Our current political polarization is highlighting the lack of civic education in our schools and in our communities.  In fact, Fourteen students in a Rhode Island lawsuit say the state provided such a substandard civic education that it “violates their rights under the US Constitution.”  In fact, the US is one of only a few countries to have not ratified “the UN’s decades-old treaty on children’s rights, which stipulates various educational protections” for children.  Last year, the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia Teachers College was preparing a lawsuit to improve civic education at a national level.

If we define a healthy democracy as one in which the rule of law, separation of powers, and the freedom of press are sacrosanct, then we must acknowledge that we are in crisis. When the predominant measure of our success is our GDP, which includes negative contributors such as $300 Billion in treating stress, treating unnecessary diseases and poverty-related disabilities, how are we to move our society toward greater health? Where our problems are unaddressed with productive public debate and a gridlocked congress, then our culture is stagnant.  Democracy does not die all at once, it is the result of a “gradual breakdown of mutual toleration and respect for political legitimacy of the opposition;” we are on the slippery slope of democratic backsliding.

A healthy democracy requires an educated populace committed to defending its basic principles when they weaken or come under attack.  Recall the French Revolutionary slogan Vivre Libre ou Mourir (“Live Free or Die”) and “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.”  At some time in each of our lives, we must ask “what would we be willing to fight and die for?”  Most of us would defend ourselves and our families, but how often do we face the question: would you be willing to fight and possibly die to defend democracy?

Democracy-building in Iraq and Afghanistan have not worked; the strategy of imposing democracy from the top down is highly questionable. Previously stable democracies are backsliding towards autocratic rule in Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines. The failure of the democracy to take hold in the Arab spring teaches us that a deep commitment to democratic values and institutions is necessary.   Citizens must commit themselves to be active in their emerging democracy, even in the face of eroding civility and often in fear of autocratic rulers for democracy to develop and truly thrive.

So, how do we ensure civics education for learners of all ages?  How do we promote civics education that engages more citizens in healthy, constructive public participation? What are the barriers to achieving healthy public participation?

Economic Security and Stability

Beyond each citizen’s personal commitment to democratic values and institutions, what does it take to sustain a healthy democracy? Maslow teaches us that when we are insecure, our higher motivations and civilized behaviors are replaced with the stress of surviving each day. When we are continually in a state of personal crisis, social norms and institutions are questioned or abandoned and fear takes hold.  As economic insecurity and instability affect more citizens, our democracy is threatened.

58% of Americans have less than $1,000 or no savings, and only 16% can muster $20,000 or more.  Some spend without a plan for savings, but the majority don’t earn enough. Many Americans do not have  stable enough work to feel comfortable embarking on a long-term savings plan.

Uncertainty erodes the confidence to save or purchase a home, payoff student debt, and invest in long term savings. 44.2 Million borrowers are carrying 1.52 trillion in debt, are defaulting at a 10.7% rate. Variable work schedules and the increasing frequency of job changes, and rise of the contingent workforce undermine saving, home buying, and wealth creation.  These numbers do not appear to be improving as income inequality continues to grow; only 10% of Americans saw their net worth grow over the last decade.

Throughout our history, our elections reflect the current mood of the populace. When we are healthy, whole and able to successfully manage our lives, we seek a steady and predictable candidate. When we live in perpetual crisis, we are each prone to believe in the rhetoric of a demagogue: The downtrodden support a strong defender, the disenfranchised herald a heroic champion, the disempowered yearn for a spiritual leader. Declining economic stability and security leads to short term, selfish voting decisions. And it follows on from there: as go our citizens, so goes our society. Character is Destiny.

Empowerment and Access

According to FairVote, 60% of Americans vote in presidential elections, and 40% in midterm elections. Compared to its international counterparts, the U.S.  ranks 26th out of 32 highly developed, democratic states.  It ranks below Mexico (66%), Greece (62%), and the Scandinavian countries (70-82%).

Factors impacting voter turnout include:

·       Education level – those with more education have higher voter turnout.

·       The competitiveness of the election,

·       Timing of the election, including early voting and the order of your state’s primary election day,

·       Race, gender, and socio-economic demographics indicate that empowered populations vote at a higher rate.

·       Political disengagement - the result of fatigue, resignation, and a sense that one’s vote does not matter.

Voter suppression and gerrymandering reduce empowerment and access. Sidestepping arguments over political motivation and blame, is voter manipulation and suppression really easier than voter education? Shouldn’t we seek to empower and enable - to legitimately sway to our causes - not to restrict?

Some parties and candidates try to “lock in” their base by creating emotional triggers; they intentionally fan emotional responses for short term accolades. When we are emotionally marginalized or compromised, we abandon the tenets of reason, we either explode in anger or implode and withdraw, and are not available for constructive discourse. When we are emotionally compromised, we overlook the fallacies of obviously deceitful propositions such as all taxes are bad taxes or that corporations are inherently evil.  If a reasoned discussion is how we conduct our discourse, it is unethical to lock in your base by inflaming passions and creating emotional triggers.

The influence of organizations and dark money further affects our elections and our voters.  Dark Money, or anonymous donations, and the right for organizations to engage in political free speech leads to a complex debate about money in politics. Organizations, on the right and the left, have drowned out the voice of the individual voter, further marginalizing individuals.  Corporate personhood, as extended through the Citizens United Supreme Court case is controversial: Does this ruling usurp the principle of one person-one vote. In what ways should corporations have constitutional rights if any? Does corporate personhood violate the 14th Amendment (Equal Protections Clause)?

Economic stability, opportunity, and fair enforcement of justice are necessary conditions. Necessary, but not sufficient.

Education and Civic Engagement

Civics education and participation is the cornerstone of civil society, for only an educated and committed populace will sustain a vibrant democracy. According to Richard Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey in their Century Foundation report and described in the Atlantic, “Civic Literacy levels are dismal.” Civics education in the US is primarily relegated to K-12 public schools, and typically as a required Poly Sci and Government course in Colleges/Universities’ general ed requirements.

Each state publishes or adopts educational standards in each subject defining which learning objectives are to be taught at what grade level.  The Common Core standards, adopted by forty-two states, does not even have a civics component. Not surprisingly, analysis of the state of civics education points to declining capabilities of our high school graduates.  The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed a roughly 25% proficiency rate across grades 4, 8, and 12.  In 2013 the NAEP discontinued measuring civics capabilities in 4th and 12th grades “in order to save money.” Schools can do better, but schools alone cannot develop an informed and active citizenry.

For the general citizen, maintaining a current civics education is up to the individual. this effort typically involves keeping up with current events, by volunteering, or through support and participation in cause-related groups and nonprofits. However, service clubs, such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, etc. are experiencing a steep decline in membership (58% from 1975-2000 with continued decline across the board since). As our population ages and time demands on working families multiply, these declining membership trends will likely continue.

Our public forums are now media outlet comments pages and social media platforms which are  engineered for stickiness: to sell advertising, not for productive dialog. If we are to contrive a system of civic participation, it must be engineered from the bottom up, not from a market share gaining mindset. And it needs to be championed by a broad and deep cast of citizens.

Requirements for A Contemporary Civic Education Program

So what would a revitalized civic education model look like?  Here are a few suggested requirements, we encourage the reader to join this conversation.

Civics Education Should:

1.     Ensure that our public education system provides the background knowledge and skills for effective citizenship.

2.    Goes beyond K-12 to provide a continuous learning model throughout our lives.

3.    Provide mechanisms for healthy and constructive dialog and decision-making.

4.     Be cost accessible for all citizens; regardless of economic ability or demographic.

5.     Provide flexible access and delivery to meet various scheduling and geographic needs.

6.     Meet the ever-diversifying and changing needs of our population.

7.     Reflect the continuous and evolving nature of information and current events.

8.     Develop a commitment to civilized behavior - a good neighbor ethic - and a respect for and ability to address divergent views and complex problems and difficulties.

9.     Foster critical thinking skills and an independent commitment to democratic values.

10.  Provides a highly interactive program where participants can interact to explore and develop their perspectives on complex issues and challenges

11.     Recognize that democratic commitment is an evolutionary process, susceptible to devolution if not nurtured.

12.  Teach the lessons of history and their application to the challenges of today.

13.  Develop the mettle of our character.

14.  Sustains participants engagement to ensure continuous learning.


A healthy state consists of informed, rational, caring citizens who work collaboratively to establish structures that provide security, enable economic opportunities, while ensuring a healthy society, with “liberty and justice for all.” This does not mean that we all agree; it is through the friction of debate that we collectively rise up. The left wing emphasizes a healthier environment and growing civil rights, the right wing emphasizes economic growth and security. These are all common values expressed with the tension of differing priorities. Through constructive debate we advance and overcome. There are eternal conflicts between us which have no clear answers: competition for resources, balancing the individual freedoms versus attending to the common good, the centralization and decentralization of power. Making decisions on cost alone has consequences for our quality of life.  An emotionally triggered or marginalized population is not in our best interest.

We - every citizen – need to be the adults in the room; though we may not be 100% successful, we are 100% responsible. The last sentence of our Declaration of Independence calls for the mutual commitment of our lives and resources to protect and build our democracy by participating in a invigorating educational programs.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Will you stand up for democracy?  What are your thoughts? What requirements do you have for revitalizing adult civic education?

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