Civic education vs. Constitutional education

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The day after Donald Trump eked out his win in the 2016 presidential election, American education was swept by a renewed enthusiasm for civic education. Skeptics could have been forgiven for wondering whether this enthusiasm was more about progressive catharsis and a nascent 2020 get-out-the-vote campaign than about fidelity to civic virtue.

Well, in 2020, in the aftermath of Biden’s narrow victory, we’re seeing our constitutional system put to the test. And it’s made it clear that the concerns which have dominated “civic education” in recent years are unequal to the challenge of securing free government, forging civic trust, or safeguarding liberty.

As we’ve seen daily since the election, the bulwark of free government is canvassing boards in Michigan that faithfully review vote tallies and ensure that elections are free and fair, regardless of their preferred outcome. It’s election officials in Georgia doing a rule-bound recount, even when partisans storm and complain. It’s federal officials investigating allegations of misconduct, even when that infuriates Democrats and the New York Times, and then reporting when the allegations ring hollow, even when that infuriates President Trump and his minions. It’s Republican election officials in deep blue states and Democratic officials in red ones striving to make the process work and to defend its results, year after year, even when they know they’ll almost certainly be disappointed by the results.

One only had to watch one official after another being slimed by President Trump and his allies to realize how vital this kind of backbone and discipline is to our system of government — and just how much fortitude those qualities can require. Unfortunately, these virtues have been pretty far removed from preoccupations of much contemporary civic education. In fact, much that passes for “civic education” has little time for these things.

Civic education today tends to focus on voting, protest, and the need to combat “injustice.” This is all to the good. But it leaves little room for stodgy notions of obligation, complexity, or the importance of respecting processes even when you don’t like the results.

Indeed, in a national survey of social studies teachers, the RAND Corporation found that barely half think it’s essential that students understand concepts like federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances, and a third don’t think it’s essential that students embrace civic responsibilities like voting and jury duty.

As a one-time high school civics teacher, I firmly believe that it’s vital to promote democratic participation. The past few weeks, though, have been a stark reminder that democratic government is about much more than who wins. It’s also about respect for rules, magnanimity, patience, and a bevy of other old-fashioned values.

Over the years, I’ve talked to plenty of progressive educators who decried Republican “obstruction” during President Obama’s tenure only to celebrate Democratic “resistance” during Trump’s. I’ve heard from a lot of professors of civic education about GOP “shenanigans” in filling Trump-era Supreme Court vacancies but nothing from them about how Senate Democrats altered the norms governing confirmation by blowing up the judicial filibuster to push through Obama appointees. And I’ve certainly heard from conservative teachers who lambasted Obama’s executive activism only to excuse Trump’s.

After the 2016 election, prominent Democrats — including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Jimmy Carter — deemed Trump an “illegitimate” president and insisted that his victory was illegitimate and the result of Russian collusion. Even after former FBI director Mueller’s two-year independent probe found no evidence of collusion, the attacks didn’t let up. Indeed, while 91 percent of Democrats say the 2020 presidential election was free and fair, just 43 percent say the same about the 2016 election. And, of course, spurred on by Trump’s self-pitying rants, while three-quarters of Republicans said the 2016 presidential contest was free and fair, barely a third view the 2020 contest similarly.

This kind of hypocrisy, grounded in our preferred policies and politicos, is a poisonous habit.

It’s doubly so for educators.

After all, the health of our republic depends on students learning that the norms of democratic government are important in their own right and that the legitimacy of institutions cannot depend on whether we like the outcomes. The American democratic tradition is not that we should expect to be happy with the outcome of elections but that we’ll get our say, our rights will be protected, and the practical consequences of an electoral loss will go only so far.

Telling students to support their favorite candidates or causes is important. It’s also pretty intuitive. To tell the truth, it’s the easy part of civic education. What’s harder and more important is teaching the habits of mind — not just the knowledge — that sustain the American system. This requires a fealty to laws, a respect for institutions, an appreciation for checks and balances, and the confidence that defeats are not cataclysmic.

As so often practiced, civic education just doesn’t aim high enough. That will require a vision of civics that’s unapologetically grounded in the harder stuff of constitutional education.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Civic engagement Civic virtue Civics education Courage democratic institutions Donald Trump election officials election workers Hillary Clinton Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Resilience social studies Vote counting

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