The Future of Democracy Depends on a Quality Civics Education

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

The Future of Democracy Depends on a Quality Civics Education

By Zachary Cote     Oct 11, 2023

The Future of Democracy Depends on a Quality Civics Education

Right now, millions of students around the country are comfortably in their seats for the 2023-24 school year. Meanwhile, almost 40 percent of the American public still contest the results of a free and fair election, and with the 2024 federal election around the corner, political polarization in the United States seems neverending, leaving democracy in an arguably fragile state.

Fortunately, in light of democracy’s fragility, there has been a steady increase in initiatives from federal and state governments to incorporate civics education in K-12 classrooms. In 2020, California adopted a State Seal of Civic Engagement that high school students can earn upon graduation. As of 2022, 38 states required a semester of civics education in high school; that same year, the federal government increased spending on “American History and Civics” fourfold. This year, in Indiana, sixth graders will take an inaugural civics course in the spring semester.

These are all great steps in the right direction, but I believe there is still a lack of respect for the importance of history and civics education. Despite living in incredibly tense times where we can’t even talk about history without fomenting a fight — or worse, inciting a civil war — we have not adequately discussed how the history classroom can create a citizenry that is stronger and more thoughtful and engaged. If we want to truly equip our students to understand and navigate the political environment that exists today, we have to think about how we teach the discipline of history more broadly.

A Good Civics Education Includes History

When teachers, administrators and legislators talk about history education, we must consider it an exercise in civics. Typically, civics is synonymous with learning about overtly political topics such as government structure and voting, but what if good citizenship goes beyond our nation’s history and political processes? To reach every student in the U.S., we must reprioritize history education as a whole, not just in parts.

Good history education empowers students to actively engage with the past they study, rather than being passive receivers of historical narratives. When students learn to ask deep questions, analyze texts and construct evidence-based arguments, they are equipped with skills that reach far beyond a history classroom. Thinking historically is at the root of those skills.

When I was a full-time history teacher at Stella Middle Charter Academy in Los Angeles, my eighth graders had just finished a Socratic seminar discussing several questions about race and immigration in 19th-century America. During the class reflection, one girl said, “Going into the seminar, I planned to write one argument for my essay, but after this, I think I’m actually going to argue the opposite.” Immediately, I heard some excitable boys in the class shout, “Flip flop!” but I quickly posed a key question to ponder: “Isn’t one of the reasons we engage in these conversations to learn to base our arguments on evidence rather than our intuitions?”

Thinking back on this moment in class, I wonder, can we imagine a political atmosphere where it’s okay not to be dogmatically glued to our own presuppositions, but are willing to be swayed by quality evidence? This is at the heart of thinking historically.

Thinking Historically Empowers Students

Thinking historically is empowering — it gives students agency and allows them to grapple with complex ideas. However, thinking historically doesn’t stop at academic skills. When we study a time and place that is unlike our own, we learn to listen better, we build empathy for diverse perspectives and experiences, and we become better people.

Currently, I serve as the executive director of Thinking Nation, a nonprofit organization working to shift the paradigm of social studies education. In this role, I regularly visit classrooms as a guest teacher and I frequently see evidence of this type of historical empathy.

For instance, last spring, I was in a middle school classroom engaging in one of our prompts that asked students to analyze how enslaved people resisted their enslavement. Students were thoughtfully discussing the small acts of resistance such as feigning sickness or stopping work in an effort to understand how people demonstrated their own agency amidst systemic oppression. Last fall, during another visit, I sat with high school sophomores who were comparing the perspectives of the people who experienced the French Revolution. While many high schoolers were quick to side with the third estate, made up of French commoners who felt the inequality of the monarchy, these students also had to learn about those who were opposed to the revolution, noting the countless crimes and chaos that created deep instability throughout the country.

While students held on to their morals and beliefs, they demonstrated empathy by recognizing that the historical moment itself was more complex than a simple bad versus good binary. Their ability to listen and empathize with the different perspectives and sources they engaged with is a benchmark we should strive for in our democracy.

Imagine if our political system was shaped by this pursuit of understanding rather than the tribalism and polarization that has come to define it. By empowering our students to think historically, they can redefine the political sphere. They can learn how to humanize those around them in ways that strengthen our country’s pluralistic democracy rather than perpetuating the culture wars that continue to sabotage our Constitution.

Historical Thinkers Can Preserve Democracy

The future of our democracy will depend on our ability to provide a quality civics education, but we must broaden its definition. Being equipped as citizens goes beyond our ability to name the three branches of government or the history of political parties. Rather, it is in the discipline of history more broadly where we can build skills, dispositions and principles that can guide our democracy forward.

Those of us involved in social studies education must make clear strides as a discipline to relegitimize our discipline in order to best equip our students for the future. In that future, citizens won’t jump at opportunities to demonize people of different opinions, believe conspiracies without knowing the facts, or remain apathetic to injustices different people experience.

Instead, students will feel confident in their understanding of history and how their political values are shaped, and be best equipped to share in the nation’s motto, e pluribus unum — out of many, one.

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