June 14, 2024

Reset this: Change how we teach civics in America

American civic life is in peril. Voters express disgust with both parties. Elected officials continue to challenge the veracity of the electoral process — including in recent runoff elections. Armed individuals are opening fire — literally — on groups with whom they disagree, claiming righteousness as hate crimes rise across the United States. Even libraries and classrooms are arenas for battle, with more than 1,500 books banned over the past school year.

There must be a national reset.

One avenue may be to change the way content creators produce and audiences consume media, focusing less on inside baseball and the ups and downs of political players and more on policy proposals.

Perhaps it is possible to spend less time sharing questionable news stories on social media outlets and more time talking to neighbors. Research shows that, thankfully, misinformation is not winning out as expected. If people think of themselves less like members of partisan political tribes and more like members of a shared community, the culture wars can begin to recede.

In high schools, as well as colleges and universities, it is possible to teach students to do the same. As a professor of political science, my courses on American politics — like many high school civics classes — include discussions about the filibuster, or various interpretations of the Commerce Clause, and deep dives into the evolution of federalism.

However, students in my classes at DePaul University report that their high school civics coursework was uninspiring. And they are not atypical: Students across the country express frustrations with the lack of relevance in their high school civics assignments.

Despite extensive research on how to improve civics education, student performance on civics exams continues to be lackluster, a situation that will only be exacerbated by the “devastating” impact of COVID on learning generally.

Certainly, in K-12 classrooms that employ the best practices in civics education, students discuss current events, participate in simulations, and perhaps even gain real-life experiences in service learning — and many enjoy it all. But such courses are unevenly — and much less commonly — offered.

Changing the way educators think about and teach civics can play a critical role in helping students reconnect with each other, acknowledge their shared humanity, and work together to address the problems facing the nation.

Currently, civics coursework, where it exists, largely has been relegated to high schools and focuses on the memorization of historical facts and legislative processes, which lend themselves to testing.

In an attempt to reset politics — and to make Gen Z partners in this project — my DePaul colleagues and I launched a new way to teach civics. Supported by the Teagle Foundation, we recently taught an interdisciplinary course, LSP 275: Lived Civics, the Social Contract & Public Life, designed to build civic skills, historical knowledge and democratic dispositions among undergraduates using the lens of the social contract as a framework for discussing our differences.

Instead of thinking about civics as something that belongs to the world of politics and elections, the goal is to frame it as a way of thinking about how people live together in community. Instead of asking how a bill becomes a law, the question becomes: What do individuals owe each other?

Instead of learning how many justices are on the Supreme Court, the shift is to interrogate what constitutes membership in this community. Instead of thinking about the founding of this nation as a stand-alone event in history, the choice is to understand it as the first attempt of a young nation to answer these questions. The central focus is to create a curriculum that frames civics around the notion of the social contract.

Although the social contract is a familiar term to many, most educators have ceded the topic to theorists, with perhaps passing attention to the influence of English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on the American colonists.  

In this new course, the goal is to have the concept and language of the social contract became relevant and useful, using both historical and current examples. When educators frame civics this way, students learn about historical events and political upheaval as a constant renegotiation of the social contract. The Declaration of Independence, then, becomes an American version of the social contract.

Frederick Douglass’s passionate rhetoric in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is even more profound because students are reading it as both a challenge to American political theory and an extension of it.

In so doing, educators are building on the path-breaking work of others, such as the 1619 Project, Educating for American Democracy and iCivics, each of which has provided innovative curricular programming. But none have this unique focus and particular interdisciplinary approach, as it is taught by faculty across the university, each bringing their own disciplinary and research focus to the topic.

The Autumn term just ended and the feedback for the first time that students took this class is measured by end-of-quarter course evaluations, where many agreed that they now possess “a good understanding of the social contract and how it applies to contemporary life.”

In open-ended comments, one student said that the greatest lesson of the class was “how the newer generations have the ability to create a social contract, one which will include everyone.” Another one wrote that they learned how to “compare and contrast certain ideas and then … identify how the concepts of the social contract are applied.”

Of course, reframing civics in high school and higher education as a shared project about living together in community won’t solve all the problems that face this nation. But if policymakers, funders and educators can work to reframe civics education so students can see “that civics exists all around us,” it is possible to shift the narrative to view societal problems as shared problems, in order to address solutions together.

Molly W. Andolina is professor of political science at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.