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From the Classroom to Citizenship: A New Report on Building Civic Engagement among Youth

Allen Mikaelian, December 2013

A new report published by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) emphasizes that civic engagement is something that must be taught, and it finds that schools are uneven in their commitment to this teaching—despite a strong desire by teachers to engage with students as citizens. History teachers who believe that their discipline is a public good because it helps create an informed citizenry (see James Grossman’s column and John Wills’s letter to the editor in this issue) will want to read this brief report, even though it does not directly address history teaching.

The report (All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement by the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge and supported by CIRCLE, which is based at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University), notes that 45 percent of youth between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in November 2012, and that 76 percent of those who voted were able to “correctly answer at least one (out of two) factual questions about where the presidential candidates stood on a campaign issue and state their own opinion on that issue.” To encourage a broader and more informed engagement, the report recommends standards “that focus on developing advanced civic skills, such as deliberation and collaboration, rather than memorizing facts.” In a separate press release, CIRCLE called the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards “consistent with the most current civic education research.” The C3 framework was developed by a consortium of states and organizations, including the AHA.

Of particular use to teachers are the findings linking classroom teaching to increased civic participation. CIRCLE’s research, and research by others, suggests a strong relationship between discussion of controversial issues and civic participation. “In the best civics classes and out-of-school civic programs,” the report notes, “diverse young people discuss important issues with civility, creativity, reliable information, and a shared desire to address public problems.” However, the report also notes an inclination among some schools, notably ones that do not perform well on the NAEP Civics Assessment, to avoid discussion and controversy. Taking these programs to task, the report’s authors claim that “trying to shield students from rancorous politics is unnecessarily defensive, if not harmful,” and adds, “Perhaps the surest way to ensure incivility in American culture is to take politics out of political education.”

Teachers know this, and a clear majority in CIRCLE’s survey had either incorporated discussion or wanted to do so. But they often sense that opening up classroom discussion will lead to controversies outside the classroom. About one-quarter of high school and American government teachers in the survey were concerned about objections from parents or others in the community over political discussions in the classroom. And while 90 percent thought they would get at least some support from their principals in a decision to teach about an election, only 46 percent thought they would get strong support. Thirty-eight percent thought they would get strong support from their district, and only 28 percent thought they’d get that level of support from parents. Notably, the more racially and ethnically diverse the school, the less likely it was to foster the discussion of controversial topics in class.

While the teachers surveyed by CIRCLE reported that they largely did not shy away from controversy, this appeared to be in spite of the fact that they sensed they had little support. However, the survey’s open-ended questions revealed anxieties about reactions outside the classroom. Parents and community members often perceive a discussion of politics as promoting a particular political agenda—indeed, even the idea that youth should be encouraged to vote, the report notes, has become controversial.

History teachers are familiar with these sorts of reactions to teaching (see for example, “Letter to an Angry Parent” in the September 2013 issue of Perspectives and the special issue on controversy in the classroom, published in May 2010). Many of the attacks on history curricula—both in K–12 and in higher education—center on the idea that teachers have “politicized” history, substituting a partisan revisionism for the plain facts. Historians often hear, from nonhistorians, calls for a return to “history as it happened,” as if there is an interpretation that is beyond dispute and therefore free from politics. All Together Now suggests that even if this were possible, taking the controversy out of history would greatly diminish history’s contribution to the creation of engaged citizens and respectful civic discourse.

The voices of history teachers are largely absent from this report, but they can significantly contribute to the solutions suggested. Thinking about controversial topics historically can guide the way to respectful debate by showing how complex these issues can be and by revealing the structures that underlie partisan differences. Injecting historical thinking into the classroom debates recommended by All Together Now would bring empathy, rigor, curiosity, and a deeper understanding to these discussions. While debating current events can show students that there is more than one side to an issue, history can help explain why. That’s the level of understanding teachers everywhere want to impart, and that’s the kind of understanding we hope citizens will take into the voting booths.

—Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.

All Together Now is available online.