Category Archives: advocating civic education

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.]

NAEd Report on Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse

The National Academy of Education (NAEd) is releasing its report on Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse. I was on the Steering Committee along with eight wonderful colleagues, and many more scholars contributed to writing the document. You can attend a public forum to hear more about it on May 3, 2021, 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm Eastern Time. Register here.

I’d describe this report as a response to problems of polarization, incivility, motivated reasoning, propaganda, and strained democratic institutions, along with racial injustice and other social crises. It is a response from the learning sciences, with papers by specialists on learning, schooling, and human development. In contrast to the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, this report is more about how to teach (rather than what to teach); and it addresses education broadly, not just the disciplines of history and civics, which are the focus of the Roadmap. I worked on both projects simultaneously and benefited from the two perspectives.

Aficionados of Civic Studies will recognize this definition from the NAEd report:


Early in its work, the National Academy of Education (NAEd) Committee on Civic Reasoning and Discourse agreed on a shared definition of civic reasoning and discourse to guide the development of this report. The central question guiding the formulation of this definition concerns “What should we do?” and the “we” includes anyone in a group or community, regardless of their citizenship status. To engage in civic reasoning, one needs to think through a public issue using rigorous inquiry skills and methods to weigh different points of view and examine available evidence. Civic discourse concerns how to communicate with one another around the challenges of public issues in order to enhance both individual and group understanding. It also involves enabling effective decision making aimed at finding consensus, compromise, or in some cases, confronting social injustices through dissent. Finally, engaging in civic discourse should be guided by respect for fundamental human rights

an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany

In this video, I offer a very broad introduction to civic education in the USA–framing my remarks historically. Essentially, I trace a tradition of experiential, community-based civic learning that runs from de Tocqueville through Jane Addams to Dorothy Cotton and onward; and a tradition of studying civics in school that really takes off with Horace Mann. These two traditions intertwine, and John Dewey is an important bridge between them. I argue that neither is in very good condition today.

Then Bettina Heinrich, from the Protestant University of Applied Sciences Ludwigsburg, gives an overview of “politische Bildung” (political education or development) in the Federal Republic of Germany, focusing on the post-War period. We both note significant mutual influence between these two countries.

Another event will follow this one:

“Growing Up Across the Pond” (May 3, noon US Eastern Time) will be more about the general context for youth in Germany and the USA today. (You can register here.)

These are both open events, meant for anyone who is interested. They are also introductory events for people who might want to join The Transatlantic Exchange of Civic Educators (TECE), which “will bring together German and U.S.-American extracurricular civic learning professionals to unlock opportunities for mutual learning and reintroduce a transatlantic dimension to the field.”