The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’re teaching our students not to care about democracy

Empty classroom with no students Globalstock/iStock (G/obalstock/iStock)

He proposed a religious test on immigration, promised to "open up" U.S. libel laws and revoked press credentials of critical reporters. He called for killing family members of terrorists, said he would do "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding" terrorism suspects and suggested that a U.S.-born federal judge of Mexican heritage couldn't be neutral because of his ethnicity. He whipped up animosity against Muslims and immigrants from Mexico, branding the latter as "rapists."

When protesters interrupted his rallies, he cheered violence against them. He told a political opponent that if he won, he would "get a special prosecutor to look into your situation," adding "you'd be in jail." He threatened not to respect election results if he didn't win and, in Idi Amin fashion, made the claims of a strongman: "I alone can fix it." He publicly expressed admiration for authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cherished notions of religious freedom, a free press, an independent judiciary and the rights of minorities took a beating from him. The prospect of mob violence in his defense and imprisoning of political opponents found favor.

With all that, Donald Trump became the nation's 45th president in an election marred by stealth interference from a foreign adversary, Russia, and with the support of millions of voters who survey data show were influenced by the toxicity of racism.

How did a pluralistic nation that propounds democratic values and practices come to this?

“This” not being the authoritarian in the White House who dismisses basic constitutional principles as if they were annoying gnats, but “this” — an electorate that looks past the disrespect shown toward democratic ideals.

That haunting question has occupied the minds of Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, two education scholars and writers who began to take a hard look at this fundamental domestic challenge long before November’s results came in.

Janey, former superintendent of schools in our nation’s capital, as well as Newark, N.J., and Rochester, N.Y., and now senior research scholar at the Boston University School of Education, traces the problem close to home: public schooling. So, too, does Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, author of six books and editor of 10 foundation volumes.

I sat down with both this week to discuss what they regard as an American democracy under severe strain. Kahlenberg observed that public education that ought to help prepare students for citizenship in a democracy is coming up short. He cited a recent survey in which two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government; only a third could identify Joe Biden, who at the time was the vice president, or name a single Supreme Court justice.

Janey observed that U.S. schoolchildren educated in what are essentially apartheid schools divided by class and race get a mixed message about equal political rights and American values.

Together, they spelled out the scope of the challenge in their joint Century Foundation report released in November, "Putting Democracy Back into Public Education." The report was boiled down in an article in the Atlantic, "Is Trump's Victory the Jump-Start Civics Education Needed?" published at the same time.

Simply put, Janey and Kahlenberg argue that our “schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”

They said today’s schools turn themselves inside out trying to prepare “college-and-career ready” students who can contend with economic globalization and economic competition and find a niche with private skills in the marketplace.

As for preparing them for American democracy? Raising civics literacy levels? Cultivating knowledge of democratic practices and beliefs with rigorous courses in history, literature and how democratic means have been used to improve the country? Not so much or maybe not at all, they suggest.

The authors point out that in 2013, "the governing board of the National Assessment for Educational Progress dropped fourth- and 12th-grade civics and American history as a tested subject in order to save money."

It’s okay to test kids crazy in math and reading. Civic education? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Watch as jaws drop at these findings from a 2011 World Values Survey, which Kahlenberg and Janey noted in the Atlantic: “When asked whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase of one-third from a decade and a half earlier.”

Skills for the private workplace? Essential. So, too, the skills for workplace democracy.

But the declining civic portion of public education, maintain Kahlenberg and Janey, is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.

Read more from Colbert King's archive.

Read more on this topic:

George F. Will; Higher education is awash with hysteria. That might have helped elect Trump.

The Post’s View: Making history and civics a priority

Reid Wilson: Can you pass the U.S. Citizenship Civics Test?

John Gastil and Hollie Russon Gilman: These civic experiments are getting citizens more involved in governing themselves