Category Archives: advocating civic education

college students’ civic knowledge “appalling” … in 1943

Thanks to a Twitter thread by historian Meredith Henne Baker, I read an article from The New York Times entitled “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen.” In that piece, Benjamin Fine reported the results of 7,000 surveys completed at a substantial set of participating institutions, from Boston University to Yeshiva College.

The results look pretty awful. “A large majority” could not answer questions about Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson, or Lincoln. Twenty-five percent did not know that Lincoln was president during the Civil War. Students’ geographical knowledge was also deemed poor: “Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like.” Asked about the Bill of Rights, many respondents named rights that are not in that document, including FDR’s four freedoms and women’s suffrage.

None of this sounds like news. We have surely heard it all before. See, for example, “Failing Grades on Civics Exam Called a ‘Crisis’” (New York Times, May 4, 2014).

The interesting point about Fine’s article is its date: April 4, 1943. He uses a lot more words than his 2014 successor, and he combines commentary with reporting in a looser or breezier style. Otherwise, these articles almost rhyme.

I might have expected the results to look better in 1943. College freshmen were a more elite subgroup of the young-adult population then, the curriculum was narrower (giving American history potentially a larger share), and the US was fighting a highly patriotic all-out war. But overall, the statistics looked no better in those days, and maybe worse than today.

When arguing for better civics and historical education, we should avoid the language of decline or current crisis. In reality, levels of civic and historical knowledge–as measured by such instruments–appear remarkably flat despite dramatic changes in education and society. These surveys and their specific questions are subject to debate; people know important things not reported in these articles. Still, it is worth seriously investigating why basic political and historical knowledge seem so persistently poor.

One implication is that quick and easy solutions are unlikely to work. Requirements for courses and tests have come and gone over the past 80 years, with sometimes statistically significant results but no fundamental change.

Another implication is that political reforms must accompany changes in education. Just to name one example, Gimpel, Lay & Schuknecht (2003) found that young people learned and knew more about politics if they grew up in competitive electoral districts rather than “safe” seats. Thus gerrymandering reform would help civic education. That is just an example of how civic knowledge has a demand side as well as a supply side. The more adults are invited to play consequential political roles, the more youth will seek and receive civic education. However, to empower citizens is usually a struggle, because it usually comes at the expense of current power-holders.

A third implication is that we would need bolder policy reforms to improve civic education substantially. Adding or removing a test may matter, but it is a pretty modest intervention. If knowledge of the political system and its history are truly important, we will need more than a course or test.

We have never really tried a sustained and coherent effort to set targets, enact requirements, educate educators, produce materials, assess students, evaluate programs, and improve all the inputs. Educating for American Democracy offers a roadmap for such an effort, and it would be unprecedented.

putting the constitution in its place

Newly in print: Peter Levine, “Putting the US Constitution in Its Place,” in Citizenship and Civic Leadership in America, edited by Carol McNamara and Trevor Shelly (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022), pp. 281-292.


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.

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?; constitutional piety, etc.

Transformative Learning and Civic Studies

Newly in print: The Palgrave Handbook of Learning for Transformation, edited by Aliki Nicolaides, Saskia Eschenbacher, Petra T. Buergelt, Yabome Gilpin-Jackson, Marguerite Welch and Mitsunori Misawa (2022).

Although I am not deeply knowledgable about Transformative Learning, a movement launched by the sociologist Jack Mezirow, I like its emphasis on learning as a lifelong process of transforming one’s perspective on society.

This volume includes a chapter entitled “Reconsidering the Roots of Transformative Education: Habermas and Mezirow” by Saskia Eschenbacher and me (pp. 45-58). Our abstract:

Jack Mezirow acknowledged the deep influence of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1929–) on the development of transformative learning. We describe some fundamental elements of Mezirow’s and Habermas’ thought, explore their affinities, and argue that Mezirow did not give adequate attention to two important themes in Habermas: the power and value of social movements and the need to reform the overall structure of a society to enable transformative learning. We argue that transformative learning would benefit from a deeper consideration of these topics. Finally, we introduce Civic Studies, a parallel intellectual movement that also owes much to Habermas, and we suggest a convergence.

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.