By MICHAEL REBELL
Never Again, the activist gun control movement initiated last February by students who survived the Parkland school shooting, has had an enormous impact. Major gun retailers have stopped selling assault rifles and raised the age for buying guns. Major corporations have ended discounts for NRA members. The march to Washington, D.C. that these students organized in March generated massive national support.
One of these students testified at the Senate confirmation hearings regarding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether these efforts lead to meaningful gun control legislation remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, these teenagers have captivated the country with their political sophistication, media savvy and civic commitment.
But their advocacy forces a pointed question: Since the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, there have been at least 38 recorded shootings resulting in fatalities at American secondary schools. Why, then, have the survivors of the Parkland shootings been the first to take dramatic civic action to stop the carnage in America’s schools?
The answer is that Stoneman Douglas High School has a rich array of robust debate, journalism, drama and other civic enrichment activities that the vast majority of other high schools throughout the country manifestly lack.
The fact is that in recent decades, America’ public schools have largely failed to carry out their core traditional responsibility to prepare young people to be good citizens, capable of safeguarding our democratic values. It’s a crisis that has caught up to us in many ways, and one we must work hard to reverse lest our representative government fall apart in future generations.
For America’s founders, preparing young people to be capable citizens was the primary reason to establish a public school system.
Harvard historian Alan Taylor summarized the founders’ perspective as follows: “Schools needed to produce well-informed protectors of republican government. ‘If the common people are ignorant and vicious,’ [Benjamin] Rush” — one of the leading Revolution-era thinkers on schooling — “concluded, ‘a republican nation can never be long free.’”
High school graduates today, however, are ignorant of basic facts about governmental institutions and the functioning of a democratic political system.
On the civics exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (known as “the nation’s report card”) in 2014, only 23% of a national sample of 18-year-olds performed at or above a “proficient” level.
The depth of ignorance that these scores reflect are illustrated by surveys that reveal that fewer than one-third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and fewer than half of Americans could name the three branches of government.
Many students also lack a grounding in history and social studies that can provide them the perspectives they need to deliberate thoughtfully about political and social issues.
A particularly disturbing recent study on democratic values found that when asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how “essential” it is for them “to live in a democracy,” 72% of those born before World War II chose 10, the highest value, but among millennials, only about 30% accorded maximal importance to living in a democracy.
The 2016 presidential election campaign and events since have also underscored troubling trends in the present state of our democracy that clearly can be traced to the decline in civic education in our schools: the dismissal of people with opposing views; the failure of many voters to focus on substantive policy issues; and the widespread acceptance and circulation of one-sided and factually erroneous information.
Other disturbing civic trends have been present for decades: the proportion of eligible voters who actually vote is substantially lower than in almost all other developed countries; the number of citizens who actively participate in local community activities has dramatically declined; and Americans are increasingly neglecting basic civic responsibilities like jury service.
Many interrelated factors have contributed to the lack of adequate civic preparation in the schools. They include:
A loss of faith in traditional institutions, stemming in part from their failure to respond adequately to the rights articulated and expectations raised by the civil rights era, and to the inequities that have resulted from globalization and automation;
The tendency of many schools, particularly those serving large numbers of students in poverty and students of color, to focus on basic reading and math to the detriment of the humanities, social studies, civics, and the development of higher-order thinking skills and habits of mind;
The rapid spread of the use of new media, among students and adults, and the slower pace of skill-building to use them critically and responsibly;
Teacher and administrator reluctance to foster classroom discussion of current events and controversial issues;
The virtual abandonment of professional training of teachers in civics education;
The inability of many schools to provide and promote experiential learning opportunities, the arts, extracurricular activities, and internships that develop interpersonal skills and foster civic agency and empowerment; and
Inequitable and inadequate funding, especially for schools that serve large numbers of students in poverty, both in urban and rural areas.
Despite these extensive shortcomings, however, schools, especially public schools, continue to be the only places in our society in which people from diverse political and social backgrounds come together in a setting where rational discussion and understanding of differing views can be prized and rewarded.
Preparing future citizens for meaningful civic engagement in the 21st century will require schools to take advantage of their inherent potential for carrying out this critical task and to adopt approaches that recognize current political, social, economic and cultural realities.
Can this be done? Most scholars and educators who are concerned about these issues agree that effective preparation of students for civic participation requires schools to provide sufficient access to learning experiences that foster (1) basic civic knowledge in government, history, law and democracy; (2) verbal and critical analytical skills that can be applied to texts ranging from historical documents to blog posts and tweets; (3) social and participatory experiences; and (4) responsible character traits and understanding of democratic values and dispositions.
To enable and motivate schools to put these principles into effect, policymakers at both the federal and state levels must stop paying lip service to civic education and make it a front-burner priority.
They must apply accountability standards that emphasize preparation for citizenship and adopt education reforms that will ensure the availability in all schools of an appropriate range of extracurricular activities and experiential opportunities and emphasize the development in all students of critical analytic skills and civic responsibility.
Thus far, however, despite numerous calls for more emphasis on civic education, and dozens of specific feasible proposals on how schools might be more effective in preparing students for effective civic participation in contemporary times, states and schools by and large have not made education for capable citizenship a significant priority.
Policymakers and educators speak broadly about the importance of civic education, but they have proved unwilling to implement the major reforms that are needed and to infuse the resources that are necessary to prepare our students effectively for civic participation.
The leverage necessary to turn this situation around may require a strong stimulus from outside the usual educational policy arena. It may, in fact, require the intervention of the judiciary.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that schools are where the “fundamental values necessary for the maintenance of a democratic political system” are conveyed, and 32 state supreme courts have explicitly stated that preparation for capable citizenship is a primary purpose or the primary purpose of the education clause of their state constitutions.
For example, the New York Court of Appeals has held that the “opportunity for a sound basic education” that the state constitution guarantees to all students requires the schools to provide all students an education that “prepares them to function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.”
The courts have not, however, acted on their pronouncements by issuing decisions or orders that would require states to ensure that schools can carry out their civic education responsibilities effectively.
If we’re going to meet this crisis, there’s an ingrained ideological problem we must simultaneously confront. One of the major reasons for the contemporary neglect of civic preparation in the schools is that policymakers and school officials have discouraged or even barred teachers from dealing with controversial issues.
Some parents balk at the possibility that their children will be indoctrinated. And teachers also feel that they have not been trained in how to teach students to apply critical analytic skills to their use of the internet and social media.
The continuing political polarization that plagues our society is likely to perpetuate these trends.
But we can’t be afraid to wade into these waters any longer. If students are to receive the civic knowledge, skills, experiences and values that they will need to be capable citizens who are responsive to the contemporary challenges to our democratic system, we must do better.
Which means, among other things, that the courts must start playing a more active role in requiring the schools to carry out their constitutional responsibilities. Judicial declarations of rights and responsibilities in this area can inspire and induce policymakers and educators to prepare their students to confront and surmount the serious challenges to democratic functioning that our students — and all Americans — face today.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter recently said, “Civic education reform is, literally, essential to the continued vitality of American Constitutional government as we know it.”
It is time that his colleagues who are currently on the bench take these words to heart and require state policymakers to take seriously their constitutional responsibilities to prepare students to be knowledgeable and engaged citizens.
Rebell is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School. He is the author of “Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts and Civic Participation,” and is currently preparing a federal lawsuit regarding the schools’ responsibilities to prepare all students for capable citizenship.