The two pillars of democracy — trust and truth — are now broken. Many Americans believe the political system is corrupt (e.g., rigged, racist), and some do not trust the results of elections, even if they are certified fair. In this regard, we have lost a common standard of truth and, with it, common criteria for distinguishing facts from lies.
A crisis of confidence has been brewing since at least the Vietnam War. The crisis of truth is more recent and related mainly to the fragmenting effect of cable news and social media (each capsule has its own reality). It blurs the distinction between journalism and gossip. To make matters worse, we suffered from a president who brazenly and ruthlessly lied while redefining the way citizens talk about public policy.
Crises are connected. As science fiction author Neal Stevenson has observed, “the ability to communicate honestly about shared reality is a fundamental element of civic consciousness that we never knew we had until we suddenly and surprisingly lost it.”
Civic education in school should do what it can, and here are two foundations that are fully in line with it.
First, teach democracy. We can start by revitalizing the public high school curriculum. Along with US history courses, it is now a primary civics site at the school. Most students in the country take it, often in their senior year when they reach voting age. And there is a course in Washington required for graduation.
This is a nonpartisan course that teaches the basic ideas of American democracy: individual rights and liberties, equality, justice, and the rule of law, limited government, federalism, interest groups, and checks and balances.
Bringing the course to life means deepening students’ study of these concepts, which takes students beyond memorizing definitions to applying the concepts to real-world situations. It also includes experiential learning, such as role-playing political simulations and solving societal problems of interest to them.
But there is one obstacle: if students are to succeed in high school, a robust social studies program must be restored in the younger grades. Later learning grows in the garden of early learning; knowledge begets knowledge. The recent craze for reading and math testing has relegated elementary school social studies to the back burner, uprooting gardens and disrupting sequencing. We have to get him back.
Second, to teach discussion. When children first come to school, they leave the private world of childhood and family. Familiar everyday life and relationships give way to a crowd of strangers and new ways of interacting “in person”. This makes the school ideal for teaching students to communicate with others, whether they like them or not, to form and express opinions, to learn to deal with competing viewpoints and seek compromise.
Teachers who regularly plan and lead discussions do so because they know the consequences. Students improve their reading comprehension and learn to think. These are not bull sessions. Discussion gives students an opportunity not only to express their knowledge, but also to determine whether what others are saying requires them to change their opinion. This is civil discourse.
Schools can teach democratic knowledge and debate in tandem. Schools have the necessary assets: curriculum, diverse student body and teachers. They have primary varieties for planting seeds and superior varieties for growing them. And schools are places where language is king – where language, not violence, is mobilized to settle disputes.
Knowledge of democracy and the ability to dialogue with others are the basis of civic education at school. Neither is easy to achieve, but the necessary resources are there.