By Elizabeth C. Matto
The failed insurrection that motivated thousands to descend on Washington D.C. and storm the nation’s Capitol in the hopes of overturning the 2020 presidential election can be attributed to many causes. To be sure, misinformation generated and spread via social media, the outsized role of money in politics, and the direct instigation by the president and those loyal to him are proximate causes of this failed revolution.
The slow-building spectacle that erupted on Jan. 6 has a deeper cause though – the absence of a shared understanding of American democracy. And the only way to address this gap is through an investment in civic education.
In our nation’s schools, civic education has been disappearing from American classrooms and undervalued in relation to the STEM fields. When high-quality civic education is offered, it often isn’t offered equitably – with lessons in democratic citizenship going to predominantly white, higher-income, and college-bound young adults.
What results when generations aren’t taught what it means to be an American democratic citizen amounts to not much more than ignorance about core democratic processes, such as the electoral process or the absence of such civic skills as consuming news critically. The absence of these core civic competencies is detrimental.
When we don’t teach democratic citizenship, we don’t think like democratic citizens. Indeed, civic education is not only about learning the fundamentals of democratic processes or key historical moments, it’s about fostering an appreciation for its core tenets and ideals – liberty, equality, the rule of law. Storming the Capitol during the certification of the Electoral College vote is not an exercise of the First Amendment right to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances — it’s vandalism, theft and subversion.
In the absence of a shared democratic mindset, our democracy is vulnerable to repeats of such defilement with each successive election — but there is something we can do. The introduction of the bipartisan Educating for Democracy Act in both the Senate and the House of Representatives reflects the growing bipartisan momentum to get nonpartisan and evidence-based civic education in all of our nation’s classrooms. The legislation would authorize $1 billion in federal investment in civic and history education, including research, innovation and teacher professional development. Although there is much more that needs to be done to buttress this democratic republic, investing in high-quality and equitable civic education is an important first step.
If we’ve learned anything in this last week and in these last few years, it’s that American democracy is fragile. Benjamin Franklin, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, famously described the resulting governmental system as “a republic, if you can keep it.” It’s safe to say then that in order for American democracy to thrive and survive, a shared understanding not only of how it works but why it works the way it does is essential.
In short, if we’re going to keep this republic, we need to understand it. To understand it, we must teach it.
Elizabeth C. Matto is an associate research professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the director of the Institute’s Center for Youth Political Participation. Matto was the lead editor on the American Political Science Association’s 2017 publication, “Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines,” and currently serves as lead editor of the forthcoming APSA publication “Teaching Civic Engagement Globally.”
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