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Is civics in crisis? Or just changing its shape?

In late January of 2012, Austin Oberbillig and Evan Ricks, students at Olympia High School in Olympia, Washington made a video called “Lunch Scholars“. The video was meant to be a high school version of “Jaywalking“, a sketch Jay Leno has done for twenty years, where he asks people on the street near his Hollywood studio simple questions – Who was the first US President? – and compiles the funniest answers into video segments for his show. Austin and Evan did the same thing, shooting four hours of footage and editing into just under five minutes, featuring the funniest responses.

And then something interesting happened. The video, posted on Vimeo, later reposted on YouTube, began garnering hundreds of comments, mostly negative. A columnist for the Huffington Post used the video to frame her argument that American students were poorly prepared to compete in a global economy. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck devoted a segment of his radio show bemoaning the state of civic knowledge in American schools and suggesting a government conspiracy to ensure ignorance about civics within the American public education system.

As the video received national attention, the creators came under pressure from school administrators who were concerned about their school’s reputation for academic excellence. Olympia High School is one of the highest ranked high schools in Washington state in terms of SAT scores, AP classes and is defending champion in the state’s “knowledge bowl”. The school’s high prestige made some commentators on the video even angrier – “If students in one of the top 5% performing high schools in Washington State are unable to name the US Vice President, give the number of U.S. states, or correctly identify the American war of independence, what are the educational standards like in the other 95% of Washington schools?” The students who made the video say they came under pressure from the school administration to remove it from the web, and that students met with the ACLU to discuss their rights to publish this video online, though elected not to pursue action against the administration.

I found the Lunch Scholars video when searching for answer to a deceptively complex question: Are American schools doing a good job of teaching civics? The group that believes there is a crisis in civics education is far broader than Glenn Beck devotees. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cites recent national exam results as evidence that we have “a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education”, a crisis she hopes to address through a set of free, online games about civics. Others sounding a civics crisis alarm note a decline in the number of elementary and high school courses on civics, the fact that civics is rarely part of the state-based assessment testing, and that those students who are tested generally perform poorly on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests on civics, the test O’Connor cited as evidence of our crisis.

The narrative of civics in crisis is one that resonates with other popular narratives about American culture in crisis. Robert Putnam made a compelling and controversial case in Bowling Alone that American civic life reached a peak with generations born from 1900 through the 1940s, and has been on the decline ever since – the “crisis in civics” narrative suggests that not only have we dropped out of bowling leagues, but our schools are no longer preparing us to be good citizens and good neighbors. There’s a common narrative about decreasing American achievement in comparison to other developed nations – decreasing civic knowledge is consistent with a narrative that shows the US falling behind in math and science as compared to OECD peers. And there’s a rich vein of commentary that suggests that technology – whether it includes television, video games or the internet – is making us less focused, more distracted, lonelier and stupider – in other words, less able to participate as civic actors.

So it’s somewhat surprising to discover that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, students haven’t meaningfully shifted in civic knowledge between 1998 and 2010. (Fourth graders have shown a marked increase in civic knowledge, while eighth and twelfth grades show no major change.) It’s likely that what young Americans know about civic life hasn’t shifted meaningfully for the past half century – for their book What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters, Professor Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter examined decades of data about Americans knowledge of politics and discovered that overall knowledge has changed very little from WWII to the present. What has changed is how that knowledge is distributed in society – high school graduates in the 1990s were at approximately the same level of knowledge as high school dropouts of the late 1940s, and college graduates at the same level as high school graduates five decades earlier. But because so many more Americans go to college than half a century ago, the average level of civic knowledge is as high (or low). If civics is in crisis, it’s a long crisis, not a sudden development.

There’s a case to be made that youth civic engagement has risen sharply since the mid-1990s, when Delli Carpini and Keeter published their research. Youth voter turnout was above 50% in 2008, up from under 40% in 1996, though young people vote at much lower rates than older people – 51% of people under 30 voted in 2008, as compared to 67% of people over 30. Political engagement amongst college freshmen, as measured by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, reached a 40 year peak in 2008, with 89.5% reporting they had engaged in political discussions.

If we conclude that civics is in crisis, there’s a hard question to answer: what would we do to help students prepare to become more effective citizens? William Galston reviewed much of the literature on the effectiveness of civic education a decade ago and suggests that more civic education is probably not the answer: “For three decades, the scholarly consensus has been that formal, classroom-based civic education has no significant effect on civic knowledge.” In fact, we’re so bad at teaching civics in the classroom that, “remarkably, the informal civic education that occurs in such non-civics courses as English literature may be more effective than civic education as currently taught.”

I have a hard time reconciling the state of civic education in the schools with some of the remarkable and inventive projects I’m seeing that focus on engaging high school and college students. I’ve followed with interest the work of Andrew Slack and the Harry Potter Alliance, a group that encourages fans of the Harry Potter books and movies to engage in social change campaigns consistent with the values of the books. Some of the campaigns focus on influencing the businesses that make money from Harry Potter, including a current campaign to urge Warner Bros. to use a chocolate supplier for Harry Potter chocolates that takes fair trade principles seriously. Others address issues conceptually related to the books, like gay and lesbian equality or a campaign against bullying.

It’s possible that the thousands of young people engaged with groups like the Harry Potter Alliance are a rounding error compared to the large masses of disengaged and ignorant youth the “civics in crisis” crowd is worried about. But it’s also possible that we are defining civics too narrowly to see groups like the Harry Potter Alliance as a form of civic engagement. If we measure civic engagement in terms of voting, participation in political conversations and performance on standardized tests, it’s likely that we’re failing to measure a great deal of activity many of us would define as civic participation. The same young person who doesn’t vote may be engaged in passionate conversations, online and offline, about libertarianism or about the Occupy movement. He may be boycotting conflict minerals, or organizing a campaign to support the local food co-op. She may be part of a social media campaign to call attention to conflicts in central Africa, or making viral videos to support the DREAM Act. It’s also quite possible that he or she is apolitical, disinterested and disengaged. But we’re making a mistake if we assume that voting behavior or attendance at political rallies is a good proxy for civic engagement.

Colleagues involved with the Youth and Participatory Politics project are examining this possibility, using a broader definition of “participatory politics” than is often used in the discussion around civics. Informed in part by groups like the Harry Potter Alliance, Invisible Children and DREAM Activists, they’ve surveyed youth between 15-25 and found that 41% of respondents engaged in at least one act of participatory politics in the past year, using online and offline media to express their opinions, mobilize networks and advocate for change.

Justice O’Connor is right to worry that American high school students don’t know enough about how legislation gets passed, or the checks and balances between branches of American government. But a thorough education in civic participation for the 21st century would likely also include a close look how social movements use media to influence public attitudes, how boycots put pressure on corporations, how groups of people organize online and offline to address social problems independent of governments.

My hope is that we can find a way to help people become civically engaged in a way that both leverages their creativity and full participation and has an impact on issues they care about. When we teach civic engagement in terms of institutions and systems citizens rarely interact with, except to elect representatives, we’re often teaching a very thin version of civics, in which your responsibility is to stay informed about issues and to vote every two years. This form of civic education predominates because we have some reasons to believe that voting is an impactful form of participation (though as a progressive voting in deep-blue Massachusetts, it’s hard for me to imagine that my vote is ever the deciding factor in an election.)

If conventional civics is thin, but effective, engagement through the Harry Potter Alliance or United We Dream can often be much thicker, asking participants to design campaigns and spread them through their social networks. And it’s easy for participants in a campaign to see that they’re having an impact, by tracking how many friends they influence, while it can be much harder to see the impact of a vote or even a letter to a legislator. At the same time, there are legitimate questions about whether these forms of engagement have impact, or whether they’re better understood as slacktivism or clicktivism.

We need a better choice than thin and effective versus thick and ineffective. Organizations on the political right and left have focused on making engagement with electoral politics thicker, but these efforts look as much like an attempt to recruit a small caste of political professionals as they do an effort to broaden civic participation. And organizations celebrating advocacy via media need to get far smarter about measuring and tracking their impact if they are to make the case that they are encouraging a form of participation that’s effective.

It’s not clear to me that we’re going to have an easy time teaching thick and effective civics through schools, particularly public high schools. My friend Danielle Allen gave a talk at Williams College late last year which explored a “civic empowerment gap”, the stark gap in political participation between people who go on to college, and those who end their education in high school. She noted that North Carolina is the only state that allows students to register to vote before they turn 18 and noted that the practice of registering high school students to vote in schools has fallen out of practice, in part due to voter registration laws either designed to reduce fraud or surpress participation.

Registering high school students to vote seems like a bare minimum for encouraging civic education. But as the audience at Professor Allen’s talk began debating whether registering high school students would give Democrats a political advantage, I started worrying about the challenge of teaching civics in a public school. If you’re having a debate about gun control and a student feels you, as a teacher, are taking a position too far to one side or another, it’s easy to imagine angry parents demanding you stop using the classroom to advocate for a policy position. It’s not hard to understand how, in such a politically polarized climate, we often teach the thinnest, least effective version of civics, a version where civics is a form of history, rather than a tool students could use to advocate for the positions they care about.

4 thoughts on “Is civics in crisis? Or just changing its shape?”

  1. Pingback: Links for February 16, 2013 | KevinBondelli.com: Youth Vote, Technology, Politics

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  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Beyond “The Crisis in Civics” – Notes from my 2013 DML talk

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