The end of one year and the start of another is an opportunity for renewal. Among the aspects of American life most in need of renewal is our commitment to civic education and engagement. It is essential for building the political will to grapple effectively with the complex challenges we face — from getting the relationships between police and communities right to combating the opioid epidemic to navigating the consequences of climate change. Yet worrisome signs of inadequate civic education for our students abound.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the “Nation’s Report Card,” recently showed that in 12th grade, only one in five students demonstrated a working knowledge of the Constitution, the presidency, Congress, the courts and how laws are made. A 2016 survey of American adults also found that about one out of every three respondents could not name a single branch of the United States government.
Getting civic education right requires attending to three critical things: students’ foundational knowledge, their skills and their inclination for civic action.
Students need to know the legislative process and the key themes and events of both American and global history. They need to be familiar with primary sources that have shaped our nation — including the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. And they need to understand why these texts remain relevant today.
Beyond knowledge, students need civic skills. They need to develop the ability to read analytically — dissecting an author’s arguments and analyzing evidence for claims — whether they are reading Thomas Jefferson or a contemporary article about health care reform. They need to be able to make sense of statistics, write persuasive letters to the editor or a member of Congress, effectively make the case for their ideas and learn to speak in public.
Students also need opportunities to do democracy — otherwise called “action civics” — by getting involved in real issues and learning through community service. Years ago, I taught a high school course called “The City Project.” Students completed an internship within a community organization and a research project based on a community need. They conducted surveys, interviews or focus groups and then studied history, sociology and economics to make sense of what they learned through their research. From building affordable housing to helping immigrants learn English, students developed a deeper understanding of community issues and took meaningful action to help their neighbors. They also developed a commitment to service, one I hope is life long.
Civic education also happens at home. My wife and I try to use every day opportunities to help our two daughters — now 11 and 14 — develop into engaged, active citizens. We loved reading “The Lions of Little Rock,” a beautiful young adult novel set in 1958 during intense conflict around school desegregation. The book created an opportunity to discuss with our children the history of the civil rights movement and the meaning of equality under the law. Similarly, watching the movie “Lincoln” created an opportunity to discuss the contradictions inherent in the nation’s founding, the Civil War, the Reconstruction amendments and America’s perpetual struggle to expand equal rights. Other powerful tools for our family’s civic learning include visits to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture; participation in last year’s Women’s March and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which we dedicate to a day of service.
But for our family the most powerful lesson in civic engagement is the example set by my uncle, Col. Haldane King. My uncle was a Tuskegee Airman, one of the first African-American pilots in the U.S. military in World War II. He suffered innumerable indignities because of his race, which could have diminished his faith in the promise America, but those experiences only deepened his resolve. When he returned home, he also experienced discrimination and wasn’t able to find work in the field in which he was trained. But he didn’t retreat into resentment. He became a firefighter — choosing again to risk his life for his fellow citizens. He returned to military service in the U.S. Air Force, rose to a position at the Pentagon, and later took on a series of public-service-oriented roles, always believing that America could become, in the words of the Preamble to the Constitution, “a more perfect union.” My Uncle Hal’s final resting place is at Arlington National Cemetery, but his values — including his unwavering commitment to civic engagement — live on in my family.
I strongly believe that none of the public policy problems we face in our nation — from the federal government’s rollbacks of civil rights enforcement to the need to increase access to quality preschool — can be solved without an informed and engaged citizenry. So, in 2018, consider how you can recommit to your vital role as citizen — whether that is attending community meetings, serving in a homeless shelter, helping register people to vote, volunteering at a school, or running for local office. You’ll become more enriched and, in the process, you’ll be making our communities and our country stronger for years to come.
John B. King Jr. is former U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration and president and CEO of The Education Trust. His quarterly guest column will run every other Sunday through mid January. His email is John.King@edtrust.org; Twitter: @JohnBKing.