The RAND Corporation is out with a revealing new examination of how the nation’s teachers think about civic and citizenship education. The survey, of the nation’s public school teachers, was conducted in late 2021 and released last week.
The results were far from reassuring. Few teachers seemed to think that civic education was supposed to teach students about the institutions or knowledge upon which civil society rests. Just 23 percent of teachers said that one of the top three aims of civic education is “promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions.” And just two-in-five said a top-three aim was “promoting knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities.”
On the bright side, the vast majority of teachers rejected explicitly politicized notions of civic education. For instance, just 27 percent said promoting environmental activism was one of the three most important aims of civic and citizenship education, while 20 percent said the same about anti-racism. Don’t misunderstand. Schools should indeed educate students about environmental challenges and race, and equip them to engage in these issues. That said, simply put, the role of civic education is not to produce issue activists.
What teachers do seem to embrace is a vision of civic education which looks a lot like a content-free celebration of self-actualization. The most commonly cited aim for civic education, endorsed by two-thirds of teachers, is “promoting students’ critical and independent thinking.” The only other aim named by even half of teachers was “developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution.”
Meanwhile, just 11 percent of educators thought a top-three priority was developing students’ capacity to defend their point of view and only 4 percent said the same of preparing students for future political engagement. Those answers beg the question: Critical thinking to what end? If civic education doesn’t involve preparing students to defend their views or engage responsibly in democratic decision-making, just what kind of critical thinking does it entail?
Critical thinking is a terrific thing. But the phrase can also serve as a vague, content-free placeholder. And there’s nothing here that suggests teachers are preparing students to engage in crucial debates regarding the proper size of government, the role of the courts, or the right way to balance democratic participation against concerns for election integrity. After all, these disputes aren’t just a matter of “critical thought”—thinking about them critically also requires historical understanding and substantive knowledge.
There’s grave cause for concern on that score. The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center has reported that just 26 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation has estimated that only 1 in 3 Americans could pass the nation’s Citizenship Test. That lack of knowledge is coupled, in our polarized age, with an exaggerated sense of tribalism. More in Common has reported that the most politically active Americans tend to have the most distorted perceptions of those on the other side. Watching more cable news or consuming more social media left people convinced that their opponents’ views were more extreme than they actually were.
In short, students need instruction that is informative and prepares them to engage responsibly with those who see things differently. That means civic education needs to teach students about the building blocks of civil society, promote the values that enable a diverse people to live peacefully and respectfully, and help students learn how to engage in constructive democratic debate. It’s not clear that educators see their mission accordingly.
In the end, this survey raises many more questions than it answers. It’d be helpful to know much more about what educators mean by “critical thinking” and what specific content, if any, they think it entails. It would be illuminating to learn what kinds of books, figures, or historical events teachers are addressing, and which of these they deem most useful. It’d be telling to know more about whether the inattention to substantive knowledge in civics is due to teachers thinking students already know it, trust students will learn it elsewhere in school, or simply don’t think it’s important.
For now, this new contribution makes clear that there is much work to do when it comes to clarifying the aims and the ambition of civic education.