Can Civics Education Repair a Failing Democracy?
Why is the United States paralyzed by polarization and distrust of government? Louise Dubé ’88 of the nonprofit iCivics argues that engagement in civic life requires skills that many schools no longer teach. The organization is trying to reverse decades of de-prioritization of civics education and train the next generation to fix our democracy.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center asked Americans what they expect for the country in 2050. On many issues, a majority held pessimistic views, foreseeing a weaker economy, a growing income divide, less affordable healthcare, and a degraded environment. On many issues, Republicans and Democrats had notably different views. “[T]he size and frequency of these differences underscore the extent to which partisan polarization underpins not just the current political climate but views of the future as well.”
There was one area of bipartisan agreement, though: the shared expectation that polarization will worsen. Overall, 65% of those surveyed believe political divides will grow (68% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats).
The partisan divide has created something of a Catch-22. “Ultimately, there is no way to figure this out without coming together,” says Louise Dubé ’88, executive director of the nonprofit iCivics, the largest provider of civics education curricula in the country.
Dubé argues that the crisis in American democracy originates in the classroom, where we have simply stopped teaching the skills for civic engagement. Young people must learn to engage and lead, to fully participate in their country’s unique manifestation of democracy. “In this country, despite our differences, we come together and talk.”
Q: What’s the state of democracy in the United States today?
Today, in America, we are deeply polarized, and our faith in our democratic institutions of government is reflected in low voter turnout. The relationship of trust between the government and its people has been fraying since the 1960s, and the divisions today are quite sharp.
Simultaneously, the foundation of civic education, as it was conceived of after the Second World War, has crumbled. Civic education has been defunded. Essentially, we’ve thrown up our hands. We have a system in which the government itself has not invested in forming students who are prepared to participate in civic life, so perhaps it’s not surprising we are facing a crisis of faith in democracy.
Q: As a leader in this space, do you see opportunities to fix or improve the situation?
I’m the executive director of iCivics; it’s a nonprofit founded by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor after she stepped down from the court in 2006. Today, iCivics is the largest provider of civics curricula in the nation, reaching nearly 100,000 teachers and more than 6 million students in every state every year. Justice O’Connor and now Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has taken her place on our board, have both been quite adamant that there should be no barrier, meaning no cost, to any school wishing to do this work.
Having spent much of my career on the for-profit side of education, I am aware that the market opportunities for civic education materials are limited today. States and school districts have allocated limited budgets to civics materials preferring to prioritize spending on other disciplines such as English, math, and science, in line with accountability/testing mandates.
In my view, those of us in this field have a responsibility to make the case to the people and to the funders and to society in general that this lack of commitment to educating young people to be participating citizens is not a viable situation long-term.
Q: How do you go about making the case?
America is a unique democracy. We came together around a set of rules laid out in a few fundamental documents; what holds us together are the Constitution and our history. That’s really not a whole lot, and yet it is a set of pretty impressive fundamental principles. What we do have is a model that says, in this country, despite our differences, we come together and converse across differences.
Not coincidentally, fundamentally, what we’re teaching kids with civic education is how to talk to somebody you disagree with, how you find evidence, how you have a conversation, how you listen attentively, and how you hope to understand and come out of that discussion as a better person. That’s the kind of public discourse that we’ve lost.
In trying to find solutions, we’ve decided we must model the core attitudes and civic skills by engaging with the other. We’ve created a coalition of people who hold very divergent points of view, but who are committed to our country, and chose to come together and make the case for prioritizing civics in schools.
It involves a lot of meetings and a lot of negotiating language that everyone can agree on. It means working to keep people on board even when discussions become animated. But that makes it very rewarding when you find a creative path forward that people really believe in. And ultimately, there is no way to figure out this out without coming together.
Q: Could you offer an example?
Civic education is reckoning with the issue of equity. Everybody is for equity, but not everybody agrees how to talk about it or what it means. How do we talk with students who perceive bias from government institutions—students who have experienced getting frisked by the police? Is that a valid way to examine what our institutions are about? Or how should we teach about the rights and obligations of citizens when students have had adversarial experiences with the state and its institutions such as the police?
Some people want us to take a stance about issues where others see a stance as partisan. We don’t have the answers, but we are trying to find a way through. We are putting into practice the democratic model of bringing people to the table people who are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum so they can talk to each other.
It can feel daunting to try to address such big issues. This is work where you’re not going to have a final definitive, “We’ve solved it.”
Yet, when it comes to the actual work that can be done in schools and with students, I’m endlessly optimistic. I saw one teacher, in an environment where the students are deeply impacted by police brutality, do a phenomenal thing. She set up a conversation between the students and the chief of police. They had a productive discussion about personal security, community safety, and individual rights. They talked about how those things overlap. When I see things like that, I’m optimistic.
Q: What is your aim in developing curricula for students?
We can talk all we want, but if we can’t ultimately connect with each student wherever they are, it really doesn’t matter. Fundamentally, we have to find a way to be able to help each kid see themselves in our democracy. That’s not necessarily easy.
Our democracy can seem like a black box. But if students find a connection with our democracy, and adults design civic experiences, little by little, showing how individual or group student action can help the whole, we can help them realize they can be change makers, they can be leaders. For some, it might be to clarify that shoveling out your neighbor’s walk, so that she isn’t going to fall because she’s a senior, is contributing to civic life. So is advocating for better school lunches by talking with the school committee. So is protesting police brutality.
Whatever the issue they connect with, the aim is to help students understand how civic institutions work and how their actions can make a difference. We seek to find paths for them to feel empowered by engaging with our democracy.
Q: When you are managing an organization where there isn’t going to be a singular, “We’ve solved it!” moment, how do you keep everyone focused and energized?
In environments where the problems are complicated, there will not be one answer. There will be either a consensus answer or an answer that fits your mission and leaves a lot of other things undone, unsaid, and unfulfilled. In an environment like that, you need to make sure that people really understand the mission and stay bounded within it. Otherwise, you can get lost very easily.
You also have to make sure that you create a set of relationships and culture around the mission that lets everyone appreciate the progress that is made because there are so many avenues that you have to let go of.
I’m very proud of the culture that we have at iCivics. It’s dynamic; it’s collaborative. We do a lot, so it has a feeling of movement. But there’s always much more to do.
Very often we’re working on problems where there is no textbook answer. There is no way to figure out what to do without talking to somebody else or working with another organization. So we try to form a lot of partnerships and try to make sure that we get a lot of people on board. That takes some creativity of spirit because it may require partnering with groups we compete with for grant funding or people that we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with, but “co-opetition” can be good.
It’s clear we’re all really in this together, and our best option to shore up our democracy is by letting kids lead the way.