The scope of civics education should expand beyond explaining how government works to include teaching students about the importance of becoming active participants and problem-solvers on a wide range of issues, U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr., Jr. said in a speech Wednesday at the National Press Club.
Pointing to minority figures who took stances based on their civic beliefs — from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King and Colin Kaepernick — King argued that schools have a special responsibility to prepare students for their role in a democracy. He said that purpose was one of the original goals for American public education, something that has become more important as the country becomes more diverse.
He called on schools and colleges to be “bold and creative in educating for citizenship,” and to make preparing students for civic duties “just as much a priority as preparing them to succeed in college and in their careers.”
King said data show that the vast majority of U.S. students have a dismal basic understanding of how government functions and that such ignorance continues into adulthood. Just a third of Americans know that Joe Biden is the vice president or can name even a single justice on the Supreme Court, King said.
The secretary’s remarks arrive in the waning days of a presidential election campaign that has been marked by voter dissatisfaction with both candidates, lagging enthusiasm for the political process among young voters, charges of voter fraud and what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump alleges is a rigged process.
King began his address by reemphasizing the importance of the ballot box.
“Voting is the cornerstone of freedom,” he said. “The right to vote undergirds all our other rights. To not vote is to turn your back on your neighbors and your community and your country.”
But voting alone is not enough, he said. Teachers should prepare students to become more involved in communities, to volunteer and to “think beyond our own needs and wants.” He urged educators to help students develop as writers and speakers who could engage leaders and fellow citizens.
While pushing for a deeper understanding of the Constitution and of how government operates at every level, King emphasized that the process and approach should not be partisan.
“Civic education and engagement is not a Democratic Party or a Republican Party issue,” he said. “Solutions to problems can and should be rooted in different philosophies of government. We have to make sure classrooms welcome and celebrate these different perspectives.”
King specifically addressed the role schools should play in developing citizens who will work to end violations of civil rights at the hands of police and courts, something he said is essential to changing police training to include bias identification and how to defuse tense situations. Educated citizens who take part in society, King said, will push to curtail racial profiling and end “discriminatory practices by prosecutors and courts that have a dire impact on poor people.”
King said it is important for students to be truly familiar with documents that have shaped America’s history, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech and Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The Common Core State Standards — which the Obama administration has supported — encourage teachers to immerse students in the study and analysis of original documents.
But it’s not enough to be able to quote from the documents, King said. Students need to know why they remain relevant.
“They need to be able to put themselves into others’ shoes, and to appreciate the different perspectives that have shaped our nation’s history,” he said. “We should teach students that slavery is not just a scar on our national character erased by the Civil War. We should teach them to acknowledge and wrestle with the ways that ugly legacy continues to shape our country and helps explain the treatment of people of color in America today.”
King urged schools to make civics a part of every class, not to treat it as an add-on. Students, he said, should be given opportunities to ‘do’ democracy.
“By getting involved in real issues, students learn that it is not enough to just shout about their disappointments and criticize the ideas of others,” he said. “They have to offer solutions. They have to work together to advocate for those solutions. They have to push to make sure the solutions are implemented. And they have to understand that change takes time.”