Why civics education is the starting line


Kyle Ellingson for Deseret News

In American football, like any sport, players walk onto the field with a common understanding of the goals and regulations of the game. Pass or run the ball 10 yards, you get a first down. You have to start a play within 40 seconds of when the previous play stopped to avoid a penalty. No grabbing your opponent’s face mask or you’ll get flagged. Most importantly, make it to the end zone and you’ll get six points — seven if your kicker makes the extra point. Win, lose or tie, everyone is competing to the best of their ability based on an agreed-upon set of rules.

“Think of civic engagement in the same way,” says John Jacobson, a veteran high school social studies teacher of 34 years at Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wisconsin. “We need to make sure that we are operating from a present, commonly understood array of rules and processes. That is the biggest thing civics education does for our society.” 

Civic literacy allows for the understanding of what the rules are in American governments — defined by Mary E. Hylton, a professor of social work at Salisbury University in Maryland, as “Understanding the basic processes and functions of government encourages more involvement in democratic processes,” thus, civic engagement.

Yet without this civics literacy, we see falsities take root and actions made that could undermine one of the longest-standing constitutional democracies in the world, as seen when untrue claims of fraud in the 2020 election resulted in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. To rekindle the levity of a sports metaphor, it’s as if two NFL teams showed up to the Super Bowl and were told that they had to play soccer. When we can’t agree on the role of government, democracy can’t happen. And if we don’t understand the role (and the rules) of the American government, then there are chances that we won’t agree on it.

Only 47 percent of adults surveyed were able to name all three branches of government, while a quarter could not name any.

“Our whole entire democracy depends on (civics education), it’s a representative democracy,” says Mark Gage, the director of publishing and communications at the Center for Civic Education. “So it depends on the knowledge of the people and on their engagement. Without these two things, there is no democracy.”

Shifting priorities

Recent studies have shown our national civics literacy has waned to dangerously low levels. The latest Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, conducted in September, concludes that only 47 percent of adults surveyed were able to name all three branches of government, while a quarter could not name any. This lack of civics literacy runs the generational gamut. The Concord Law School at Purdue University reports that on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress civics test, only 24 percent of eighth graders demonstrated proficiency. The average scores of that test have remained essentially the same since 1998, earning the second-worst results of any school subject besides history.

It seems that the results are so dire because Americans not only discontinue their civics education after formal schooling, but also because Americans may not be learning civics in school at all. According to the Center for American Progress, one year of civics or government education is required in only nine states and the District of Columbia for high school students to graduate. Additionally, 31 states require only a semester, while 10 other states have no requirement at all.

Gage recognizes the priority shift in curriculums as a driving force of the crisis. “For years there’s been a focus on math and reading, English, language arts — which I think is a good thing. … But this has often been at the expense of civic education,” he says.

Jacobson attributes social media as a cause of disengagement. “I think it’s because so much of everyone’s time and attention is consumed in some way shape or form by social media.” Algorithms keep people within a bubble, their bubble, in a cycle of confirmation biases.

“If I am looking at conservative content or liberal content and I’m engaging with it, it is programmed to keep refeeding me the same thing,” says Jeff Davis, program director of civic education at Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. “So that government class in a public school setting may be one of the last chances to have a dialogue with those who think differently in a controlled and safe setting.”

The online civics education tool, iCivics, founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, utilizes games to look at various aspects of civic engagement to disseminate equitable, nonpartisan civic education in that safe setting. “We believe that difference and debate are the hallmarks of democracy, not bugs, not problems,” says Emma Humphries, the chief education officer at iCivics. “Folks who have a high-quality civic education are more likely to think it’s important to see their fellow Americans as just that, and they’re more likely to have the skills to engage with them.”

Yet, only 28 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools, according to a Gallup poll from July, which is the second lowest this figure has been since this question started being asked in 1973. Even though a PDK International survey found that 50 percent of all adults have confidence that teachers can effectively teach civics. Tools like iCivics hope to not only improve the numbers on civics surveys, but also these. 

Hearing both sides

One of the challenges comes with translating civics lessons into civic action. When the coach draws a play on the dry-erase board, it can seem abstract until bodies are on the field, actually executing the plays, seeing the holes to be run through toward the end zone. Jacobson, too, finds that without manifesting the abstract concepts and complexities of the Constitution into a livable experience, it can be hard for people to fully grasp the nuance. So he has several simulations he introduces over the course of a semester “geared toward giving students a better appreciation for … the sophistication of the way government works, the way law works, the way diplomacy works,” he says. “With all due respect to ‘Schoolhouse Rock,’ it’s a little more complicated than a three-minute cartoon.” 

“That government class in a public school setting may be one of the last chances to have a dialogue with those who think differently.”

Like those in-class simulations, A Starting Point, a video-based civic engagement platform, looks to address the nuances of civics in everyday life. The platform covers myriad topics — like if the U.S. should raise the debt limit — through short videos featuring officials from both parties speaking on the topic in concise, digestible clips, animated facts and figures. Perspectives on both ends of the political spectrum are given equal time, allowing viewers to hear not only the party they identify with, but those opposite of their beliefs as well.

Back on the football field, coaches can disagree with referees, asking for a review of the play in question. The referees, using the set of agreed-upon rules and regulations of the game, come to a final conclusion based on those undisputed, accepted notions that American football is based on. The decision is made, and the game keeps being what fans know and love it to be, whether their team wins or loses. 

“We have to have a commonly held understanding of what we’re arguing,” Jacobson adds. “And at least understanding the structure and the process of how our Constitution works would be a good start to working out all the differences that we are inevitably going to have and that we should celebrate.”  

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.