We know that civic education in this country is, shall we say, having some issues. While there is an increased push for some sort of civics assessment as a requirement for high school graduation, there is no real discussion among policy makers (as opposed to civic theorists and educators, where the debate is ongoing) about whether the sort of high stakes civics assessment they envision is actually any good. We must also recognize the fact that while politicians and policy makers stress the importance of civic education, they are increasingly reluctant to fund it. Indeed, here at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, we have faced our own budget battles (and remain so grateful for the support provided by teachers, students, parents, and district leaders in ensuring that our funding was restored), and are contemplating new ways to approach our work that takes those budget concerns into account.
Ultimately, in my view at least, while we as a nation pay lip service to civic education, we struggle to agree on what that civic education should look like (reflecting the Westheimer and Kahne (2004) research that suggests 3 different types of citizens civic education creates, depending on the philosophical foundation of the particular course) or even how to best fund it. Should we expect to rely on philanthropy to fund quality civic education programs? If we do, what sort of philanthropy would be acceptable? As an organization, would we take funds from somewhat controversial folks behind the Bill of Rights of Institute (disclosure: I reviewed BoR materials for use in North Carolina while working for NCDPI and found them adequate for the standards to which they were written, with the organization very responsive to concerns and feedback) if it means that we can do our job and continue planting seeds in the garden of citizenship? Does it matter who gives the seeds if the garden can be grown according to the pattern and approach we envision? As this past legislative session here in Florida and the overall trend nationally indicates, we cannot rely on promises from the legislature to fund the work of civic education. What options then are open for us as we compete for shrinking funds in a time of increasing need?
In a conversation with my friend and colleague Jason Ross of Ashbrook, he suggested that
we friends of civic education have to take a step back and rethink the case we are making. Clearly our case is not resonating, and is getting drowned out by Common Core/STEM, etc. This is not fun to hear, of course, but I don’t think there is any getting around it.
There is nothing more that needs to be said, really. How do we, as civic educators, as a community of citizens, as those who believe that the purpose of education is citizenship, get civics back to the table, back in the discussion, back to the forefront, back to the role the early founders of the American education system envisioned for schools:
It is said, indeed by many, that our common people are already too well informed. Strange paradox! The truth is, they have too much knowlege and spirit to resign their share in government, and are not sufficiently informed to govern themselves in all cases of difficulty.
There are some acts of the American legislatures which astonish men of information; and blunders in legislation are frequently ascribed to bad intentions. But if we examin the men who compose these legislatures, we shall find that wrong measures generally proceed from ignorance either in the men themselves, or in their constituents. They often mistake their own interest, because they do not foresee the remote consequences of a measure.
It may be true that all men cannot be legislators; but the more generally knowlege is diffused among the substantial yeomanry, the more perfect will be the laws of a republican state.
…The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.
…until Legislators discover that the only way to make good citizens and subjects, is to nourish them from infancy; and until parents shall be convinced that the worst of men are not the proper teachers to make the best; mankind cannot know to what a degree of perfection society and government may be carried. America affords the fairest opportunities for making the experiment, and opens the most encouraging prospect of success.—Noah Webster, 1790
So, friends in civics, how do we get that ‘C’ added to STEM? How do we get ourselves back up without losing everything that makes real civic education, as opposed to rote memorization, possible? How do we expand the field of civic studies to bring in all stakeholders, especially those who NEED to understand what civic education should be? I have no answers, though these questions continue to percolate in my head and in my work. Do you?