Anyone who wondered, during this past annus horribilis, whether many Americans no longer grasped the meaning of democracy, could find plenty of stats to back that dismal conclusion.
In 2018 only around a third of Americans could pass a basic U.S. citizenship test modeled on the one required of immigrants for naturalization, according to a survey released by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship foundation. And that was before the Trump administration made the immigration test harder.
And in 2019, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that only 39% of American adults could name all three branches of our federal government. In 2020, that number jumped to 51%, perhaps because the first impeachment of Donald Trump provided a short course in civics.
But as antidemocratic trends threaten our country, this level of civic ignorance has revived bipartisan interest in civic education. Sens. Chris Coons (D., Del.) and John Cornyn (R., Texas) have just introduced the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would fund educators, nonprofits, and state agencies to strengthen civics education for K-12 students. The idea is to ensure sustained federal support for civics curriculum developed by districts and states.
Before this bipartisan bill gets bogged down by partisan attacks, I suggest all sides take a look at Germany’s deep experience with civic education, and the role it plays in combating extremism and racism. There are important lessons to be learned.
“Germany has a long tradition of civic education,” I was told by Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies in Stuttgart. Given the country’s history of fascism, the German federal democracy set a goal of “spreading basic knowledge of democracy, rule of law, and history of past conflicts,” Koehler said.
“We call it political education, and it is very established in our primary and secondary schools, including a history of the Shoah [Holocaust], the reign of the Nazis and national socialism, and World Wars I and II. When I went to school we had to visit several concentration camps.”
Beyond Germany’s particular history, political education includes the basics of “how democracy works, how a law is made, how elections work, and why democracy today is the way it is,” says Koehler. That includes discussing democracy’s current problems in Germany and elsewhere. (Civic education, available for adults and kids, hasn’t prevented actions by far-right extremists. But it well may have contributed to sliding support for the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party, which won 12.6% of votes in the last federal election).
And here is the most critical part for Americans to ponder: Germany has a Federal Agency for Civic Education, along with civic education centers in each of its 16 states, that is considered nonpartisan. That means they focus on producing books, workshops, and materials for teachers based on “the values … in our constitution,” says Koehler.
Teaching materials are augmented by a vast array of nongovernmental organizations, including foundations funded by each political party. There is a strong focus on the need for pluralism, and lessons on how to tell fake news from real.
Sound too good to be true? Koehler says not. “There is no partisan conflict over [federal and state] civic education centers,” he says. “They are more or less independent in choosing their topics, and have academic expert advisory groups.” Each state, he adds, “has its own focus points, different culture and political issues, but they try to follow the basic template.”
However, and here comes the key: “What is controversial in society must be presented as controversial,” explains Koehler. In other words, students must be presented with all sides of a controversy and then given the chance to argue it out in the classroom.
“The idea is so they can make their own views. There must be no conversion on political issues. This protects political education from political overreach.”
Is such a concept even imaginable in today’s America? In the last months of 2020 the Trump administration called for “patriotic education.” His presidential “1776 commission” promoted a “pro-American” civic curriculum that would downplay the role of slavery in American history. President Joe Biden has already disbanded the commission as overtly political.
Yet the fact remains that as of 2018, only nine states and the District of Columbia required a full year of civics. (In 2018, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a vague act requiring schools to give one civics test between grades 7-12 that could be based on the citizenship test for immigrants.)
Led by Judge Marjorie Rendell, Philadelphia’s Rendell Center for Civic Engagement had the brilliant idea of holding mock trials in elementary classrooms based on characters in the literature the kids are reading; the students play lawyers, judge, and jury. A great way for youngsters to learn the meaning of rule of law, but dependent on teachers having the will and time to integrate the trials into their curriculum.
To go wider, there needs to be political consensus and funding for civic education that teaches kids about the meaning and value of democratic institutions — with all their warts and historic baggage.
And that hopefully incorporates the German approach of letting kids debate the controversies.
If Sens. Coons and Cornyn (with White House backing) can convince the public that civic ed is possible, without partisan hysteria, they will truly deserve the country’s thanks.