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.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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