It has been a bad 12 months for the practice of civics in America.
The U.S. Capitol attacked by thugs. An alleged plot to kidnap a state governor. Bogus claims of widespread election fraud. Violent protests in the streets. Death threats against public health officials. And a never-ending barrage of anger and misinformation on social media directed at, and by, politicians, leaders, pundits and an increasingly bitter and frustrated populace.
As the battles have raged, trust in institutions — government, media, the law — has plummeted.
So how did we get here? And how do we get out?
For many close observers, a direct line can be drawn from today’s civics crises to a long-standing failure to adequately teach American government, history and civic responsibility. Breadth has been emphasized over depth, they say, and the cost is a citizenry largely ignorant of the work needed to sustain a democracy.
Now, a diverse collection of academics, historians, teachers, school administrators and state education leaders is proposing an overhaul of the way civics and history are taught to American K-12 students. And they’re calling for a massive investment of funds, teacher training and curriculum development to help make that happen.
The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative will release a 36-page report and an accompanying 39-page road map Tuesday, laying out extensive guidance for improving and reimagining the teaching of social studies, history and civics and then implementing that over the next decade.
The partnership’s diagnosis is urgent and unsparing.
“Civics and history education has eroded in the U.S. over the past fifty years, and opportunities to learn these subjects are inequitably distributed,” the report states. “Dangerously low proportions of the public understand and trust our democratic institutions. Majorities are functionally illiterate on our constitutional principles and forms. The relative neglect of civic education in the past half-century—a period of wrenching change—is one important cause of our civic and political dysfunction.”
The report calls for an inquiry-based approach that would focus less on memorizing dates of wars and names of presidents and more on exploring in depth the questions and developments, good and bad, that have created the America we live in today and plan to live in well beyond the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. What students need, the report argues, is not a laundry list of facts, but a process that produces a better understanding of how the country’s history shaped its present.
Before social studies standards in Pennsylvania were revamped, teaching the subject was like preparing students to do well in a game of Trivial Pursuit, said Shannon Salter, a high school social studies teacher and curriculum designer in Allentown.
She rattled off some of the previous teaching requirements.
“Did you teach the War of 1812? Did you teach Teapot Dome? Can your students memorize the capitals of all 50 states and spout them in alphabetical order?” Salter said. “It was all a list of items that you could recite on a multiple-choice test and treating it as though that was meaningful learning in history and social studies.”