The Civic Mission of Schools

Most Americans, polls tell us, are disgusted with the way their federal government is working -- or more precisely, not working. As someone who has worked in the political and public policy arenas, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I share the public's disillusionment and frustration. The climate for governing is worse than I have ever seen it.

There are many possible reasons to be offered for the policy stalemates and rancorous debates that precede them. Ideological polarization, exaggerated impacts of well-organized and well-funded special interests, and the effects of cycle after cycle of highly negative and poisonous campaigns represent just three factors that we think are responsible for the current situation.

But the voters should not be let off the hook, either. Too often citizens allow themselves to fall for specious arguments, distorted "facts", or appeals to latent prejudices and predispositions. When 40% of Democrats believe that President George W. Bush was involved in the 9/11 conspiracy, and a similar percentage of Republicans are convinced that Barack Obama was not born in America and is therefore ineligible to be president, we have a problem.

When signs at Tea Party rallies read "Tell the Government: Take your hand off my Medicare!" are taken seriously, we have a problem. When ran anti-war advertisements in 2007 that maligned David Petraeus, one of America's great military leaders and patriots as "General Betray us", and every American -- left, right and center -- didn't rise up in outrage, we have a problem.

When less than one third of American eighth graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, when less than a fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy, and when less than a third of our students can identify the three branches of government, we have a problem, and it only promises to get worse.

A consortium of nationally respected organizations, including the American Bar Association, the Lenore Annenberg Institute for Civics, CIRCLE, the National Conference on Citizenship and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, will issue a report that shines a harsh and penetrating light on the lack of civic knowledge and engagement in America. But unlike many reports, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools will not stop at calling attention to the crisis, it also points the way to solutions, both in terms of public policy as well as educational practice.

I was proud to work on this report, and to join with John Bridgeland, Michael Gerson and Mike McCurry, in writing a key part of it: "Civic Common Sense: A Case Statement in Support of Civic Learning".

Among our arguments in the "case statement" are these:

  • If Americans do not feel bound to each other, they will not respect the others perspective and will turn on one another. Worse, political discourse will be wrought by sound bites and controversy that will only lead to divisiveness and inaction.
  • The framers of our Constitution envisioned Americans as educated and engaged citizens, able to hold government officials accountable and demand better when they don't act in their best interest. Knowledge of America's history and ideals are not innate but need to be attained through education.
  • Despite a past of educating children to be capable and engaged citizens, too many of our schools are now failing at their civic mission. Children in private or wealthy public schools often acquire the skills they need to participate while those from less privileged backgrounds do not. Our hope is that the publication of Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools will prove to be a galvanizing moment, something that will trigger action, rather than just a sigh or a yawn. This is a critical time in our nation's history, and our future is not assured. We have to work at it, and that work most certainly includes more and better civic learning.