Civics education — like barbecue — should not be one-recipe-fits-all

Civics education — like barbecue — should not be one-recipe-fits-all
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There’s not a lot that right and left agree about right now, but one big thing is the sorry state of civil debate. Whether the fault lies with social media, institutional erosion, or something else, the result is the same: a nation of people who aren’t good at listening to ideas they don’t already hold, assessing them thoughtfully, and discussing them in respectful terms.

That helps explain the surge of interest in revitalizing civics education — although that interest too takes different shapes and is expressed in different terms on left and right and around the country.

Indeed, it may be useful to set aside the obvious left-right divides for a moment in order to focus on how different are the views to be found across this broad, diverse land.


While it may seem far afield, consider that hotly debated touchstone of Americana: barbecue. With barbecue, there’s a broadly shared notion of the goal — to cook an enjoyable meal, usually involving protein — but lots of different views on just what “enjoyable” entails and how to get there. With barbecue, the differences pertain to decisions about sauce, cooking style, cut of meat, and more. With civics, the differences pertain to what students are expected to know, how it’s taught, what students are asked to do, and so forth.

For the longest time, civics instruction emphasized knowledge: how Congress creates laws, what the Supreme Court does, how federalism works, what’s in the Bill of Rights, and so forth. That focus was healthy, as far as it went, if poorly executed. Today, essential knowledge about civics (and U.S. history) are elegantly distilled into the hundred questions asked of immigrants seeking to be naturalized as U.S. citizens. (Last year, the Trump administration substituted a more challenging 128-question version. Recently, the Biden administration reverted to the 100-question version first used in 2008.) We love those questions, both versions of them, and believe that students who can answer them before graduating high school are far better prepared for citizenship. Kudos to the Joe Foss Institute (now part of Arizona State University) for encouraging states to make passing that test a requirement.

Yes, we’re knowledge junkies. But we also understand that cramming kids with information is just the beginning. Especially when it comes to civics, it’s crucial that students also understand what they know and why they’re learning it.

Students need to be able to wrestle with big questions and formulate their own answers. In civics, in particular, they also need to learn how to function as citizens and why it’s important that they learn to do so.

The “roadmap” for teaching civics and U.S. history recently released by the “Educating for American Democracy Project” does a nice job of posing those questions in ways that teachers can turn into curricula and lessons across the primary and secondary grades. The authors term it “an inquiry-based” approach that’s “organized by major themes and questions, supported by key concepts.” The upshot is an emphasis on questions rather than answers, making the roadmap more malleable to state and local (and school- and teacher-level) priorities. We think this is a healthy thing, much as a nationwide roadmap for barbecue would be better off guiding would-be chefs through the many regional preferences rather than insisting that (say) “barbecue sauce requires mustard.”

The roadmap points, we think, to sound core principles for civics (and history) education. It features unapologetic discussions of patriotism, Constitutional democracy, and virtue, and American students certainly need more of those.

At the same time, one of its principles calls for “inspir[ing] students to want to become involved in their constitutional democracy and help to sustain our republic.” While we like the sentiment, the phrasing here leans into the contentious realm known as “action civics.” Things get heated in that area because, while there are plenty of sensible ways to engage kids in practical civics, there are also too many examples of the push toward “action” conscripting students into progressive issue advocacy. By contrast, it’s hard to find examples of students being allowed — much less encouraged — by their schools and teachers to mobilize for right-leaning causes.

Things get even more contentious because some of today’s ardent civics reformers seek to involve Uncle Sam in backing their efforts, especially via the billion-dollar Educating for Democracy Act. Much of the funding it authorizes would flow by formula to states, with the rest going directly to some of the many organizations active in the civics field. And anyone familiar with this space would note that more than a few of the organizations eager to pocket federal dollars seem intent on using taxpayer resources to turn more kids into like-minded activists and agitators.

Of the Educating for Democracy Act, Emory professor Mark Bauerlein has written, “It’s standard left-wing practice to speak in traditional liberal terms while letting radical content filter into a project at the implementation stage, after public attention has waned.” National Review’s Stanley Kurtz has repeatedly raised similar cautions. And the National Association of Scholars has formed a “coalition to stop action civics.”

These critics are not wrong to flash a warning light, particularly if Uncle Sam gets involved. We’ve lived through too many painful examples where the federal embrace turns a legitimate state-and-local (or private) initiative into a political football.


Ultimately, all civics instruction needs to teach essential knowledge about civic responsibilities, constitutional rights, and how republican government works. Beyond that, as with barbecue, there are going to be dozens of recipes. While we worry about the versions of action civics that may hold sway in some deep blue outposts, our real concern is the prospect of woke bullies using federal funds and clout to push their agendas on unwary and unwilling communities across the land.

The “roadmap” offers a potentially constructive path forward, one that will necessarily be interpreted and implemented in different ways around the country. Some of those ways we will assuredly applaud, others we’ll deplore. That’s the American system in action. Hell, it’s not a bad lesson in civics, all by itself.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is the president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.