As if parents didn't have enough to worry about already, consider the Civics Crisis. It's real. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released earlier this month, found that one-third of high school seniors lacked a basic grasp of the principles of American government and that fully three-quarters were not proficient in civics.
Oh no, you say: Not another study showing our students aren't learning. Don't we have enough trouble just teaching kids to read, write and count? Can't civics wait?
In fact, civics is in the waiting room now, and that ought to be a national scandal. When the country began establishing public schools in the last century, the whole idea was that freedom depended on an educated citizenry. Civics wasn't an add-on. It was the whole point.
As the Project on Civic Education at the University of Texas noted in a recent report, more than a quarter of the states have provisions in their constitutions declaring in one form or another that "a system of public instruction is required because an informed and capable citizenry is vital to the preservation of a free and democratic government." But whatever the public documents say, few people talk about the schools in these terms anymore.
"Schools in many ways have lost their civic souls," says Terry Pickeral of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Pickeral was speaking at a conference organized here last week by the University of Maryland. It brought together educators and civic activists who think civic education should be reformed and pushed nearer the top of school priorities.
As often happens when a problem finally begins to penetrate the national consciousness, solutions are already emerging in communities around the country.
The North Carolina Civics Education Consortium, for example, has created an alliance of community and business leaders, educators and politicians to turn the teaching of civics into something more than desultory classes on how a bill becomes a law. Some of us actually think that subject still matters, but civics education needs to do more to engage students. The North Carolina project puts community leaders into the schools and draws students into the public issues of their communities.
Service learning programs, which encourage or require students to volunteer in community projects as part of their education, are on the rise all over the country, a good civic sign. But Pickeral argues that to have a real civic kick, service learning needs to be linked to teaching about public life and government.
The National Conference of State Legislatures, alarmed by the low esteem in which legislative politicians are held, is launching its own program to teach the merits of representative democracy.
Karl Kurtz, who directs the NCSL project, notes that some of the cynicism directed at public life is rooted in a view that partisanship is never about genuine differences and that most political acts involve "unprincipled deal-making and needless conflict."
These are not unknown in politics, but they are not the whole story. "The process is contentious," Kurtz says, "because it encompasses different and competing values, interests and constituencies, all of which are making claims on government or one another." Democratic government is about settling these conflicts through means short of violence--meaning argument, negotiation, voting and, sometimes, compromise. NCSL plans to pick a day when legislators from all over the country will visit schools in their districts to carry this message.
While they're there, teachers might give them an earful. Kenneth Tolo of the University of Texas project pointed out that half of civics teachers find existing textbooks inadequate and that supplementary materials are more exciting to students. But as Carole Hahn of Emory University noted, state policies often restrict what materials teachers can use in civics courses, and teachers are frequently encouraged to avoid controversial issues--the stuff of civic and political life--rather than engage them.
For anything to change in civics education, adults will have to care about the matter--and it's not clear in this cynical time that many of us do. "When students in the world's most powerful democracy cannot see the value of representative government," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized on the recent civics test results, "we need to rethink the culture we have created." Civic education feeds a more civically engaged culture. But a culture of civic disengagement may get the civics education it deserves.