Of late, a cauldron of hot contention has been steadily brewing to boiling point with the Great Debate over Civic Education in the United States. While each contingent adds its own unique blend of controversy to the mix, some common ingredients have emerged. Following is a bird’s eye view of the entire concoction:
Is civic education effective or even necessary?
The above question summarizes the central inquiry from all sides. Scholarly consensus has historically dismissed civic education as ineffective and superfluous. The most commonly cited justification for that position is purported redundancy of deliberate civics instruction that is far less effective than unintentional education that requires no advance planning or periodic learning evaluations.
More specifically, such unintended methods include everyday experiences that provide real-real world learning experiential without substantial costs associated with formal academic venues. Major examples of informal practical skills development include casually observing parental civic activity and high-profile depictions of political figures and processes.
Thus, opponents argue that no real need for purely theoretical instruction exists. In fact, critics go even further by opining that such abstract concepts may do more harm than help by sending mixed messages to impressionable youth in their formative years.
On the flipside of that same coin, civic education proponents argue that decreased awareness of and participation in civic activities is a primary causal factor in drastically increased rates of juvenile delinquency and diminished political participation by America’s youthful leaders of tomorrow. That constituency points to skyrocketed formal education attainment in the U.S. over the past half-century, while political knowledge has barely budged. This circumstance is reportedly quite dangerous, as it may portend abject ignorance of those with most urgent need for civic knowledge to fulfill future obligations to society at-large. Therefore, it is absolutely critical to avoid what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once summed up as, “Failure to learn from past mistakes destines one to repeat them.”
Universal support from diverse sources
University of Maryland political science professor William Galston published an in-depth study of American civic education that opened by observing that contemporary scholars are more inclined to concur in the proposition that even the best made institutions are woefully inadequate by themselves, as well-ordered polity demands a governed citizenry with relevant skills, knowledge and personal attributes. Besides that, Galston goes on to note that good citizens are groomed, not born. Ergo, the critical inquiry is no longer “if,” but how, whom and by which means to what ends.
Likewise, in 1997, then U.S. Department of Education Secretary Richard Riley published an official report that set forth an examination of the importance of civic education in fostering higher accountability among students. In that publication, Riley urged educators to scrutinize the National Standards for Civic Engagement to devise creative instructional methods that stimulate and sustain students’ interest and enthusiasm.
A more recent U.S. Dept. of Education report outlined its envisioned national commitment to citizenship preparation that helps students become well-informed, responsible and engaged members of society. The document continued by recounting a then recent White House event at which the Obama Administration unveiled its new Road Map for civic learning entitled, “Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy.” That executive decree reportedly serves as an urgent wakeup call to action to rejuvenate civic learning and engagement for students and their families as well as educational leaders, local communities, labor, business, philanthropists and government. Obama’s Road Map outlines nine phases under which U.S. civic education is undergoing to enhance civic learning and engagement throughout the entire nation.
Still other sources report the relative ease with which youngsters can assimilate civic education concepts at the earliest ages. Despite scholarly reports that historically found little empirical evidence that formal civic education has greater or even equal effectiveness as anecdotal learning experiential, it is difficult to deny the value of positive reinforcement via all open channels.
Shifting paradigms in political science
Conventional political science emphasizes active participation and engagement as positive influences in developing good citizenship. That phenomenon is reportedly due to greater confidence in and loyalty to institutions and organizations with which individuals feel a sense of belonging and mutual support.
Center for Civic Engagement Associate Director Margaret Branson published a comprehensive report that cited public opinion polls by reputable third parties such as Kapa Alpha/Gallop that revealed Americans support civic education by very large margins. Moreover, that collective attitude remained constant irrespective of whether respondents had children in school or children who attended public or private schools. Branson made further reference to another 2002 survey in which both elderly and younger respondents expressed strong support for mandatory civics education courses in middle and high school by huge margins.
Notwithstanding above reported findings, a definite trend away from social studies and civic education has emerged in America’s elementary schools. For instance, National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics results revealed a 10 percent drop in the proportion of fourth graders who reported daily attendance of social studies classes.
That sharp downward mobility translated into just slightly more than 1/3 of all U.S. elementary school children who regularly engage in their schools’ ostensible primary mission: full preparation to become informed, responsible and affective citizens.
Moreover, Branson’s report stated that the percentage of high school pupils who attend at least one civics class has remained relatively constant since the late 1920s, but a vast majority of contemporary formal civics education consists of just a single class that is typically mandatory during the senior year of high school. According to Branson, that is both too little and too late. An even more alarming reported discovery is that students who drop out of high school before their senior year may have the greatest need for civics education but are least capable of asserting their rights or assuming rightful civic obligations.
Bottom line on civic education benefits
An age-old adage posits, “Knowledge is power.” Its timeless truth is perhaps more apt today than ever before in the entire chronicle of recorded human history. Contrary to popular belief, what one does not know can definitely hurt them far worse than any known fact.
This is true because unknown facts may have vital importance that cannot be acted upon by affected party (ies). However, failure to act accordingly in a timely manner can mean extinction or survival as well as phenomenal success or miserable failure. This sobering reality mandates full-scale public education campaigns about the many virtues and redeeming qualities of civic education.