Latest news straight to you

Get our free weekly newsletter on important housing and democracy news every Thursday afternoon.

America finds itself in crisis! 

How many times have you seen this headline recently? Headlines like this and others that contain ‘shock and awe’ tactics happen so often that many of us are numb to them. This is especially true in the current climate of heightened political polarization.

Growing up in a small southern town, I was given the advice that in polite company “we don’t discuss religion, politics, or any other teams but the Georgia Bulldogs or Atlanta Braves.” In fact, many hold their Politics close as a very private matter. I would suggest that we are doing ourselves and our democratic republic harm by not discussing participation in civic life, which is often conflated with Politics.

Dr. Peter Levine, a leading civic education scholar from Tufts University, makes the distinction between Politics with a capital “P” and politics with a lowercase “p.” Politics with the capital “P” refers to what most of us think about when we hear the word: elections, legislation, power, etc. Lowercase “p” politics is what can be considered civic life: volunteering, compromising, voting, participating in Rotary or other organizations, being a part of the PTA, etc. In brief, while “P”olitics is important as we do have to have laws and elected officials, et al., “p”olitics is what most of us associate with democracy.

Americans’ participation in civic life is essential to sustaining our democratic form of government. Without it, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last. Of increasing concern to many are the declining levels of civic engagement across the country, a trend that started several decades ago. Knowledge about how the government works is lacking — and for many, this creates a feeling of disenfranchisement.

Since the No Child Left Behind policies of the George W. Bush-era, social studies in general have been moved hastily to the periphery of the educational experience — an unintended consequence, I’m sure. Technically, they are still required subjects to be taught — and they are, but the amount of time and resources spent on them pale in comparison to that of other curricular subjects such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). In fact, in the FY2019 federal budget, there was an investment of somewhere around $55 per student in STEM subjects — and $0.05 per student in civics education. Yes, you read that correctly, one shiny nickel. In speaking with a Georgia elementary school teacher recently, I was shocked to learn that on average, only 30 to45 minutes a week are spent on social studies instruction.

Let me repeat my lead — America finds itself in crisis! However, this crisis is one that we’re not talking about because it’s not polite. We are in a civic literacy crisis.

As one of the few social institutions present in virtually every community across America, schools must play an important role in catalyzing increased civic education and civic engagement. They can do this by helping young people develop and practice the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors needed to participate in civic life. Schools can also directly provide opportunities for civic engagement as a local institution that can connect young and old people alike across the community. To do this, civic learning needs to be part and parcel of the current movement across many schools in America to equip young people with 21st-century skills.

There is a movement afoot encouraging students to simply take civic action. I warn against this because they risk becoming disillusioned and perhaps permanently disengaged if they do not get results from that action. Our country and its laws are built on process. Often, the process is slower than we would like, but it is there to help ensure that all voices are represented. At the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, we exist to educate and equip students to become informed and active citizens. Notice we are not discouraging civic action at all. Rather, we are educating and equipping students to take informed action to make an impact. My research has proven that an increase in civic knowledge leads to an increase in civic identity, and, the two of those together, lead to increased civic engagement.

Across the country right now, there is a civic renewal movement taking root. In fact, there are just under 100 pieces of legislation (some good, some great, others not great or good) being considered in state legislatures across the country. In Georgia, as I write, Senate Bill 220 is being considered in the House of Representatives. This bi-partisan bill, endorsed by the Georgia Council for the Social Studies, the Georgia Municipal Association, and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, establishes a Commission on Civics Education in Georgia to support educate students on the importance of civic involvement in a constitutional republic, promote the study of local and state government, and enhance communication and collaboration among organizations in the state that conduct civics education. Nationally, there is a bi-partisan bill, Securing Democracy through Civics Act, being introduced that would significantly invest in civics education over the next six years.

As a parent, I am constantly reminded that I have to teach my children how they should act: respect adults, clean up after themselves, not to hit their siblings, etc. Those seem to be fairly simple concepts to me — as do the tenets of democracy. But, alas, democracy is not innate — and must be learned by each generation. Michael Matsuda, Superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District in California sums it up well. “If our faith in democracy is going to be restored, our young people represent the best hope for getting us there.”

Dr. Randell E. Trammell is the Founder and CEO of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, which exists to educate and equip students to become informed and active citizens. He is a nationally recognized leader in civic education and youth civic engagement and works closely with school districts across the country in developing policies and programs to bolster civic ideals. For additional information, you may reach Dr. Trammell by email or by phone 770-455-9622.

(Header Image: An empty classroom. Image by Rubén Rodriguez via Unsplash.)