(This was before President Trump did a virtual town hall at the Lincoln Memorial this week and declared he had been treated worse than Lincoln himself, reflecting his own unique view of U.S. history.)
Meanwhile, an annual survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania consistently shows 75 percent of the American public cannot name the three branches of government.
The authors of this post argue that civics and U.S. history are often taught as isolated facts that don’t really address what young people need to know to participate in the challenged American democratic experiment. They are Nicole Mirra, an assistant professor of urban teacher education at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and Antero Garcia, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.
By Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia
It’s that time again when flares are being set off across U.S. media outlets alerting the public to a crisis in civics and history education. These sirens blare at semiregular intervals whenever the country faces moments of reckoning about young people’s social and political knowledge. The most recent cause for alarm occurred with the recent release of scores from the 2018 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in those subjects.
The scores of a representative sample of U.S. 8th graders who took the exams were lackluster. Indeed, there has been little improvement in decades. Yet each time scores are released, politicians seize upon students’ shaky recall of specific historical facts to warn about impending civic doom. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in a statement, called the results “inexcusable,” declared, “In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about.”
It’s true that some students don’t know this answer. But here’s one thing they do know, and it’s more consequential for the future of democracy: our country is being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic on a greater scale than most of its global counterparts.
Young people are witnessing a hapless federal response and a patchwork set of mitigation measures from state and local leaders as civic institutions convulse. They cannot go to school. They see their parents losing jobs. And if they are black, Latinx, or indigenous, they see their communities getting sick and dying at outrageously disproportionate rates.
This is a profound civics lesson in real time.
Instead of accusing our young people of lacking what it takes to maintain and carry democratic institutions into the future, it’s time we take a hard look at the contradictions between what we tell them about this country and what they see with their own eyes. This reckoning is the first step to crafting more meaningful civic education.
The coronavirus pandemic lays bare two major weaknesses in traditional approaches to teaching civics and history — what students are expected to learn and how we measure that learning. Too often, these subjects are taught as a barrage of isolated facts disconnected from the realities young people face daily.
Furthermore, these facts are often couched within a blindly patriotic narrative that is alienating and, frankly, insulting, to young people from historically marginalized communities suffering from years of underinvestment or outright discrimination in housing, health care and education. Perhaps it is “inexcusable” to ask young people to parrot back information about dysfunctional institutions instead of eliciting their perspectives and ingenuity to build something stronger.
Youth are showing us another way — with young people of color leading the charge. Reports that try to paint them as disaffected are not capturing the vibrant media that they are producing with nonprofit organizations like YR Media or the Black Youth Project.
These reports do not consider the development of the #BlackLivesMatter or #dreamer movements that support multisite activist campaigns both online and in physical communities. While policymakers are stuck in an era in which student councils and food drives are the main activities that signal “good” citizenship, young people today are blazing new trails.
Instead of criticizing what they don’t know, adults are overdue to catch up to what young people do know and what they can do.
Educators and researchers are beginning this catch-up by developing innovative forms of civics education that invite young people to interrogate their society and develop creative approaches to engagement. The lived civics approach encourages young people to lean into the discrepancies they see between civic ideals and their civic realities.
The National Writing Project maintains online publishing platforms that allow youths from across the country to share ideas about social issues with their peers. Our own work in youths participatory action research demonstrates how powerful it is when young people have their concerns about their communities taken seriously and are given the chance to raise their voices for change.
As devastating as covid-19 has been and will continue to be for our country, it can also be a moment of possibility.
Civic initiatives once seen as untenable (freezing student loans, canceling standardized testing) are suddenly happening. If we want to ensure that post-pandemic America does not return to a dysfunctional and unequal “new normal,” we must provide young people with opportunities to dream beyond existing civic routines and structures and forge a new and better democracy than the one we’ve left them so far.