Civics education should be about more than just facts

The American flag is changed for a new one on the Capitol building during inauguration ceremonies swearing in Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., January 20, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar - HT1ED1K1E2RCE

Chester E. Finn, Jr. of the Fordham Institute recently published a critique of the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education. This post briefly responds to his primary critique.

Finn laments that the report espouses a view of civics education in which knowledge doesn’t really matter. That isn’t what the report says. We agree with Finn that building a strong foundation of knowledge is essential. In our view, a well-rounded civics education develops students’ civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Developing skills and dispositions alone—without instilling a basic knowledge of government, history, and more—would leave students with the desire and skillset to participate constructively in political life without having a core of information and context to guide that participation. That isn’t a desirable outcome, and the report is clear on that point.

Where we disagree with Finn—strongly—is his apparent view that preparing students for civic life is really just about instilling facts. We think that an honest, careful look at the country right now exposes that view as misguided and even dangerous.

The list of what ails the U.S. politically today is long and complicated, with problems as different as vast economic inequality and gerrymandered congressional districts. But if we’re honest with ourselves, many of the country’s most serious problems exist within us, in the hearts and minds of its people. We shelter ourselves from perspectives and facts that disagree with our own. Our politics seem more rooted in contempt and schadenfreude than empathy and reason. Politicians exploit racial, ethnic, and class divisions, leaving many Americans feeling even more targeted and disenfranchised. And a foreign adversary disseminates false information through social media because it believes that Americans cannot (or won’t really care to) distinguish reality from manipulative fiction.

Those are shortcomings in our skills and dispositions. Do public schools have a role to play in developing them? We believe they do. Schools, more than any other public institution, are charged with preparing students for the responsibilities of civic life. Parents play a critical role, too, but schools are better positioned to ensure that all children have a core set of experiences. This includes developing skills that might not be on parents’ radar, like how to evaluate news disseminated over social media. Believing that schools ought to sharpen students’ civic skills and dispositions isn’t, as Finn suggests, a product of political correctness run amok, nor is it an inherently left-of-center idea. Americans have long seen this kind of thing as a core function of schools, and even Milton Friedman’s argument for vouchers is built on a notion that schools ought to instill a common set of values.

Perhaps Finn’s critique is that teaching facts is the way to develop civic skills and dispositions, or that students develop these skills and dispositions without schools teaching them explicitly. Perhaps rather than directly teaching news and media literacy or providing students with opportunities to engage in and experience the political process, schools should stick to teaching facts and modeling nice behaviors. We see that as a missed opportunity. While more causal research in civics education is certainly needed—and made difficult by the challenges of tracking long-term civic outcomes—we see little reason to believe these skills and dispositions will develop so indirectly or serendipitously. Schools can help students see how they can engage civically, what it can do for them, what the practice of democracy looks like, and what skills it requires. This perspective is informed by analysis and recommendations from many leaders in this field, as we discuss in the report.

Finn raises a particularly strong objection to our discussion of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) framework that some states have used to develop or modify their civics standards. Finn dislikes the C3 framework for what he believes is a dearth of factual, substantive content.

That criticism would be fair if the C3 framework were intended as a substitute for state content standards. It isn’t. As the authors of C3 note: “This Framework does not include all that can or should be included in a set of robust social studies standards, and intentionally preserves the critical choices around the selection of curricular content taught at each grade level as a decision best made by each state.” The purpose of the framework is to provide states with resources to update their standards such that students develop core competencies through their coursework. It exists to complement, not replace, content standards.

Although Finn thinks we are in “cloud-cuckoo land” for putting stock in the C3 framework, we should note that the standards were written by an interdisciplinary team of 17 scholars in collaboration with a long list of professional organizations, including the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, National Council for the Social Studies, National Geographic Society, and American Bar Association. Our review indicates that about half of the states have used this framework. Moreover, we discuss the C3 framework to supplement our analysis of states’ alignment with another model—the “Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning”—that has drawn a great deal of recent support from leaders in this field.

Stepping back, we did not mean to imply—nor did we say—that civics knowledge is irrelevant or that the C3 framework (or any other framework) is flawless or sufficient. In fact, our view is that students need the type of content that Finn describes. Our concern is that the civic mission of schools has been lost in an era that has placed such dominant emphasis on math and reading proficiency and the important-but-incomplete goal of preparing students for college and career success. Many of the country’s greatest challenges today are political in nature. Addressing those challenges will require schools not only to develop students’ civic knowledge, but also their civic skills and dispositions.