Common ground on civics education matters — now more than ever

Common ground on civics education matters — now more than ever
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Amidst the coronavirus pandemic and resultant national shutdown, one thing is abundantly clear: An effective response requires shared sacrifice and cooperation — in other words, a strong civil society. Yet, in a time of political polarization and distrust in government, questions about the strength of our civil society — and the education system charged with cultivating it — loom large.

The divide over civics education has been on full display recently, most notably in the back-and-forth over the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project. In the halcyon days before COVID-19, this collection of essays and curricular materials — which argue that the American founding should be understood not as 1776 but as the 1619 arrival of a slave ship — triggered a raging controversy.

Advocates touted a much-needed effort to reframe the familiar, whitewashed history of the American “slavocracy” and dismissed critics as fusty, defensive racists. Critics saw a malignant attempt to spread falsehoods and “delegitimize” core American values, attacking project creator Hannah Nicole-Jones as an agenda-driven, destructive ideologue.

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That divide reflects how many public debates have played out in recent years — quickly reducing to culture war tropes. In the case of civics education, that division has taken on an ironic cast: Efforts to instruct students in civic responsibility and civil society have been complicated by the performative bickering we want young Americans to transcend.

It can seem as if right and left can’t agree on anything. Yet, it’s worth remembering that the heated barbs populating social media aren’t representative of the nation as a whole. Indeed, most Americans — on left and right alike — hold less extreme views than their opponents imagine. It turns out that when we sit down across from one another, there’s more room for agreement — and more clarity on where we do disagree — than one might presuppose from the “1619” dust-up or similar fights over campus speech or Advanced Placement U.S. History.

Of course, finding common ground frequently takes some doing. Indeed, it typically requires the kind of sustained face-to-face conversation that’s not possible over social media — or in the face of COVID-19 right now.

Last winter, however, before the current crisis, we had the opportunity to host conversations about the state of civics education with a remarkable cross-section of leaders from education policy and practice. Represented in the room were: the Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations; the two major teachers unions; academia; educators; and left- and right-leaning advocacy groups.

When it came to civics, it turned out that the left and right could find agreement on several counts, as we explain at some length in a recent essay. Here we think it’s worth highlighting three points that seem particularly relevant as the nation rallies in response to our current crisis.  

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First, left and right agree that schools have historically done a poor job of teaching civics — and especially of teaching students about slavery, racism, and discrimination. While conservatives voiced misgivings about the 1619 Project’s desire to “reframe American history,” they saw a real need to enrich the narrative. Those on the left, for their part, supported balancing instruction on America’s “original sins” with instruction on America’s virtues. While the “correct” ratio of “America’s failing” to “America’s virtues” is unclear, there was confidence that some rough, appropriate balance could be found.

Second, while left and right differed on what should be taught in civics classrooms, they agreed that hot-button issues should not be taught without thoughtful preparation. After one academic told of a high school teacher hosting a debate on abortion on the second day of the school year, both camps agreed that such a move was irresponsible — that there are some topics that teachers should only broach after carefully laying groundwork for a civil and disimpassioned discussion.  

Third, there was agreement that “American values” are aspirational, a pursuit embraced against a backdrop of imperfection. While progressives raised concerns about preaching “American values,” they were more comfortable with expecting students to appreciate American ideals like equality and justice and the blessings of living in a constitutional democracy. It may not be possible to fully codify “American values,” but it’s clear that there are some virtues that right and left want nurtured in the nation’s classrooms.

There are, of course, real disagreements between left and right when it comes to civics education. But as civic cooperation and shared sacrifice loom so large in our present moment, our disagreements seem smaller than they did even two months ago.

Like it or not, our common fate is very much in one another’s hands. Here’s hoping that, guided by that realization, we can work together to equip our youth for the challenges ahead.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Rice is a research assistant at AEI.