Teaching Civics in the Age of Polarization

Tamara Mann Tweel, Lindsay Bressman

To teach civics today, educators must contend with forces outside the classroom, forces that threaten the viability of American democracy. We all know the troubling statistics: Only 20% of Americans trust the government, 40% of Americans believe that the other party is a threat to the nation’s wellbeing, and a growing number of Americans believe that a “strong leader” who does not have to contend with elections might be better than our current democracy. We live in a country designed for self-governance, and yet less than half the population consistently votes. Only 23% of eighth graders demonstrated proficiency on a basic exam on the Constitution and branches of government. This is not the fault of students: social studies courses have been on decline since the 1990s.

These trends are compounded by the fact that students acquire the right to vote in the year they transition from high school to collegiate life. This period of transition raises basic civic questions. Where should graduating seniors register to vote? What rituals or education help them understand the gifts and responsibilities of citizenship? What educational institution is responsible for ensuring that students have the knowledge and skills to inherit our country? The civics education black hole has become so severe that students in Rhode Island are suing the state because, as The New York Times reported, their public school has failed to equip them with the skills to “function productively as civic participants” capable of voting, serving on a jury and understanding the nation’s political and economic life.” Our religious schools are hardly exempt from this challenge.

Over the last year, our program, Civic Spirit, has been working with schools rooted in faith traditions to learn how civic knowledge and sensibility can be amplified across their school community. Here is the good news. Most schools can contend with forces outside the confines of their classroom through the available infrastructure of their schools. To do so, schools must establish the responsibilities of citizenship as an articulated goal of secondary education.

Last summer, 26 lead educators and heads of schools from Jewish and Catholic schools came together at our Civic Spirit/Jack Miller Center Summer Institute to explore how to teach civic responsibility during a time when their students are either politically apathetic or passionately divided along partisan lines. The weeklong Institute did not shy away from the tensions of American history, the significant socioeconomic diversity of the different student populations, or the challenges and gifts of navigating civics in the context of religious obligation. Among moments of valuable tension, we had exceptional findings.

We came to understand the enormous value of the religious experience in civics education for ourselves as educators and for so many of our students. We connected over what we venerate and how we see divinity in each of our students. We learned that one of our master teachers venerates God, history and his US citizenship and that another reveres the divine sparks in her own students. Our religious connections were enhanced by our experience in America. Each of our families arrived in this country from somewhere else and claimed this land as our own. There was an understanding that we shared both a rootedness in our traditions and a belief in the aspirations of a nation that had welcomed us and created the conditions for our flourishing.

We also learned from teachers what students need in order to assume the responsibilities of citizenship: a sense of belonging and emotional connection to their country. They need fluency in the history, logic and gifts of their political institution. And they need tangible experiences participating in local civic life. This led us to articulate three pillars of comprehensive civic education: Civic Belonging, Democratic Fluency and Civic Skills. These areas address three major challenges affecting civic life today: historically low levels of trust in American institutions and democratic norms; low levels of knowledge of the founding texts of American democracy; few if any opportunities for students to cultivate or practice the urgent civic skills needed to sustain American democracy in the 21st century.

These pillars are designed to help schools create opportunities that give students a yearning for political freedom, a sense of connection to their community and country, intellectual ownership over their inherited democratic tradition, and the civic skills and commitment needed to build a more perfect union. Importantly, there is no single template for every school. Rather, schools identify where they lie on the civic education spectrum, what unique elements build the school community, and how existing courses and programs can best support, integrate and amplify civic learning in their community.

Below are three brief stories from the past semester that illuminate how schools are developing these pillars.

Civic Belonging: An emotional connection to community is a prerequisite for civic faith and responsibility.

In a modern world where loneliness, isolation and institutional disaffection are rampant, an experience of belonging has grown rare. Teachers can no longer assume that students in their classrooms feel that they belong, in their neighborhoods or in their schools. It is in this arena that religious schools have a remarkable advantage. The majority of religious schools in America are high-trust environments where students experience communal belonging at home, in places of worship, in afterschool programs and even in camps. Religious schools should not take this sentiment for granted, but rather should understand the unique gift a faith-based environment offers for students. To move from an experience of communal or religious belonging to civic belonging, religious schools need to deliberately extend their high-trust environment and make the case for moments of broader affiliation.

Audi Hecht, chair of the history department at Yeshiva University High School for Girls, has been working with a select group of students to create assemblies geared to giving the entire school community an opportunity to emotionally connect with the country. In preparation for a schoolwide Civic Arts Performance, the members of the Civic Spirit class participated in a series of workshops, sharing ideas, crafting original pieces, synthesizing musical elements, selecting iconic historical photographs, and collaboratively working under the guidance of a professional actor toward a collective artistic expression that they were proud to share with the school community. During the show, a student named Leah recalled the legacy of Seneca Falls:

You fought long and hard
For a piece of paper that delegated your equality;
So let this, this ballot be a ballad to our strength.

This captivating soliloquy gave these young women an opportunity to feel grateful for their citizenship while recognizing the political process that ensured it. Leah’s words served to connect the young women in the audience to their country, their history and the urgent value of their participation.

In just three months, we have witnessed how civic belonging can be enhanced through school assemblies, public art projects and campaigns that reach across the student body. There are also wonderful opportunities for teachers in religious schools to bring concepts of civic belonging and obligation into Tanakh and theology classes.

Democratic Fluency: Knowledge of America’s intellectual and political traditions prepares students for a self-governing society.

It is not enough for students to learn American history; they must also be able to understand the reasoning and thoughtful formation of the type of government they have inherited. Just as mathematical proficiency and Judaic literacy are goals of a day school curriculum, democratic fluency represents deep and accurate knowledge of how American democracy developed and how federal and local government works today. We argue that such fluency can develop when educators weave primary sources, historical milestones, the legacy of the three branches and basic political theory into humanities courses. This content is particularly helpful when political topics and heated conversations emerge in the classroom. Democratic fluency is also enhanced through an analysis of comparative politics and case studies that examine various forms of social governance.

This pillar was expertly highlighted in Murray Sragow’s U.S. history class at Yeshiva University High School for Boys. While teaching the “The Mayflower Compact,” the original governing document of Plymouth Colony written in 1620, Murray called attention to one particular phrase that speaks to a guiding principle of American democracy: the consent of the governed. He then asked his students a series of reflective questions: Is this how our federal and local governments still operate today? What other factors, such as campaign financing and the changing field of advertising, challenge this notion and impact the electoral and political system? As the governed, what should you want or expect the government to do? The teacher thoughtfully linked the words of an almost 400-year-old primary source to the serious questions of contemporary democracy that his students will face as they prepare to take on the responsibilities of citizenship.

Democratic Fluency can be taught inside history, social studies, and English or literature classes. We have also found that in-school government and afterschool clubs offer students an opportunity to apply and deepen their knowledge of governmental and electoral systems.

Civic Skills: Competency in civil discourse, media literacy, and collaborative problem-solving teaches collaboration and engagement.

“Democracy,” wrote the American philosopher John Dewey, “has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” Civic skills for democratic life will never remain stagnant. Each generation must discover and decide what skills are urgent and how they will be taught. Three skills are particularly vital today: civil discourse, media literacy and civic problem-solving. The classroom provides an opportunity to teach, practice and strengthen these skills. At De La Salle Academy, an independent middle school started by Lasallian Christian Brothers in Manhattan, where 90% of students are first generation, social studies teacher Wilson Martinez has intentionally integrated civil discourse into his sixth grade core class.

During a unit on discourse techniques, Wilson asked his class, “What are strategies you can use when stating your perspective on a controversial issue to try to persuade the other side?” “Humor,” one student suggested. “Pausing,” said another. “Tell a story,” a young woman proclaimed. “Exactamente.” “Now,” Wilson looked at the students quietly, “What is the difference between dialogue and debate? What do you do differently with your voice when you’re in dialogue?” The students thought. One boy with thick black glasses concluded the class, “You lower the tone of your voice. You want the other person to feel you are here to listen.”

To effectively ensure that our students possess these key civic skills, all of which will help them thrive in college and beyond, middle and high school teachers should receive quality professional development training and have access to engaging resources and lesson plans. Fortunately, there are excellent organizations throughout the United States with core expertise in each of the competency areas. Well-trained teachers can integrate these skills in a wide variety of existing courses and clubs, from an elective psychology class to a debate club and even a school newspaper.

Religious day schools, which prioritize values, communal obligation and the gifts of inheriting a tradition, are well situated to incorporate the pillars of civic education into the current structure of the school. However, one critical component of comprehensive civic education necessitates that school communities move outside their four walls: the chance to meaningfully interact with other students who come from distinctly different backgrounds.

The American public square requires that people of different faiths, socioeconomic status and backgrounds come together to solve significant issues, be it public transit, housing concerns or access to health care. Students need to practice listening and communicating with different types of individuals as equal partners in civic life. It is for this reason that we created Civic Spirit Day, a daylong event dedicated to collaborative problem solving. More than 150 students from our partner schools, representing immense diversity across religious, economic, racial, ethnic, political and geographic differences, will convene on May 1, 2019, to design solutions to a selected civic issue. This year’s topic will focus on National Service. Outside of Civic Spirit Day, this program will provide a model for schools to give students ways to work on local civic challenges with diverse cohorts.

In 1853, Herman Melville penned the tale of a staunchly apathetic scrivener named Bartleby. We read Melville’s short story at our Summer Institute as a way to anchor conversation in an emotional connection to text. Written in a decade consumed by the question of slavery’s expansion, “Bartleby the Scrivener” offers us a way to discuss the challenge of responsibility. What are the limits of our responsibility? How do we reach out to students consumed by loneliness, inaction or even anger? How do we give our students all that they need, emotionally and intellectually, to take up the full challenges of civic life that await them?

The famous phrase of Bartelby, “I would prefer not to,” has stayed with our team as we encounter educators, principals, heads of schools and students who always give us the opposite refrain: We must. It is time to ensure that all of our students are prepared to inherit and invest in a democracy that has always and will always require their full participation.

To Read More

Research on Youth and Civic Engagement: tischcollege.tufts.edu/research/circle or civicyouth.org

Political Partisanship and Faith in Democracy: people-press.org

Civic Education Opportunities in Religious Day Schools: civicspirit.org

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019