Required Civics Education: More Informed Citizens Thinking Critically Or Patriotic Indoctrination?

Concerned about the fragility of American democracy, lawmakers in at least 34 states are seeking to bolster civics education. Delaware, for example, is considering giving students an excused absence to attend a rally or to visit the state legislature. Indiana now requires high school students to take a civics course. iCivics, a Massachusetts-based education nonprofit, released a roadmap outlining how states and localities can reinvigorate civics and history education. The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline project reports that the U.S., spends a thousand times more per student on STEM education than on history and civics, according to the Center for Civic Literacy at Indiana University. National, state and local officials say citizens frequently complain to the wrong leaders, offices and agencies because they don’t understand basic divisions and functions of federal, state and local governments.

A number of school districts compete successfully in the Center for Civic Education’s We the People educational program and competition, 

Stateline reports that the YMCA has been involved in nonpartisan civics education since 1936. Over 55,000 students in 42 states and the District of Columbia participate in its model government program, Youth and Government.

“On the federal level, a bipartisan bill­ would invest $1 billion a year for six years in civics and history education, with money heading to states for education programs, to nonprofits for civics programs for underserved communities and to higher education programs for training educators. It would be up to school districts and schools to craft the curricula,” Stateline reported.

“But many conservatives oppose the bill because they think it would be used to push critical race theory. One right-leaning group, the National Association of Scholars, urged Republican lead sponsors Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Tom Cole to withdraw their support. They have refused.”

Shawn Healy, of iCivics, said the argument that civics education could lead to un-American indoctrination is a dangerous distraction, meant to stir up the culture war debate. “It’s pure gaslighting,” he said.

Read the full Stateline report from May, 2021.

Discussing a new civics education initiative in Florida’s public schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “There’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” 

DeSantis and others have had great difficulty defining what critical race theory actually is, USA Today reported. Teachers say they certainly don’t teach students to hate America, or that the country is inherently racist. Some of the new state laws that ban discussions of “critical race theory” or institutional racism may be unconstitutional infringements of teachers’ and students’ First Amendment right to free speech.

Beyond the political postering, there may be widespread agreement among educators for more investments in civics education.

DeSantis in March, 2021 proposed $106 million to expand civics education in Florida. Previously, in 2019, DeSantis said he wanted to require high school seniors to complete a civics exam closely resembling the test to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. 

One thing to consider: patriotic indoctrination is unlikely to work.

Peter Greene, a high school English teacher for 39 years, wrote an essay for Forbes: “Patriot Lessons Or Critical Thinking: You Can’t Have Both.”

Excerpt: “One of the long-standing holy grails of education is critical thinking. There are plenty of fancy definitions of critical thinking (”Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”). But it generally involves a couple of features—clear, rational thinking, applied to analysis and evaluation to arrive at a judgment of the issue at hand.

“In the classroom, it’s pretty easy to tell when you aren’t teaching critical thinking. If you are trying to herd your students toward a single acceptable answer to the question at hand, that is not critical thinking.”

“…A generation of carefully indoctrinated “patriots” or actual thinkers—you can’t have both. That’s the bad news for the 1776 Commission. The good news is that if you show students the full, rich, varied, complex, sometimes appalling history of their country, and help foster the tools to reflect and think about it, they might reach a mature, deep, realistic affection for the place.”

Drill Deeper:

1776 Project, A Reply to NYT’s 1619 Project, Receives Scathing Reviews

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