The Ennui of the Civics Teachers | Opinion

The need for first-class civics instruction has perhaps never been more apparent. As the nation confronts the coronavirus pandemic and wrestles with questions of racial inequality, the civic fabric seems to be unraveling. In place of unity, trust or cooperation, we're besieged by brazen hyper-partisanship, polarization and fierce disputes about which facts can be trusted.

President Trump suggests an unconstitutional postponement of this November's general election, even as rioters indiscriminately topple statues of abolitionists and our nation's Founders, along with those of Confederate leaders. Left-leaning luminaries are subjected to cancel culture by the woke mob for writing a letter to Harper's that dared (irony alert) to criticize cancel culture. All the while, the online public square seethes with anger, distrust and disdain for compromise.

Feeding into these worrisome trends is the dismal state of civics education. A 2018 survey by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that barely one in four Americans could name the three branches of government. A study by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation concluded that just one in three Americans could pass the nation's citizenship test. And less than one-fourth of eighth-graders were judged proficient on the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics test.

Given the frayed state of our civil society and these dispiriting numbers, one might expect the nation's civics educators to be up in arms. But a new survey published this week by the RAND Corporation suggests otherwise. The survey, a follow-up to a 2010 survey published by the American Enterprise Institute, asked 223 high school civics teachers in fall 2019 which aspects of the subject they deem essential to know and how confident they are that students are learning these things.

Civics teachers appear less convinced that most of what they teach actually matters. Particularly disconcerting, just 32 percent think it's essential for their graduates to "know facts (e.g., the location of the 50 states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor)." Knowledge about "periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War and the Cold War" fared little better, with 43 percent of teachers viewing such knowledge as essential—down sharply from 63 percent in 2010. At a time when historical revisionism is rampant, with discussion of key figures and developments frequently unmoored from the historical record, it's bizarre to see those charged with preparing citizens doubting that knowledge is an important part of that preparation.

Indeed, not only are civics teachers mostly blasé about historical knowledge, but they're also less concerned than one would expect with whether students understand how the American system works. Just 53 percent think it's essential that students understand concepts like federalism, separation of powers and checks and balances (down from 64 percent in 2010), and just 43 percent believe it's important that students understand economic principles such as "supply and demand and the role of market incentives." Sixty-five percent say it's essential that students are able to identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights (down markedly from 83 percent in 2010), while two-thirds feel that way about students embracing the responsibilities of citizenship, such as voting and jury duty. That's right: Fully one-third of civics teachers are okay if their students graduate without knowing what's in the Bill of Rights.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia
Independence Hall in Philadelphia ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images

What did civics teachers deem especially vital? Well, only two out of 12 aspects of civics were judged more essential in 2019 than in 2010. One was that students "be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves" (deemed essential by 80 percent) and the other was that students "see themselves as global citizens living in an interconnected world" (66 percent). While laudable enough, both are notably untethered to knowledge or the distinctive American political tradition.

Some civics knowledge is admittedly trivial. But the location of states? The date of Pearl Harbor? Surely, it's reasonable to expect high school students to identify Hawaii on a map and know a bit about a world-changing attack "which will live in infamy." Indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone thoughtfully debating inequality, systemic racism, religious freedom or American accomplishments absent familiarity with the historic legacy.

As for the protections in the Bill of Rights, the responsibilities of citizenship, and the constitutional mechanisms that undergird our freedoms, it's simply bizarre that anyone would choose to be a civics teacher unless they thought these things were essential.

Puzzlingly, despite their doubt that what they're teaching is actually important, civics teachers are more confident now than they were a decade ago that their graduates know it all anyway. Those facts and dates that only 32 percent deem essential? Eighty-three percent of teachers are nonetheless confident that their graduates know them, up dramatically from 56 percent in 2010. While barely four in ten teachers think graduates need to understand economics, 75 percent are confident that they will—up from 51 percent in 2010. And 91 percent are sure that their students know what's in the Bill of Rights.

Optimism is a virtue. But one can't survey the bleak data regarding what students actually know and civic teachers' seeming nonchalance about their work without seeing a portrait of low expectations and misplaced confidence. Such a tale meshes all too neatly with public debates too often dominated today by the self-righteous, unrestrained and ill-informed. American democracy is a marvelous thing—one that has overcome a staggering number of challenges. The question now is whether it can weather a troubling disdain for the hard work of self-government and the ennui of those charged with instructing citizens in how to do better.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Rice is a research associate at AEI.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.