There’s much energy in the cosmos these days around civics education, history education, maybe even “patriotic” history and civics education. Raj Vinnakota’s project on behalf of several private foundations yielded an admirable “landscape analysis,” and the WW Foundation (née Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation) that Raj now heads launched a “civic spring” project to foster “hands-on civic learning” among young people.
The federally-funded “Education for American Democracy” road-mapping project led by iCivics and several other organizations is finalizing an impressive framework for strengthening history and civics education, and any number of other groups are buzzing with ardor to do something about the parlous state of that education—and of American civic life more broadly.
The problem is obvious, not only in NAEP data and other formal gauges of weak knowledge among Americans, especially younger Americans, about their country’s history, its government, its animating principles, and the urgency of doing something about major institutions, practices, and behavioral norms that seem to be crumbling even faster than the infrastructure.
Yet big bumps lie in the road to a solution. To my eye, three of them look big enough to break axles and wreck suspensions.
First, as we’ve done so often in the past, we may be asking too much of schools. Just about every time there’s a big problem on the minds of adults—drugs, STDs, nuclear proliferation, obesity, teen-age pregnancy, smoking, environmental degradation—we turn to the schools to tackle it and sometimes singlehandedly to solve it.
This never works. Schools, when they’re effective, are pretty good at teaching the three R’s, making young people literate and numerate, even giving them a decent grounding in science and (rarely) the humanities and arts. Schools are not powerful enough, however, to stop drug abuse or prevent obesity, much less to end climate change. They don’t occupy large enough places in kids’ lives. Clearing space in their curricula for adult causes will result in less attention to the things they’re (sometimes) good at. And—most worrying—when we assign one of these adult causes to the schools, we tend to let everyone else off the hook. Yet it’s almost always “everyone else” that’s causing the problem.
Second, as so often in the past, reforms in this realm are powerfully tempted to expect the federal government to take the lead and leverage the desired change in schools and, through them, in society. Plenty of politicians are available to make this popular cause their own and plenty of interest groups are available to endorse their moves. President Trump has already made his with a campaign pledge to “fully restore patriotic education to our schools.” But it’s not just the fellow in the Oval Office, whom many view as a major part of the reason we need better civics education. A billion-dollar bipartisan proposal in the House of Representatives would, in Education Week’s words, “dramatically increase the federal government’s investment in civics education” and “has a broad range of support from social studies and civics organizations and eyes a much larger role for the feds in this neglected content area.”
Sure, almost everyone wants more federal funding for their program or passion—the aforementioned road-mapping project, itself federally funded, is likely to end up calling for more action by Uncle Sam, too—but this is an especially brambly forest for him to stumble around in. The very same meltdowns in Washington (and in our politics more broadly) that are leading to such calls will inevitably politicize any federal response. Consider the first purpose set forth in the new House bill: helping schools “in selecting and making available to all students innovative, engaging curricula and programs in American civics and history that prepare them to understand American Government and engage in American democratic practices as citizens....”
Nothing whatsoever wrong with that until...well, until you begin to imagine political appointees at the Department of Education—doesn’t matter who’s president—drafting the regulations and organizing the peer reviews by which it gets decided what sorts of “curricula and programs” in civics and history will prepare school kids “to understand American government and engage in American democratic practices....” Think about it. Will those regs—and peers—change every time the education secretary is replaced or the White House changes hands or the relevant appropriations subcommittee adds another condition or limitation to the program’s funding?
Besides all that, just as entrusting grown-up problems to schools lets most adults off the hook, federalizing an education campaign tends to let states off the hook. States are where crucial decisions about academic standards, teacher preparation, student assessment, and school accountability get made. Legislators, boards of education, governors, and chief state school officers should be struggling—today, yesterday, tomorrow—with how to get their schools (within their aforementioned limits) to do better at this and to do so in ways that align with the priorities and values of the citizens of their states. Besides, Uncle Sam is legally proscribed from meddling in school curricula! And while I have plenty of issues with “local control” as practiced in the U.S. today, nearly two decades of painful experience since NCLB have left me even more wary of federal control.
Third, for all the earnest efforts at road-mapping and consensus building, several of which I’ve participated in, good education in history and in civics means very different things to different people. The “action civics” that many are passionate about kids engaging in is light years away from understanding “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.” Perhaps there ought not be any tension between “dispositions” and “knowledge” in this realm, but when you try to wedge something more into the K–12 curriculum, a teacher-prep program, or a state’s accountability regime, you have to make choices. Which will take precedence? Which will get more time, energy, and resources? Similarly, while it’s possible—highly desirable—to teach history in ways that bring out both the unum and the pluribus, both the “warts” and the fundamentally sound body that they adhere to, choices will again have to get made. Teachers don’t have time (or background knowledge) to try to harmonize the 1619 curriculum with the 1776 version, so either they’ll make a mishmash of it or someone downtown will end up deciding for them.
These are hugely fraught choices on the ground in real places, probably destined to destroy the fragile consensus that may be emerging around the 30,000-foot conviction that of course we should do “both/and.” They’re even more fraught when state leaders attempt to wrestle with them—and pretty much beyond imagining when turned over to Washington. Watch what happens the next time NAEP opens up its civics and history frameworks and assessments for updating! That hurricane will make today’s fracas over NAEP’s ELA framework resemble a spring shower.
So yes, I want better civics and history education as much as anyone (and have for longer than most). But I’m not sure my axles can withstand the bumps.