Action Civics: Teaching Students to Become Activists (Part 1 of 3)
Jurassic Park was a tremendous movie for a number of reasons. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat as I watched the suspenseful scene where the cup of water jostled as the T-Rex approached. What I didn’t pick up on as a 12-year-old in that Wehrenberg theatre were the important ethical questions raised by Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum): “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Yet, somehow, all these years later, I see this important ethical dilemma cropping up in important ways. No, I’m not referring to the idiots doing crazy things on Youtube or TikTok. I am talking about the increasingly popular method for teaching civics instruction—action civics.
As the sub-headline of Catherine Gewertz 2019 Education Week article states, “Through ‘action civics’ lessons, students become activists in their communities.” As Gewertz notes, “The name of this instructional model—’action civics’—signals its mission: not only to teach students how their government works but to harness that knowledge to launch them into collective action on issues they care about.”
This post is the first of three related to the topic of action civics. It is prompted, in part, by a recently released report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation. In their report, Thomas Lindsay and Lucy Meckler lay out important reasons for concern regarding action civics. They note:
In the course of this examination, we will come to see that, in the final count, the debate over Action Civics presents two contrasting views of democracy. Action Civics stems from a communitarian, participatory view of democracy, which finds its roots in Rousseau’s concept of the “general will.” At its philosophic roots, this agenda tends to distrust the checks on popular will offered by the representative democracy crafted by our founders and enshrined in the Constitution.
As this blog series will make clear, the proponents of action civics are clear in their intent—they hope to produce students who are more inclined toward activism. Importantly, the goal is not just to address social ills, but to address them through government action.
Many teachers throughout the country and within Missouri may have adopted an action civics pedagogy for teaching students because of the rich platitudes offered by its supporters. They may agree that students learn better by doing rather than by “sitting and getting” as is often common in social studies classrooms. The problem here, as I have alluded to in my intro, is that proponents of action civics and the teachers that implement this strategy in their classrooms were so concerned with whether they could teach students in this way that they did not stop to think whether they should.
Asking students to “become activists in their communities” or to advocate for collective government action before laying a foundation of understanding regarding political philosophy (including that of federalism and limited government) is a recipe for disaster. It leads to the types of outcomes we currently see in our political landscape where the very people advocating for the rights of one group are quick to trample on the rights of others. It drives students to see their actions as right and noble and those who oppose them as cruel and mean spirited.
Despite what proponents of action civics might say, it is not the duty of public schools to launch activists. Rather, it is the duty of public school teachers to help students understand this great American experiment in self-government. It is their duty to teach students about our institutions and their roles, as presented in our founding documents and the writings of the founding fathers. Furthermore, it is the duty of teachers to help students understand that people today have different views on the role of government and on the best policy solutions to the problems we face. If your goal is solely to create activists (and activists of a particular kind), you might skip some of these essential lessons.