Kelly is vice president of civics initiatives at the Jack Miller Center.
For those who care about civic education, these may seem like hard days indeed. Recent national assessments suggest that student learning in civics and U.S. history is down, and one doesn’t need to look hard to find depressing statistics about the civic knowledge of adults.
And yet there were real signs of hope a few weeks ago at the second annual National Summit on Civic Education, co-presented by my organization the Jack Miller Center and the Legacy Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. Our purpose was to examine civics reform efforts in higher ed and the K-12 system and to find new opportunities for collaboration in service of these reforms. The conference is unusual in the civics field in that it brings together people from across the political spectrum who care about improving education in our founding principles and their place in our national story, what we at JMC refer to as the “American political tradition.”
With a diverse array of over 115 organizations represented, attendees came with many different perspectives on what is wrong with civics today and how to fix it. Some favor greater federal investment in civics, some want revised civics and history standards and others seek a deeper understanding of how civic learning is assessed. What we all share is a sense that civics must be strengthened in this country, and dramatic action is necessary.
The summit drew particular attention to a key challenge for civic education today — the decline of trust in educational institutions. Confidence in higher education and public K-12 education has suffered steep declines in recent years. This is true especially for those on the right, but not exclusively. A Jack Miller Center poll that came out last year revealed that more than 70 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike believe that their children are not getting an honest picture of American history in school.
In higher education we see unfortunate polarization going on with the left increasingly identifying with the expertise and cultural leadership of colleges and universities and the right increasingly alienated from it. As one of the summit speakers, Damon Linker, has noted, this is a big problem for politics. This educational polarization also hampers university-led reform efforts that aim to be unifying, to represent a common ground that the majority of Americans from left to right can support.
At the conference, the Educating for American Democracy project frequently came up as an example of a promising solution to the civics crisis. EAD aims to lay out a consensus framework for what to teach as well as how to teach civics and American history. It is a good faith effort to find common ground while achieving excellence in course content. And yet, given educational polarization, efforts to adopt it face serious challenges.
New “schools for civic thought and leadership” on public universities present another important solution. These are new academic units that are dedicated to traditional liberal arts, civic education and, in the words of one panelist, “depoliticizing the university.” These emerging units have their own tenured faculty, their own majors and an explicit commitment to working with K-12 civics and history teachers. Examples include the School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, the Institute for American Civics at University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and the Hamilton Center at the University of Florida, all of which were featured at the summit.
Tamara Mann Tweel from the Teagle Foundation highlighted another important solution in higher education — new general education programs that embrace common reading lists across courses that are steeped in classic texts. Such programs have developed in recent years at a number of universities including Purdue University and Stanford University. As with new schools of civic thought and leadership, programs seek to blend traditional liberal arts and civic education by bringing students into, as Professor Roosevelt Montas has described it, “a tradition of debate about freedom and citizenship.”
Comprehensive reform requires change for students in both higher ed and K-12. Luke Ragland of Daniels Fund, the lead summit sponsor, offered a path forward through their support for the National Civics Bee in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Channeling
Alexis de Tocqueville, the initiative encourages local chambers of commerce to organize “civics bees” that bring together middle school students to compete with one another through demonstrated knowledge of civics. Teachers are often involved in helping students to participate, but importantly for Daniels Fund, the bee encourages students to study civics outside of school. This year National Civics Bee competitions were hosted in 50 cities across nine states and the Chamber aims to scale to all 50 states by 2026.
These were some of the important solutions presented at the summit, but just as important will be the many new collaborative opportunities that will grow out of this conference. No single organization is going to solve the civics crisis but, working together, reform is possible. JMC’s National Summit on Civic Education aims to facilitate this by highlighting the important work of leaders in the field. We may not all agree on a way forward, but by gathering regularly and continuing the conversation, we will forge new possibilities for a bright American future.