The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack is holding its hearings while democracy is declining, both in the United States and globally. No matter how thorough the hearings may be, they can’t fix the long-term decline in civic knowledge and civic education in the United States — how Americans learn about values, rights and obligations that shape how they engage with their communities and their democracy.
Both have been declining for decades. That hurts citizens’ abilities to make informed judgments about civic life. But research finds evidence that some approaches to information literacy can boost civic learning.
Framers of the Constitution saw democracy and education as linked
One of the reasons the United States first offered free public education was to prepare active participants in democracy. James Madison believed that education was essential to citizenship, writing in 1822, “[A] people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” A century later, John Dewey, one of the country’s leading philosophers of education, wrote that “a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.”
As public schools developed after the Civil War, they added formal civics instruction partly to help new immigrants’ civic assimilation. By the middle of the 20th century, high school civics typically included several courses in U.S. history and government.
That changed during the last half of the 20th century, as the nation faced such events as the Vietnam War, the space race and the developing global economy. To meet these, schools de-emphasized civic education to focus more on math, science and foreign languages. By 2002, when the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandated regular math and reading tests, civic education was only a small part of K-12 curriculums — which declined still further as schools changed curriculums to meet that federal law’s requirements.
Americans don’t have enough general civic knowledge to dismiss disinformation
In the United States, more individuals than ever are completing high school, college and more. But few middle and high school students are proficient in civics. A 2018 report by the nonpartisan Center for American Progress found that only nine states and D.C. require a full year of high school civics. An equal number of states required none. National assessments find that fewer than 25 percent of U.S. eighth-graders have the basic civics proficiency needed to understand how their government works. And Congress spends 1,080 times more on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs — approximately $54 per student per year — than on civic education, which receives five cents per student per year. All this has consequences, including Americans’ willingness to believe misinformation and disinformation, including the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, as the figure below suggests.
U.S. universities aren’t filling the gap
It’s widely conceded that the Big Lie gained traction in part because today’s media environment enables Americans to tune into only those sources whose views they share. But another factor is that a lack of robust civic education means many citizens don’t know the Constitution’s elections provisions; the myriad local, state and federal safeguards in place against voter fraud; or the ways that state and local election administration made widespread election tampering really unlikely.
As K-12 civic education has flagged over the years, U.S. universities might have filled the gap. A decade ago, a U.S. Department of Education task force did call on higher education institutions to affirm their democratic missions and commitment to civic education.
Overall, they did not. By one account, colleges and universities worked to get students more involved in their communities, but relatively few invested in increasing civic education. Fewer than one in five U.S. colleges and universities even requires a course in U.S. history or government.
Renewing civic education
Civic education has been further hurt recently as some legislators and their allies restrict topics that civic educators can discuss in public schools. These policy decisions reduce schools’ ability to graduate informed and active citizens, as Madison and Dewey thought necessary to maintain democratic norms, practices and institutions.
As a result, some researchers have begun to reimagine successful civic education. Research suggests that traditional approaches to civic education are necessary but not sufficient to overcome the falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation flooding U.S. political discourse or to reverse democratic decline. All that bad information has increased individuals’ distrust in political institutions and in one another, researchers find.
Teaching basic facts alone probably won’t solve these problems. That’s because when people hear information that conflicts with their prior beliefs, they often simply dismiss it. Fortunately, recent scholarship suggests that if civics teachers cover media literacy skills, students tend to learn critical thinking and digital evaluation skills needed to assess political information and apply it to civic life.
Other research suggests that some traditional civic education methods, actively practicing democratic skills, can measurably improve students’ knowledge of and willingness to participate in democracy. Such hands-on experiences include getting students involved in school government and administering school elections, offering chances to lead school or community organizations and having them serve in a model United Nations simulation or in a mock trial.
Civic education could help reverse democratic decline
The Jan. 6, 2021, attack was the first time that violence was used to halt an electoral vote count in an effort to overturn a U.S. presidential election. It came in part because of years of declining civic knowledge and trust and increasingly compartmentalized information ecosystems. Revitalizing U.S. democracy to avoid more such political violence may need more than congressional hearings.
Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Angus King (I-Maine) recently reintroduced the bipartisan Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would invest in state and local civic education. Of course, local school boards and civic leaders could launch such efforts without waiting for congressional investment, if they wish to help restore Americans’ understanding about their part in running U.S. democracy.
Katherine M. Robiadek is assistant professor of political science and director of the Martha E. Church Center for Civic and Community Engagement at Hood College.
Carah Ong Whaley (@carahong) is vice chair of the American Political Science Association’s Civic Engagement section.
Lauren C. Bell (@rmcpsci) is professor of political science and dean of academic affairs at Randolph-Macon College, and co-author of “The U.S. Congress: A Simulation for Students” (2nd ed.) (Cengage, 2022).