Would you hire an accountant who has never even read the tax code? Probably not. That accountant wouldn’t know the rules of our tax system or how it should work. And without that knowledge, he or she could jeopardize your filing and leave you in serious legal trouble.
Unfortunately, that is essentially the same mistake that a new movement in K-12 civic education, “action civics,” is making. Action civics is the idea that our students should learn civics by sparking change on political issues that matter to them. Its supporters argue that this will make civics more “engaging and relevant” and ultimately produce better citizens; unfortunately, this movement only hurts the very populations they purport to help.
Action civics sounds good in theory, but the problem is that it calls for civic action before our students have obtained sufficient civic knowledge. Like an accountant who hasn’t read the tax code, many students don’t yet know the rules of our political system or how it ought to operate. Pushing them into activism without first equipping them with the knowledge they need is putting the cart before the horse: it is premature and sets our students up for political mistakes and frustration.
Context for this issue is key. The failures of our educational system have made many students woefully ignorant of even the most basic facts about our republic. According to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, only one in three Americans can pass the U.S. citizenship test. This level of civic illiteracy means many citizens are unable to fully participate in political discourse, which leaves them susceptible to manipulation in today’s climate of sensationalist politics.
For example, a 2019 Harris Poll statistic that found that 49.6% of Millennials and Generation Z would prefer to live in a socialist country. But do they know what they’re wishing for? In 2015, 58% of college-aged Americans had a positive view of socialism, but on the exact same poll, an overwhelming 72% preferred the “free market” to a “government-managed” economy (49%), a very contradictory response.
This illustrates how politically illiterate many present-day students are — through no fault of their own. Our education system has done a wildly inadequate job preparing children to become active citizens who can engage thoughtfully in contemporary political discourse, such as conversations about socialism and capitalism. Passionate activism without a baseline level of knowledge and reflection is counterproductive. It will only ratchet up the temperature of politics, something we don’t need in this polarized era.
Action civics also tends to politicize civics, spurning more apolitical activities like volunteering at a soup kitchen. Generation Civics, an action civics organization, promotes “political engagement” instead of “civic engagement” or “service learning.” Instead of serving at a soup kitchen, they explain, students should focus on “policy solutions” for the problem of hunger, like increasing food-stamp payments. Other writers have singled out soup kitchens as not counting as action civics or being “not enough.”
The message is clear: not just any action counts in action civics. It must be political, consisting of what they call an “interaction with power” — in other words, using the government. Action civics supporters primarily want widespread change in society achieved through government power, often using students as political props to achieve their desired outcome. This opens the door for partisanship in the classroom and raises a host of other issues.
Action civics advocates would claim to be nonpartisan, embracing change of all kinds, but a brief look at their type of projects reveals a clear progressive bias, urging students to advocate for hot-button progressive causes like the Green New Deal, among others.
Campaigning for one ideology at the expense of other perspectives is an inappropriate use of our school system and our tax dollars. It also risks isolating or even coercing many students who may disagree. Usually, that means conservative students who do not want to engage in liberal activism, but it could just as easily be liberal students who don’t want to, say, protest at the March for Life, even if that’s what the rest of their class decided.
Luckily, these problems can be avoided if we revitalize and improve our classroom-based learning. Instead of encouraging premature activism, we need to promote a “content-based” approach to civics education that will give students a solid grounding in institutions and facts. Maryland, for example, has had success with a “layer cake” approach to civic education. By establishing clear competency requirements for each grade level, students can effectively revisit core concepts of civic material that are contextually tailored to their age and level of maturity.
Unless we re-emphasize facts and content, we will continue to have large numbers of young Americans advocating for causes without knowing exactly what they are or how they relate to the current system.
Focusing on the fundamentals of civic education — not activism — will ensure that our students have a solid base of knowledge that will guide their political activity outside of school. They should at least understand our political tradition and system before they try to change it. Of course, if they still want to reject or alter their nation’s legacy later, they are free to do so. But we should help make that an informed choice. That’s what an education is supposed to do.