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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teach civics -- not activism

"Fixating on activism misses the point of civics education," write Frederick M. Hess, a former civics teacher now education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute, and R.J. Martin, also at AEI.


"Political participation" is healthy only if it's "leavened with appreciation for how our government works and the ways in which it has secured our liberty and allowed for profound social, political, and economic betterment over the course of more than two centuries," they write.


Politically engaged but ignorant is not a great combo.

In a new RAND survey, they write, more K-12 teachers said civics education is about promoting environmental activism than “knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions.” Hess and Martin call that "nuts." Eager to engage students, "too many teachers think of civics instruction as a chance to promote a particular policy agenda," they write. Will these teachers help students critique the Green New Deal? It seems unlikely.

In 2019, only 43 percent of social studies teachers said it's essential for students to understand "historical periods such as the American Founding," a 20-point drop from a decade before, Hess and Martin write. "Barely half of social studies teachers deemed it essential that students understand concepts like the separation of powers or checks and balances."


"It’s hard to imagine what could be more self-destructive to the democratic project than encouraging students who can't name the three branches of government to vigorously, vociferously demand that they get their way," they write.

More than 60 percent of college students "assert that it’s at least sometimes okay to shout down speakers who disagree with them," Hess and Martin write. "Twenty-three percent even think violence an acceptable way to silence a disagreeable speaker."


Students should have learned much earlier that "self-government requires citizens who appreciate that disagreement is a healthy, inevitable part of the democratic process," they write. Furthermore, the "legitimacy of institutions shouldn’t depend on whether we like the outcome of a given election, court case, or legislative vote."


Hess makes another point in Education Next. Teaching centered on "activism" turns students into "passive observers of the democratic process." People who "don’t know how government works or how decisions get made" may show up at a rally or vote, but they're not going to be able to "cut through all the social media and cable news hysterics."


"You can't fool all the people all the time," Abraham Lincoln said. But you don't have to.

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