How the United States can pass Civics 101


The “Nation’s Report Card” is in, and it’s dismal. According to the most recent analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than a quarter of U.S. high school seniors demonstrate proficiency in civics, and just 12 percent of them meet that standard for U.S. history. The figures are only modestly better for students in grades 4 and 8.

Adults aren’t doing much better.

According to a survey last August, only 51 percent of adults were able to name all three branches of government (up from 39 percent in 2019) and only 54 percent understood that a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court becomes the law of the land. Meanwhile, only 17 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government “to do the right thing,” either “just about always” or “most of the time,” down from about 75 percent in 1958.

We believe that a more robust civics curriculum is essential to American democracy.

While Republicans and Democrats are bitterly divided on many issues, leaders of both parties appear to agree on this topic. With this in mind, Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) recently introduced a bill calling for an annual investment of $1 billion “to support and expand access to civics and history education in schools across the country.”

Unfortunately, there is sharp disagreement about what should be taught and how. Recent debates over the New York Times 1619 project and the report of former President Trump’s Advisory 1776 Commission, two radically different approaches to the teaching of American history, illustrate the problem.

Building on the detailed recommendations released last month by the non-profit Educating for American Democracy (with financial support from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment of the Humanities), we recommend a conceptual framework that will help students acquire political literacy, learn interpretive rigor, and understand the nature of historical contingency.

Some definitions and some sample modules:

Political literacy involves a basic understanding of how government is structured and how the American political system operates. It includes an understanding of the three branches of government, their functions, the role of checks and balances, federalism (the exclusive and overlapping powers of states and the national government), the relationship between majority rule and minority rights, the role of political parties, the significance of the rule of law, and major issues now facing society. Sample modules: Trace the origins, uses, and impact of the filibuster. Explain debates over the president’s authority to launch military attacks without congressional authorization.

Interpretive rigor refers to the ability of students to think critically, identify legitimate sources of information, evaluate evidence and competing arguments, and form their own independent views. Sample modules: Using statistical evidence and other interpretive tools, identify policy options to help the United States combat climate change and assess the risks and rewards of using a coronavirus vaccine that might cause blood clots in a very small percentage of people.

Historical contingency refers to an understanding that institutions and events emerge from the interplay of a wide range of factors over time; they are not predetermined. And political judgments should always be open to revision based on dialogue, argument, and evidence. Contingency in history also reminds us that individuals and groups play pivotal roles in preserving and promoting democratic principles. Sample modules: Was the Civil War inevitable and, if so, when and why did it become inevitable? How did reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries repeal voting restrictions based on property qualifications, race and gender?  What options did U.S. policy makers consider or ignore at different points during the Vietnam conflict?

By including modules for learning outcomes built around historical case studies and contemporary examples, accompanied by interpretations by authors with different points of view, teachers can bridge some of the current partisan divide.

Such modules may also help students avoid the traps of binary thinking. Students should understand, for example, that there are many ways to address immigration other than building a wall or abandoning all restrictions at the southern border. Similarly, students should learn that just because a two-party winner-take-all system is dominant in the United States does not mean that democracies cannot or should not employ other approaches, such as ranked choice voting or proportional representation.

Bolstering civics and history education in the United States is not inevitable. But if we are to revitalize American democracy, it is urgently necessary.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.

Tags 1776 Commission Chris Coons Civics education Democracy Donald Trump John Cornyn Literacy Teaching The 1619 Project U.S. history

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