Civic Engagement Is Not Civics Education

Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull (CC-By-SA 2.0)

I recently wrote at Caffeinated Thoughts about a survey taken of school leaders and their thoughts about civics education in their school. The results were eye-opening, but I only wanted to highlight a couple takeaways I was reminded of when I read an opinion piece by former Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) at The Hill.

First, 52 percent of school leaders believe they don’t spend enough time on civics education while 48 percent think they spend the right amount of time on it. No one felt like they spent too much time on civics education.

Second, only 27 percent of school leaders believe that the Constitution and constitutional rights are the most important topics to emphasize in civics education. 31 percent believe current events and their connection to civics is the most important topic to emphasize. 22 percent think civic participation and voting is the most important thing to emphasize.

Israel, in his piece entitled “America is waging a civic war,” wrote:

A 2015 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center revealed that one in three Americans thought that the Bill of Rights includes the “right to own your home.” But actually, that is heartening, considering that 12 percent of respondents in the survey believed it includes the “right to own a pet.”

When Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the U.S. citizenship exam in 2011, more than a third failed the civics portion, and 29 percent were unable to name the vice president. According to a 2012 study by the Center for the Study of the American Dream, 85 percent of respondents did not know the meaning of the “rule of law.”

We are in a state of civic crisis. The answer, some say, is promoting “civic engagement” in schools. I agree, but “civic engagement” takes different forms. At a rally in Tampa, the president of the United States incited rage at the free press. The media cameras captured the moment when some people in the crowd turned towards them, with middle fingers raised and mouths hurling obscenities. These rallies may not be civil engagements, but they are expressions of passionate civic engagement.

He emphasized learning and doing, but what he promoted in his piece is the same type of education reform we saw with Common Core – the elevation of skills and action above knowledge. In the school leader’s survey, we see the same as well. More school leaders combined believe that current events and “civic engagement” are the most important topics to emphasize within civics education, not the Constitution or our constitutional rights.

How can we expect our students to think critically about current events or engage in civic life without a foundation of knowledge? What will they base their opinion or engagement on? Popular opinion? The teacher’s political point of view? 

Both Israel and the school leaders cite the student protests after the Parkland shooting as a model but evidenced by a number of the things those student leaders said it was quite evident they lacked foundational knowledge. Passion does not overcome ignorance.

If the focus of civics education is going to be on civic engagement and kids responding to the events of the day don’t bother, that’s not civics education. Civic engagement should be a byproduct of a solid civics education grounded in our founding documents and writing, not its focus.

One thought on “Civic Engagement Is Not Civics Education

  1. Congressman Steve Israel’s allegation that President Trump “incited” rage among a crowd against the media and “some” turned on the media with middle fingers, “hurling obscenities” at them, needs to be proven. If he wants to play tit for tat about foul behavior among political followers, let’s go for it. For example, let’s compare numbers of individuals involved and n such crude behavior. Personally, I want to see a video of this particular incident.

    Civics education must also focus on propaganda methods with loaded verbs used to elicit specific, physical responses, such as “incited rage.” Proof with dates, places, and those involved must be named in every instance.

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