This week, a call for ‘critically relevant civics,’ a new theory of school-based civics education that centers the experiences of police repression, lack of access to jobs and housing, and other social justice issues that racially marginalized youth experience outside the classroom; an articulation of critical civic empathy’s place in civic education and the need to reorient both civic and social and emotional learning towards an equity and social justice focus; an analysis of the efforts of one university’s general education program to create a course centered on multicultural understanding, civil discourse, and diversity after a racially charged incident on campus; and finally, an argument that confronting the history of the Constitution by centering Constitutional law in civics education will help Americans forge a common civic identity and promote civic understanding. 

“I look into this stuff because it’s a part of me”: Towards a Critically Relevant Civics Education, Theory & Research in Social Education, Kevin L. Clay and Beth C. Rubin

Many Black and Brown youth live in communities shaped by the processes of de jure and de facto segregation that continue to affect their lived experiences today. They face violence from local and federal law enforcement in their communities, joblessness, and decades of policy reforms that have contributed to gentrification and the isolation of low-income residents. Clay and Rubin emphasize that these lived experiences of historical and systemic inequality serve as real life ‘civics lessons’ that dramatically shape how Black and Brown youth experience citizenship, and their realizations of the limitations of that citizenship. However, they point out that these real life civic experiences are often left out of both the civic classrooms of Black and Brown youth in marginalized communities and the dominant discourse surrounding civics education. Much of the literature focuses on a civic “achievement gap” between young people from low-income communities and communities of color and those from more affluent, white communities. This assessment of civic knowledge often focuses on standardized tests and broad surveys that measure youth knowledge of the conventional political process and participation in socially acceptable forms of civic engagement such as voting and reading the newspaper. However, Clay and Rubin point out that rather than an “achievement” gap based on quantitative civics measures, the disparity between these groups is rather an “opportunity” gap, wherein youth from marginalized communities, particularly those who live in high-poverty, urban settings, do not have access to the same quality civics education that their affluent peers do. Clay and Rubin also point to civic disjuncture— daily experiences which conflict with what students learn about American ideals, such as frequent negative encounters with the police— as being essential to civic learning of Black and Brown youth. They argue that this “hidden curriculum” of policing that Black and Brown youth face should be centered in the classroom, and that social studies classrooms should hold space for students to develop a critical understanding of these experiences instead of further distancing civics content from marginalized youth through curricula that centers narratives of Whiteness rather than the consequences of history that they youth face every day. Clay and Rubin’s answer to this need is the theory of critically relevant civics. 

The researchers brought together data from three qualitative studies of civic learning in Black and Latinx youth living in urban areas in the Mid-Atlantic to explore how the lived civic experiences of marginalized youth can be used to make classroom-based civics education more critically relevant. Clay and Rubin articulated three types of civics education youth received: societal civics, classroom-based civics, and inquiry-driven civics. In the first form, students articulated personal experiences with the institutions shaping their communities, with many expressing that they felt their citizenship was limited. For example, students expressed consistent distrust of the police throughout several studies; in one study of a class of 18 Black and Latinx middle school students about the 4th amendment, 15 shared stories of violations they or someone in their community had experienced at the hands of the police. In the second form, students consistently reported that social studies classes were centered on decontextualized historical events which were irrelevant to their lives, rather than information on important historical trends that shaped the current conditions in their communities. For example, students in one study reported being discouraged from engaging with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in their social studies class, preventing them from analyzing and contextualizing a civic event that greatly impacted their community. Finally, inquiry-driven civics relates to the ways in which Black and Brown youth access the knowledge which is denied them in school, and which provides the framework for the critically relevant civics (CRC) that Clay and Rubin propose. Contrary to the belief that young people are civically apathetic, their studies show that out of school resources are a significant source of information for youth to learn about the dynamics that shaped their community. Students cited their elders and social media as significant sources of civic and historical knowledge that was not taught in schools. 

Clay and Rubin conclude that the way forward is a critically relevant civics education that centers students’ lived experiences— acknowledging that students have civic knowledge that should be acknowledged in the classroom—  and places value in the inquiry they pursue outside the classroom. CRC is a commitment on the part of educators to sustain the cultural heritages and languages of marginalized students, but combines that with critical race theory critiques of “colorblindness” and evasion of racial issues. Their CRC approach has four main principles: that unjust encounters with state agents are normal for students in poor, racially segregated communities; that inequality is structural and historically rooted; that public education should aim to give students the tools to examine and change the institutional forces that shape their lives; and that students have legitimate knowledge, interests, and concerns as citizens. By being cognizant of students’ capacity to enact change and unique experiences, such conscious civics education can close the civic opportunity gap by giving marginalized students— the ones most in need of civic skills— the capacity to both understand the root of their oppression and the power to change it. 

What Kind of Citizens Do Educators Hope Their Students Become? A Response to Storypath: A Powerful Tool for Teaching Children Civic Learning, Democracy and Education, Lina Darwich

A 2019 study demonstrated the power of Storypath, a simulation-like learning approach, in enhancing the civic education of students by integrating it with social and emotional learning (SEL). The authors of the study recognized that civics education in the United States often did not provide students with the skills they needed to develop a democratic social life, and demonstrated how the cooperative learning, compromises, and other actions students took while doing Storypath were successful in filling that gap. However, Darwich pointed out that there was one key element missing from the researchers’ study: a focus on civic learning for social justice and equity. She argues that civics teachers have a duty to integrate questions of social justice into curricula and challenge students to question the norms in societal institutions that are normally taken for granted because we live in a fundamentally unequal society that was not built to care for low-income and minority communities. Educators need to ask themselves why civics education is important. Darwich pointed out that although most teachers agree that they want their students to grow into ‘good’ citizens, educators diverge greatly on what a ‘good’ citizen is. The literature outlines three types of citizens: personally responsible ones that obey laws, volunteer and pay taxes; participatory citizens who are active in the community; and justice oriented citizens who critically examine the root causes of injustice. Darwich argues that the last one is the most essential because democracy can erode as a consequence of apathy, and that the authors of the Storypath study missed an opportunity to integrate a social-justice citizenship orientation instead of only focusing on SEL. 

Darwich points out that, as it is generally taught in elementary schools, SEL rarely acknowledges students’ emotions as a political space that is fundamentally altered by factors such as inequality, power, and privilege— the way students’ own lives affects their emotions is rarely considered. She cites recent literature that highlights how SEL can be problematic for students of color if it is not properly contextualized. Because SEL’s elements are geared towards peacebuilding, including it in a sociopolitical and racial context is important because in order to navigate modern racialized politics, students have to have both self-awareness and social awareness that allows them to challenge social problems which affect democratic life. She uses the lesson about affordable housing in Seattle as an example of how to do this. Students advocated for an expansion of the Seattle city limits. If the teacher challenged this by asking them to consider its environmental effects, and which social groups would benefit and be hurt the most, a greater social justice awareness would be encouraged. Finally, Darwich closes by advocating for the integration of critical civic empathy in civic learning, drawing from Mirra’s work in Educating for Empathy. Civic learning which actively tackles the inequities in public life and examines democratic power structures is essential. Any approach to integrating SEL and civics learning that fails to do this upholds the status quo and does not adequately prepare students to confront the social issues of our time. 

“Wicked Problems” in General Education: The Challenges of Diversity, Civic Engagement, and Civil Discourse, The Journal of General Education, Jennifer Schiff and Carol Burton

Schiff and Burton’s study follows the aftermath of a racially charged incident at Western Carolina University in which racial slurs were hurled at students, staff, and faculty who marched during the institution’s annual march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. The incident highlighted the need for the institution to double down on its founding principles of inclusivity and multiculturalism, and which emphasized the need for universities to hold true to the principle of civic education even as the shift towards a focus on job planning has caused apathy on this front. A lack of diversity measures on college campuses is defined by the researchers here as a ‘wicked problem.’ There are three main reasons that these problems are difficult to solve: (1) they have multiple causes and require solutions which address a variety of variables, (2) people choose the explanation which seems most plausible to them, limiting the scope of any solution, and (3) they have no clear stopping point, making it difficult to determine if it has been solved once and for all. Schiff and Burton use a case study approach to examine WCU’s response to the MLK incident, in which the Faculty Senate called for the university’s general education program to embed diversity into its curriculum through diversity courses. 

Overall, Schiff and Burton argue that an analysis of WCU’s approach demonstrates that a sustainable and effective approach to general education reform requires a holistic, incremental approach that takes into account unintended consequences and articulates a clear vision for student learning. They suggest four steps for other institutions considering the same curricular revisions. First, they suggest starting small with a manageable goal. One of the main issues with WCU’s initial approach that caused the liberal studies council (governing the general education curriculum) to fail is that the original faculty senate resolution called for the creation of six inclusive excellence outcomes for diversity education with no existing examples of such implementation. This required identification of where to put the outcomes in current courses, finding resources to assess the efficacy of the outcomes, finding ways to make these accessible to remote and transfer students, and a host of other variables which seemed implausible from the start. Focusing on one outcome would have been a more effective approach. Second, they suggest defining key terms so every stakeholder is on the same page. In this case, there was a lack of clarity around terms such as ‘diversity,’ ‘multicultural understanding,’ and ‘equity’ that complicated the process. Third, Schiff and Burton emphasize that altering the general education curriculum will result in unintended consequences. For example, altering the WCU gen ed curriculum would end up requiring a large scale revision of course material because it had over 200 courses and interacted with almost every academic department. While it is impossible to consider every unintended consequence, it is necessary to consider the scope of people who would be affected and gain input from as many stakeholders as possible. Finally, the researchers emphasize that a cohesive vision is necessary for any general education program. In this case, they argue that WCU should conduct a curricular review of the entire general education program to integrate the principles of civic engagement holistically into the entire curriculum. As more schools and colleges turn away from solely focusing on career preparation and give more attention to integrating civic learning and equity into their curricula, these guidelines are increasingly relevant.

Constitutional Law as Civic Education, National Affairs, George Thomas

Thomas’s piece argues that Constitutional law is a powerful framework with which to frame civics education, pointing to the lack of knowledge about the foundations of American Constitutional democracy as a key reason why politics in the United States has become increasingly tribalistic. As he points out in the last section, many Americans lack a fundamental understanding of the legal rights given to them. He argues that knowing the breadth of Constitutional history, particularly the details of the fourteenth amendment, can help frame the boundaries of modern political disputes and provide a fundamental set of civic principles that can be agreed on— in other words, we can participate in ‘informed’ political disagreements in which Constitutional law demonstrates where we disagree and we are challenged to think and reason about the most important issues that divide us. Further, he argues that teaching around a framework of Constitutional law is a more effective way to civic knowledge because disagreement is built in from the beginning, since every case covers a fundamental question about American democracy that students are given the chance to engage with. In the section ‘Teaching Disagreement,’ he explains that the Constitution provides a clear way for setting boundaries of disagreement and a model for working through these contradictions. For example, justices write opinions for each court decision that provide explanations for each side of the issue, and working through many cases demonstrates that opinions tend to break down ideological divisions rather than adhering to one political stance or another. Importantly, when studying many opinions, Thomas claims that students may find themselves persuaded by justices who they may not otherwise agree with, challenging them to step outside their own civic ideology. Much of his piece is designed to demonstrate how one court case raises questions that inevitably lead to other cases and controversies that touch on important elements of our government and how we engage with it—  Thomas claims that these disagreements form a dialogue on the “very idea of America.” He concludes that this framework prevents sanitizing American history because some of the country’s worst moments are captured in Supreme Court cases; for example, Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Korematsu v. The United States are all cases in which American law contradicts the widely accepted modern civic values of freedom, inclusion, and equity. By considering the hardest questions in relation to the Constitution— whether or not it deserves our attachment and lives up to its ideal of establishing justice— Thomas argues that students can gain a holistic civics education that recalls a common set of civic ideals, as well as challenges ideological divisions. 

Written by U4SC Summer Inters Julia Pepper