Muscle up: Expert panel discusses new civics and ‘muscular activism’ as it relates to public ed

Written by Christine Cooke

August 5, 2020

A good civics education creates informed citizens (not just activists). It will recognize the importance of absolute truth and incorporate experiential learning. And it will require adequately trained teachers.

These were some of the conclusions from a panel of experts who discussed action civics recently at the event “We Need Some Muscle Over Here: New Civics and the Rise of Muscular Activism,” hosted by the National Association of Scholars (NAS).  

Action civics is an approach that aims to teach students civics through real-life political participation. It has advocates and critics, and it’s generating a lively conversation in the education policy space about the right way to approach civics education.

Note a few key takeaways from the NAS event discussion:

Civics education needs content before action

Action civics emphasizes learning that takes place through real-life political experiences. The goal is for students to learn through action rather than just classroom content.

Jonathan Greenberg, Director of Freedom Initiatives at the Jack Miller Family Foundation, said that he believes “a deep commitment to content has to be number one.”

Civic education is about creating informed citizens who then, should they decide to become active participants in our democracy, are prepared to do so for the common good. If your goal is to is to prepare political activists, well that’s exactly what you’re going to get, but that’s not the same thing as creating informed citizens.

The balance between content and experiential learning – and where they overlap – is an important issue for educators and policymakers to decide going forward.

Civics education should include discussion of “absolute truth”

Because civics education deals in the political realm, students will encounter a world with a range of political opinions on today’s most controversial issues. Recognizing this variation doesn’t have to preclude a search for truth in civics.

Thomas K. Lindsay, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Higher Education and Constitutional Studies at Texas Public Policy Foundation, said there is a need for civics to include a discussion of absolute or self-evident truths. He said:

Self-evident truth means absolute truth perceived by those who reason rightly today. Our students are taught given the influence of a moral and cultural relativism that if you want a free tolerant open society, you must reject the concept of absolute truth.

How educators approach the idea of and search for absolute truth is a crucial part of the discussion in civics education. 

Experiential learning is broader than action civics

Greenberg noted that experiential learning is broader than action civics, and that it may be wise to give students in-class experiences before sending them out into the political sphere.

Highlighting mock trials as an example of civics education that is not in a real-world context, Greenberg said, “That’s experiential learning, but it doesn’t send the kids down into the mouth of actual politics and asked if they have developed some kind of veneer of expertise on a real issue. It allows the kid to operate with a net.”

Experiential learning can be an effective way to teach, but action civics and experiential are not necessarily interchangeable. Educators and policymakers will need to discern when experiential learning is more appropriate than real-world contexts and vice versa.

Teach the teachers

Adam Kissel, Director of Civic and Higher Education Programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable, talked about possible reforms to the educator profession as a way to improve civics education. He discussed ideas like alternative credentialing or honors programs for education schools in colleges for teachers who seek additional training, noting that teachers play an important part in schools fulfilling their civic mission.

“If there’s one thing that public education was said to be for when it became mandatory … it was to be able to form citizens for the country,” Kissel said. “And if teachers can’t actually do that, that’s a problem for the ed schools.”

Lindsay agreed educator preparation plays an important part in improving civics. “Teach the teachers,” he concluded.

For those interested in hearing the full discussion, you can find it here.

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