A Debate Over Civics Education
May 01, 2022
Appears in May 2022: School Administrator.
Rick Hess and Pedro Noguera challenge each other over how schools should teach citizenship and address racial tolerance
Rick Hess and Pedro Noguera, two prominent figures in U.S. education policy, agree that the study of civics in K-12 education needs a substantial booster shot to be robust and engaging. But they part ways on what
that should look like.
In their debate over civics education that follows, Hess expresses concern about the tendency to forgo a richer, more complex narrative of American his-tory in favor of an emerging new orthodoxy rooted in a caricature of American villainy. Noguera stresses the importance of not running away “from the controversies or the ‘ugly side’ of U.S. history,” including the founding fathers’ entanglements with slavery.
They share a conviction that balancing a clear-eyed view of America’s shortcomings with an appreciation of its profound strengths is crucial to the future success of American democracy.
Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Noguera is the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.
What follows are excerpts from their 2021 book A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education. (The book won the Association of American Publishers’ 2022 PROSE Award in Education.) They address the goal of civics education, how schools should teach students to think about citizenship and how educators should approach the American story.
As two once-upon-a-time social studies teachers, we’ve both had a lot to say about the state of civics education. We’ve commiserated that too much civics and history teaching seems like a blind sprint to get from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam.
The result is instruction that’s rote and reductionist when it should be an exploration of the world-changing events, extraordinary figures and compelling questions that make up the American story.
At a gut level, we all know how vital civics education is to the health of our communities and our nation. This is where we teach students about how we’ve gotten here, what it takes for self-government to work and the rights and responsibilities that come with being an American.
Our current struggles are on display every time we see new evidence about how little Americans know about our government, the Constitution or our history. The University of Pennsylvania reported just 26 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government. It’s pretty shocking. The genius of the American system is its ability to evolve, to channel passion and partisanship into constructive channels. This only works if Americans know how to actually use that system.
The goal, as I see it, is not knowledge for its own sake. Knowledge is, however, a precondition if students are to ask crucial questions, examine them and make up their own minds regarding the answers. After all, it’s hard to constructively debate what equality, opportunity, liberty or justice require in law enforcement or social policy unless one has a clear sense of what these ideas mean, the historical con-text and the facts in dispute. That’s why a grounding in American history, civic life and government is so important.
At this juncture, things get complicated. For many years, educators and others have wrestled with questions like whose history gets taught. Many have worked to make civics instruction more illuminating and informative by expanding its scope and emphasizing people, events, analyses and perspectives left out of the old “generals and presidents” narrative.
But I worry many are less interested in forging a richer, more complex narrative than in a new orthodoxy built around a caricature of American villainy. To my mind, much of this derives from the problematic legacy of Howard Zinn and his imitators, especially their contention that American history is little more than a parade of horribles. They see an unbroken litany of graft, hypocrisy and oppression.
As Mary Grabar pointed out in Debunking Howard Zinn, Zinn had an unfortunate habit of omitting inconvenient events and misusing historical sources in the service of his larger thesis. Yet, this school of thought is influential in progressive circles and schooling today. Indeed, The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning and widely adopted 1619 Project, which claims that the United States was founded as a “slavocracy,” seems committed to building on this disconcerting legacy.
I’d argue that our shared history is a messy but empowering tale of struggling to live up to our founding ideals. Students need to understand how unique our land really is: a sprawling, multiethnic society that’s stable, democratic, free and immensely prosperous. They need to learn how significant America’s tradition of free speech, free press and free assembly truly is. They need to appreciate what so many have sacrificed to promote justice, expand liberty and face down external threats. In short, students need to study America’s failings but also need to see them in perspective.
I knew Howard Zinn and was a fan of his book, A People’s History of the United States, and drew upon it when I taught social studies. It presented U.S. history from the perspective of those who have been left out: Blacks, Native
Americans, women and workers of all kinds. Zinn never saw his work as a replacement for other texts but as a supplement that could provide a richer and more complete picture of U.S. history.
Like you, I don’t think we should run away from the controversies or the “ugly side” of U.S. history. On the one hand, I think it’s impossible to deny that the United States was founded on slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. The enslavement of African people and the conquest of indigenous lands generated tremendous wealth for landowners. Most “founding fathers” owned slaves to enrich themselves and build this country. Learning about the violent displacement of the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears” forces students to see that Native Americans were subject to relentless violence and erases the myth of Thanksgiving that we were taught in school. This is why the 1619 Project is so important, even if it is disturbing to many white Americans.
This does not mean the democratic ideals in the Constitution are not important. They have served as a source of inspiration to freedom-loving people throughout the world. One of the reasons I enjoyed Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” so much, despite criticism that he glossed over slavery, is that he captures the contradictions of American history in a powerful way. Washington, Madison and Jefferson were slave owners and advocates for democracy and freedom. It is important for students to understand how both could be true.
When students are forced to grapple with the meaning of freedom and the complexity of history, they are better prepared to participate in democracy. In my teaching days, I once staged a debate with my students over whether or not Black people were better off free or enslaved. Learning about what life was like after the Civil War; finding out that Lincoln and others seriously considered repatriating Black people to Africa when slavery ended; and understanding the rise of the KKK, the prevalence of lynching and the pervasiveness of white violence toward newly freed Black people is important for all kinds of kids, but especially for those who are white. This type of understanding of civics better prepares students to understand the racial justice movement that has swept the country as a result of the police killings of Black people.
Like you, I don’t think the goal of teaching civics or history should be to produce patriots. I think it should be to produce critical thinkers who are ready to actively participate in democracy and defend their rights and freedoms when they are attacked.
You’re incontrovertibly right that big parts of the American story are troubling and should be taught accordingly. Issues of slavery, religious intolerance, racism, sexism and exploitation are an integral part of that richer, more complex narrative.
For all that, I fundamentally disagree with the notion that the nation was “founded on” such things. This comes down in part to how we make sense of the hypocrisy implicit in slaveholders having helped found the modern world’s first democracy. But it’s also a matter of how we understand the American ethos and teach it to our children.
For me, the telling point is that our founding ideals, documents and institutions have been used to help rectify and redress many of those unsavory compromises and to steadily expand the scope of freedom. To teach our children otherwise is to urge them to devalue the priceless legacy they’ve inherited and to weaken the resolve required to redeem America’s full promise.
That said, I wonder whether what you describe as the goal of civics education — namely, preparing students to participate in democracy and defend their rights and freedoms — is sufficient. Absent an appreciation for the sacrifices so many have made, I fear it’s all too easy to fixate on our nation’s failings while looking past its remarkable gifts. I don’t want mindless patriots, but I do want students to learn that they are part of the American story and they should value the legacy they’ve inherited.
We may disagree about how to teach students about racism, but I think we can both agree the current rise in racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy poses a threat to the social order and to our democracy. Hate crimes are up throughout the country,
and Nazi groups that once operated in the shadows now feel emboldened to hold marches and spread their hateful ideas online and in print.
The killings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the racially motivated shooting at the Walmart in El Paso and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the killing of a counterprotester are all ominous signs. Reasonable people can disagree about immigration, affirmative action or climate change, but when we treat those we disagree with as enemies and seek to silence them through violence, then we are all in trouble.
We should teach our students how to disagree respectfully and how to debate intelligently using evidence rather than threats of violence to support their views. Democracy and the social contract that holds us together as a society depend on our ability to do this.
In principle, we see eye to eye on the importance of tolerance. Students need to learn that reasonable people can disagree and that it’s vital we be able to hash out those differences constructively and respectfully.
As Jefferson would argue in his first inaugural, even those who wanted to dissolve the new union should be allowed to “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.” That’s part of the American creed.
I find these issues particularly stark in the national dialogue around race. You poignantly note the threat posed by racism and white supremacy. We agree. That said, I fear that one reason the incidence of racism and white supremacy seems to be growing is that advocates have developed a troubling habit of wantonly labeling views with which they disagree as white supremacist.
Protestors at Harvard University a few years ago attacked then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a white supremacist be-cause she supported school vouchers. DeVos had worked for decades with Black and Latino leaders and spent millions to help Black and Latino families access better schools, and even her critics didn’t allege she’d said anything that qualifies as racist. If she’s a white supremacist, it seems to me that the term has lost all meaning.
We throw around charges of racism and sexism too often and without substantiation. I disagree with Secretary DeVos on many things, but I have seen no evidence she’s a racist. I have met many Black educators and parents in Michigan who saw her
as an ally.
This relates to a larger problem in American politics: the tendency to demonize people who disagree with us. I think that tendency is adding to the polarization we’re seeing nationwide and adding to the toxicity of American politics. The debates in education have been plagued by the same sort of extreme positions and tendency.
Bringing this discussion back to the question of civics and its role in preparing kids to be citizens in a democracy, perhaps it might be useful to discuss how we teach it if we want to develop critical thinking and instill values such as tolerance. I see debate as a useful pedagogical tool.
But we can go further. I work with some schools that teach kids to do research on issues that affect them in their schools, community, society and the world. The issues they examine can be as mundane as litter or traffic or as complex as immigration and climate change. What I find most promising is that they not only learn about how politics and policy shape the way these issues affect them, but they also are encouraged to devise a plan for addressing the issue.
If students can see how they can apply what they learn to improve their lives and society, they might take what they learn more seriously and be a whole lot less bored in their classes. As two former social studies teachers, I think we’d both agree that would be a welcome change.