place, but a fairly modest one.

Here is an excerpt:

… the Constitution is a distorting lens through which to view the social and political world. It is, after all, a charter for the federal government of the United States, albeit one that protects the rights of the states, associations, and individuals. It has much to say about the three official branches of the national government. It also mentions certain other institutions that seemed important to its 18th-century authors, such as the armed forces, militias, and privateers (“letters of marque”); religion and the press; lawyers (“Assistance of Counsel”); and associations and public assemblies. It does not mention any of the following components of our 21st-century system: political parties and lobbies; unions and organized professions (other than the law); permanent regulatory and national security agencies and the civil service; for-profit and nonprofit corporations and capital markets; or broadcast and digital media and the Internet.

Courts strive to apply constitutional principles to these modern institutions by expanding 18th-century categories. For instance, publicly traded, general-purpose corporations—which became common in the 19th century—are treated as examples of “associations” under the First Amendment.* I lack the competence to assess such rulings, but I think that the Constitution is problematic as a curricular framework. A curriculum based on that text will leave scarce time for analyzing most of the institutions that actually structure our lives, because they are unmentioned in the document.

While studying the First Amendment, students might be invited to think about the types of associations, religions, and equivalents of “the press” that exist in our time. But that is an odd and constraining way to investigate the structure and functions of Facebook, the Democratic Party, Sunni Islam, The Washington Post and its parent holding company, Black Lives Matter, the National Rifle Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and General Motors, to name just a few “associations.” A course on how our society works would go deeply into those organizations and give much less time to the question of how the US Constitution applies to them.

And another:

A heavy emphasis on the Constitution also implies a causal theory that is sometimes made explicit in k-12 classrooms. Students may take away the thesis that our society can be explained by the Constitution and the founders’ vision. The world we observe around is the one the founders “framed” for us.

That thesis is, at best, contestable. The organizations, norms, and systems of the United Kingdom and the United States today are in many ways similar, despite the fact that the USA has an idiosyncratic (some would say, “exceptional”) written constitution, whereas the British constitution is unwritten and has very different components: a monarch, an established church, a cabinet that is part of Parliament, and parliamentary sovereignty. Meanwhile, both the USA and the UK function very differently from the same countries a century ago. The reason is not that they have changed their constitutions profoundly but rather that urbanization and then suburbanization, industrialization and then deindustrialization, capitalism and then the welfare state, immigration and internal migrations, technology and global capital markets have transformed these two societies—more or less in parallel. The causal impact of the US Constitution on the USA seems limited.


*“Corporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the ‘discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas’ that the First Amendment seeks to foster.” Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 1 (2010), quoting Bellotti, 435 U. S., at 783. See also: on teaching the US Constitution; the Citizens United decision and the inadequate sociology of the US Constitution; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; and how to teach the constitution of cyberspace.

the new NAEP civics results

Today, the National Assessment Governing Board released new results for social studies subjects from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). EdWeek says, “8th Graders Don’t Know Much About History, National Exam Shows.” Betsy DeVos calls the findings “stark and inexcusable.”

History and geography scores fell, although I don’t know if I’d agree with EdWeek’s Stephen Sawchuk and Sarah D. Sparks that “Eighth graders’ grasp of key topics in history have plummeted.” Here are the median history scores over time:

I would probably say that history scores “declined to a significantly significant degree compared to 2014, meaning that the change from 2014-18 is unlikely to reflect sampling bias.” The differences between 2018 and all other years are within the margin of error and therefore may not be improvements or declines at all.

Civics is my own field of interest, and I was one of the designers of the NAEP Civics Assessment instrument. The results for Civics were flat. (Unless you want to say that they “plummeted” by one point.)

The NAEP is extraordinarily useful for analyzing differences in scores by demographic group and for understanding how educational experiences (e.g., taking an 8th grade civics course) relate to outcomes. Unless you have worked with the dedicated folks at the Educational Testing Service and the National Assessment Governing Board, you cannot imagine how careful they are about test-design and implementation or how complex the whole process is.

However, as in the past, I would like to offer these caveats about the NAEP results and the surrounding commentary.

First, as noted above, the changes are subtle, and some are within the margin of error. There is no evidence here of dramatic decline.

Second, the definitions of “proficient” and “advanced” are basically arbitrary. The 1998 designers chose scores that would count as “proficient,” based on their own judgment. Based on the data from that year, they said that just 22% of American 8th graders were proficient. They must have been aware that they would communicate a message of crisis.

The subsequent Assessments have been normed to the 1998 instrument. Roughly speaking, if we drafted an instrument that indicated a major improvement, it would probably not be fielded as such, because the high scores in the pilot phase would suggest that it was an invalid measure–the questions must be too easy.

Therefore, it isn’t really news that the proficiency level is in the neighborhood of 25%. That is how the test is designed. This is not to say that we can’t gradually boost it to 30% or higher if we make a lot of progress in classrooms. But you should understand why the numbers could not be much higher.

The judgment that most kids are not proficient is subject to debate. If you look at the actual questions and how many 8th graders got each one right, you may conclude that most students are below proficient. Or you may think that the questions are surprisingly hard and that we are expecting a lot from 13-year-olds.

For instance, 50% answered this item right:

The United States Congress can pass a bill even if the President disagrees with the bill because

  1. Congress must make sure that the needs of all citizens are met
  2. Congress can make laws more quickly when it does not have to involve the President
  3. Congress usually knows more about what the laws mean than the President does
  4. Congress is the primary legislative power of the government

Is 50% a terrible result, or not too bad? That is a matter of judgment and expectations, not statistics.

Third, the NAEP measures some things but not others. The Civics assessment includes many items about the structure of the US government–which branch or level has what authority. It excludes current events, value-commitments (such as patriotism or commitment to equality), items about social issues, detailed questions about civic institutions outside of government (e.g., What does a PTA do?), items about specific state and local governments, and measures of students’ civic activity outside of school.

Finally, it is difficult to separate reading from civics, particularly at the 4th and 8th grade levels. I don’t think anyone does that better than the NAEP does, but it’s an intrinsic challenge.

A kid who hasn’t actually learned anything specific about the US government but is used to reading advanced texts–The Lord of the Rings, for example–could glean a lot of correct answers based on the meaning of words like “primary” and “legislative” in the example above. A different kid who has dutifully learned some specific civics content might be thrown by the language of the Assessment, especially when the prompts contain longer passages.

It is true that literacy is a civic asset and that people who can do a lot with words are better prepared for civic life. However, if we think there is a separate domain of civic learning–as I do–then measuring it with a written instrument that isn’t confounded with literacy is a challenge.

Overall, I believe there is valuable information in the NAEP (and it’s important for Congress to fund it regularly). But the headlines are hyped. The data show evidence of stability in the relatively narrow set of outcomes that the Assessment measures, with the caveat that the test is designed to be stable over time. If we want to improve civics, we should focus mainly on what helps various kinds of kids to learn the various domains of content that are on the test–plus the important outcomes that the NAEP does not measure at all.

See also: deep in the thickets of test design (2011), some surprising results from the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment (2011), what did young voters know and understand in 2012? (2012), effects of debate, discussion, and simulation in k-12 schools, and persistent civic gaps (2013), CIRCLE’s release on today’s Civics results (2015),

what does the word civic mean?

I use the word “civic” every day. It is in the title of my college (The Tisch College of Civic Life) and the major that I direct (Civic Studies) and in the names of many topics and fields that I work on, from civic education to civic media.

But what does it mean? In my own mind, “civic” has certain associations and resonances, although I rarely articulate them. During a recent conversation with colleagues, I realized that most don’t hear the same meanings I do. I don’t blame them; there is no agreement about the definition, and the word has been used in many ways. I’ll turn to its history below.

Today, some people hear in the word “civic” a disciplinary intention, an effort to draw a boundary around respectable and approved behaviors (the “civic” ones). Sometimes it is almost synonymous with “civil.” In turn, “civility” sometimes means almost the same as “politeness.” People may use “civic” to identify approved behaviors, or else they may oppose the word as too restrictive and controlling.

Others want to make the word strictly empirical, rather than a value-laden adjective. Then “civic” may refer to a list of activities, from voting to marching in a protest–regardless of the participants’ values and goals. For example, a march would be civic whether the marchers were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Mussolini’s Brown Shirts. (But if we take this approach, why are certain activities on the list, and others not?)

I’d like to make space for a more inspiring use of the word that has deep historical roots. My dictionary-style definition would go something like this:

Civ’-ic. adj. 1. Of or pertaining to a group of relatively equal self-governing people. Hence, 2. virtues, values, or skills for self-government, e.g., civic courage, civic knowledge. 3. Assets belonging to or created by self-governing people, e.g., a civic forum. 4. Activities or other phenomena related to self-government, e.g., civic engagement, civic dialogue, civic education.

By a “self-governing people,” I mean to include all the citizens of any republican country, but not only such groups. A town or city within a larger country can have self-governing power. So can a voluntary association or even some kinds of firms; and they may be self-governing even if the states in which they operate are authoritarian. Thus, institutions of various types and scales can be civic.

The history of a word helps explain how it has accrued its diverse definitions and resonances.

The English word “civic” derives from Latin civicus, which primarily refers to relations among fellow members of the same city. In turn, the classical city (the polis or urbs) was self-governing: not usually egalitarian, but quasi-autonomous and governed by a deliberative assembly. So civicus always had echoes of a deliberative forum.

“Civic” enters the Romance languages to translate Latin texts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the very first use in English (1542) refers specifically to the ancient Roman oak-leaf-and-acorn garland awarded to men who had saved fellow citizens in war.

A kind of garland was its only meaning in English until the time of the Commonwealth, when Parliament overthrew the monarch and declared a republic. During this period, the Company of Mercers of the free city of London put on a pageant entitled “Charity Triumphant,” parading a female allegorical figure through the streets of the city. Edmund Gayton (“considered a hack writer” and then imprisoned for debt), published a long descriptive and celebratory poem about this pageant, including the sentence, “I cannot here set forth the reason of the late extinguishing these Civick Lights, and suppressing the Genius of our Metropolis, which for these Planetary Pageants and Pretorian Pomps was as famous and renouned in forraign Nations, as for their faith, wealth, and valour.”

Gayton probably deserves his obscurity, but he does seem to coined the word “Civick” in one of its important senses: “of, belonging to, or relating to a citizen or citizens; of or relating to citizenship or to the rights, duties, etc., of the citizen; befitting a citizen” (OED).

In his time, the English were enthusiastic about self-governance and the ideal of a commonwealth, itself a translation for “republic,” meaning the good that a people makes and owns together. Of course, this was also the period of Puritan self-governance in New England and the invention of important activities that we now naturally call “civic”: town meetings, local elections, and civic education, which Massachusetts had required in 1642.

Just one year later, in 1656, Blount’s dictionary defines “Civick” as “pertaining to the city.” Since then, one of its meanings has always been akin to “urban,” as in “Civic Center” for the name of a city’s convention hall. But I think that “the city” had a different original meaning. Now we think of large, dense municipalities. Originally, an urbs or polis was any autonomous community. For instance, the whole Massachusetts Bay Colony was meant to be a City on the Hill.

By 1747, “civic” was used to modify “virtue.” By the end of that century, the word “civique” (with similar associations) had become influential in France. According to the Constitution of 1791: “The Civic Oath (le serment civique) is: ‘I swear to be faithful to the Nation to the law and to the king and to preserve with all my power the Royal Constitution, decreed by the National Constituent Assembly for the Years 1789, 1790 and 1791.‘”

Across the Channel, Edmund Burke denounced the French revolutionaries who would overthrow traditional values and institutions, including religion. He added:

These enthusiasts do not scruple to avow their opinion, that a state can subsist without any religion better than with one; and that they are able to supply the place of any good which may be in it, by a project of their own—namely, by a sort of education they have imagined, founded in a knowledge of the physical wants of men; progressively carried to an enlightened self-interest, which, when well understood, they tell us will identify with an interest more enlarged and public. The scheme of this education has been long known. Of late they distinguish it (as they have got an entire new nomenclature of technical terms) by the name of a Civic Education.

Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

According to the OED, this was first use of the word “civic education” in English. It referred to a radically republican, secular, and patriotic project to which the author, Burke, was hostile. To bring civic education to England would be “the most dangerous shock that the state ever received.”

Thus the first English use of the phrase “civic education” was a denunciation. Yet the ideals that animated the French Revolution–self-governance, commitment to the common good–have deep resonances in England and the USA.

By the way, the word “civics” is a noun, in my opinion: short for “civic education.” It is often used adjectively in the phrase “civics education,” but I think that’s a grammatical mistake. In any case, “civics” is strictly American, and its first attested use is in the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1885: “Henry Randall Waite, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Civics, was the next speaker… The use of the word civics for political science was explained.”

In short, “civic” has many meanings, but some of the oldest and most recurrent ones refer to a republican ideal: concrete communities of people should decide and act together and develop the rules, values, resources, and habits necessary to succeed.

how have political science and k-12 civics diverged?

It’s risky to generalize about k-12 civics. In the USA, there are no national standards for civics, state standards tend to be incoherent and not firmly enforced, and textbooks divide the market. Some teachers in some classrooms present highly critical accounts of US politics. Others are committed to American exceptionalism and celebratory narratives. The whole woke-to-MAGA spectrum is represented.

Many k-12 teachers try to avoid adopting positions in the classroom by presenting only hard facts about the constitutional process or by organizing deliberative discussions in which many perspectives are honored. Yet even an ostensibly neutral approach must reflect choices about the most important questions, topics and themes.

It is also risky to generalize about the discipline of political science, which encompasses more heterogeneous subfields than most disciplines. Whole subcultures of political scientists strike me as pro-regime, while others are radical. (See this post for some observations about the balkanized profession.)

But I’d still tentatively hypothesize that the center of gravity in political science stands apart from the center of gravity for k-12 civics, especially if we look at mass-market textbooks and state standards documents for evidence about civics. And I’d suggest that these are the three main gaps:

  1. Political science has haltingly recognized a wider range of perspectives on American political history and institutions, giving more attention to women and people of color as political thinkers and critics. That has meant more attention to critiques of the US system, but also alternative ideals and visions of progress. Again, this generalization ignores woke high school teachers and conservative or traditionalist political science professors, but I’d still venture the generalization.
  2. Political science has widely embraced versions of the New Institutionalism. I have written a primer on that movement, but in essence, it finds that institutions rarely operate as intended because they have their own logics and incentives. This means that it is unlikely that the US government would work as its authors planned. James Madison was an early and brilliant institutionalist who designed constitutional provisions to prevent certain kinds of corruption and failure. But the New Institutionalism has vastly expanded the list of threats, and few political scientists would argue that the US Constitution’s design addresses all these threats in a satisfactory way. Much of the high school curriculum is designed to teach students why the framers designed our system to work as it does. Many political scientists would emphasize that it does not, and could not, work as intended but rather faces serious perils. By the way, here I am not referring to intended “features” of the original Constitution, such as white-male dominance. I am referring to unforeseen “bugs.”
  3. Political science has experienced the behavioral revolution. Human beings evolved to make decisions without full consideration of relevant facts and information, employing heuristics and biases and rationalizing our biases with cherry-picked reasons. It’s common in civics curricula to present a model of the citizen as an independent thinker who decides on the best policy and chooses the candidates who come closest to those views. At least according to political scientists like Achen & Bartels (Democracy for Realists, 2016), this model is a myth. Citizens inevitably join up with large groups and vote to demonstrate loyalty to their groups.

The solution to this gap is not to move k-12 civics all the way to the center of gravity of professional political science. For my taste, the professional discipline is too cynical, not sufficiently normative or interested in problem-solving. Exposing students to cutting-edge political science is unlikely to make them more active and efficacious citizens. A big dose of New Institutionalism plus Behaviorism could kill anyone’s interest in politics unless the insights of those movements can be combined with some creativity and optimism.

At the same time, to ignore the findings of modern political science is increasingly untenable. We need new combinations.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right; on teaching the US Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; and constitutional piety.

discuss impeachment in high school–but not only impeachment

As impeachment dominates the headlines, many social studies teachers are assigning it as a topic of discussion and analysis in their classrooms. That is appropriate. Since students and their families are already discussing impeachment, it is a great “hook” for teaching about the US Constitution and the media.

Students should learn how to analyze the issues of the day, and impeachment is a leading current example. If young people learn to make sense of impeachment—to understand the rules and institutions, select reliable news sources, and assess diverse opinions—they will be able to process current events for years to come.

The impeachment debate is also an opportunity for discussion in classrooms. A moderated conversation can model respect for facts and alternative views much better than the polarized and often superficial debates in the national media. As such, it can impart skills and values that are in scarce supply today.

On the other hand, the immense attention given to impeachment reflects deficits in our civic life. Although impeachment may be one good topic of discussion in a social studies classroom, it should not be allowed to dominate or convey the impression that all politics is like impeachment.

Many Americans perceive politics as being a struggle between powerful politicians in Washington, DC. Impeachment is a perfect example of this kind of politics.

Local and state-level journalism is near collapse; about half as many people work in newspaper newsrooms today as in 2008. But the national news media still draws huge audiences, particularly for commentary on national issues. Impeachment is just the kind of issue that plays best on cable news.

Americans identify strongly with political parties and often seem to act like fans of one party against the other. Impeachment is polarized on partisan lines, with almost all Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

National political leaders increasingly resemble celebrities—none more so than the current president, who was a celebrity for forty years before he ran for office. He is at the heart of the impeachment case.

Finally, the issues that draw the most attention are often the ones that give ordinary citizens the least to do. Impeachment is basically a matter for 535 members of Congress and the President and his staff. For everyone else, impeachment might be one factor that influences their vote in 2020, but most voters have already made up their minds for or against Donald Trump.

My Tufts political science colleague Eitan Hersh describes “political hobbyism” as “consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following …,  by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating.” He cites survey evidence that political hobbyism is extremely common, consuming two hours of every day for millions of Americans. Impeachment is a perfect issue for political hobbyists: every day’s headlines offer new fodder for opinions and emotions, but there is little actually to do. I would add that political hobbyists love to forecast elections and predict the results of today’s news, not to change the results by organizing. (I know this from personal experience, having some unfortunate hobbyist habits myself.)

The factors that make impeachment the dominant news story today—partisan polarization, a national storyline, celebrities, limited expectations for citizens, and appeal to political hobbyists—also prevent other issues from receiving the attention they deserve.

For example, last week, in the city where I live (Cambridge, MA), a new council was elected. The main issue was affordable housing, which had divided the previous council. This issue matters to students in Cambridge schools. Some come from families that face rising rents and could be forced out of town by gentrification; others could see their families’ wealth diminish if more affordable housing is built. Reasonable people who care about affordable housing disagree about the best solutions. The debate is heated and polarized, although not partisan in a city dominated by Democrats.

Each vote really matters in this local election with 22 candidates and only about 20,000 voters (about 24% of adult citizens). And there are other ways, apart from voting, for residents of all ages to influence the city’s housing stock. People can volunteer to build homes with Habitat for Humanity or bike to work instead of driving to address the parking shortage.

Yet the Cambridge council election received little coverage. No one has published an analysis of the impact of the recent election on the main issue, affordable housing. Even if social studies teachers in Cambridge Public School wanted to focus on the council election and the issues at stake, there would be no professional journalism they could assign as readings.

With these considerations in mind, I would make the following recommendations.

Social studies teachers should address impeachment, if only because teenagers will discuss it anyway, and students should be challenged to apply rigorous thinking and reliable information. But impeachment should not be the only issue they discuss during this academic year. It would be wise also to select other issues that are more local or otherwise offer more for students to do. These issues may also be less polarized or less partisan than impeachment.

While discussing impeachment, teachers should raise not only detailed issues about rules and processes in the US Congress but also broader and deeper questions: What is the rule of law? Why is power separated among branches of government? What does “due process” mean in a criminal trial, and should similar norms apply in impeachment?

An issue that interests me is the role of judgment in politics. Impeachment is not the straightforward application of law, because the Framers intentionally gave Congress the power to decide what should count as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Cynics would say that if impeachment is not determined by law, then it is simply an exercise of power by partisan politicians, who will demonstrate bias and vote according to their political self-interest. But can responsible politicians exercise judgment (as opposed to bias), and what does that look like?

Impeachment is an opportunity to understand the intentional design of the US Constitution and the principles that undergird it, such as separation of powers. Studying impeachment may therefore increase appreciation for the Constitution. At the same time, an intellectually serious study of impeachment raises critical questions about our founding documents. What should we conclude from the fact that no president has ever been impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate? Or the fact that the last president to be impeached, Bill Clinton, saw his popularity rise and paid no tangible price? Is impeachment useful?

More generally, are checks and balances working now that the parties are fully polarized, with no conservative Southern Democrats or liberal northeastern Republicans ready to vote with the other party? The Framers objected to the very idea of parties and might have expected a polarized two-party system to destroy their design. As the late Juan José Linz of Yale noted, no other system with a separately elected president and legislature has survived when the branches belong to different parties. Are we heading for dysfunction?

Finally, impeachment is a topic for deliberative discussion in classrooms that can impart worthy values and skills. But whether and how it works for deliberation may depend on context.

Given the deep polarization of the American public, students in some classrooms may hold unanimous opinions either for or against impeachment. In those cases, teachers should introduce alternative perspectives through readings and other sources. One goal is to break down stereotypes about the other side in the national debate. Liberal students should understand that not all opponents of impeaching President Trump are his enthusiastic supporters; some have concerns about the process. And conservative students should learn that some proponents of impeachment are conservatives who are concerned about the rule of law.

In other classrooms, opinion may be split, and then it is important to create a context for thoughtful, respectful discussion—deliberation more than debate. As national leaders model point-scoring, name-calling, blatant partisanship and self-interest, selective application of facts and principles, and mutual disrespect, we should expect more from our students.