Manhattan Institute

New York’s Civic Education Renewal

With fresh new approaches, a city-based nonprofit is reviving students’ understanding of civics.

America’s present climate of political polarization and discord has coincided with a decades-long decline in civic education. Today’s public education system either ignores civics or buries it in a generalist curriculum called “social studies.” As a result, three-quarters of Americans are unable to name the three branches of government. To regain focus, future generations of Americans should be taught the basics of our constitutional republic form of government before engaging meaningfully in debate about it.

Nonprofit leaders have called for reviving civic education and raising civic literacy standards in high schools. One striking proposal would require high school seniors to pass a citizenship test before graduation. Every adult immigrant who applies for citizenship must pass a test addressing basics in U.S. civics, including recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. These immigrants—my family included—knew the nation’s core principles were remarkable enough to justify the journey and hardships to begin new lives as Americans. Why should those of us privileged enough to be born or raised here take that civic knowledge for granted?

Based in New York City, Civic Spirit is dedicated to reviving civic education in middle and high school classrooms. Through a bipartisan, multidisciplinary approach, the organization creates immersive experiences for students and educators with three goals: give students a sense of belonging in their community and country; instill intellectual ownership over their inherited democratic tradition; and impart skills such as civil discourse and media literacy. Launched in 2017, Civic Spirit serves 14 independent Jewish and parochial schools totaling 5,000 students.

Now Civic Spirit is branching into the suburbs, with a cohort including Islamic and non-Catholic Christian schools. Educators from these schools will begin their two-year Civic Spirit fellowship in the summer of 2020, and the group is planning to expand nationwide. Lindsay Bressman, director of Civic Spirit, and her team are working on teacher-support programs and student events. In November, a teacher-development conference focused on the U.S. Census will explore the challenges and implications of this massive national undertaking, with an eye toward designing useful programs for students.

Holistic civic education demands engagement and conversation. During the upcoming Student Delegates Program, selected students will practice discussing current issues and bridging differences. As Lindsay notes, “this is a skill we don’t always see in Congress.” Lindsay’s optimistic outlook for the organization rests in her belief that “by focusing on those coming of age in America—the young students who soon will inherit the power of the vote and will one day run for office—a high-quality, nonpartisan civic education holds the key to changing this polarized, unproductive landscape.”

Despite our fractious political climate, education initiatives like Civic Spirit continue to gain momentum. They are inspiring our youngest generation to think and act as public-minded citizens. As classicist Victor Davis Hanson notes, “restoring civic education . . . will not be easy, but such a shared sense of values is critical in such a vast nation that is otherwise not defined by a shared religion, common race, or dominant ethnic affiliation.” Neither do we share a single political philosophy. It’s only with exposure to shared American principles, constitutional governing mechanics, and historical context that we can appreciate what unites us as a citizenry.

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