How can America Succeed if its People don’t know How it Works?


The slogans of the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol demonstrated much passion. But they had little understanding of how a democratic government works. Nor did they care to find out. Foreign terrorists did not manipulate them. They earnestly believed, as President Donald Trump told them that day and for weeks beforehand, that Congress was about to trample on their freedom and liberty. Many of them could have been your neighbors.

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a friend pointed out that the lack of an educated populace leads to the expectation that they can be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization and open to demagoguery.  Jefferson wrote that they expect “what never was and never will be.” That unrealistic expectation is at the crux of why our nation’s schools must teach civics so that as adults they understand what is possible in a democracy and the principles that sustain it. 

Schools are failing to graduate future citizens of a democracy

“Schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.” This was the conclusion reached by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey in their joint Century Foundation report released in 2011, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education.” The foundation is a nonprofit public policy research institution supporting a mix of effective government, open democracy, and free markets.

Image: Brian JM SPIES on Flickr

survey taken in 2014 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that many citizens are unaware of how their government works. Only 36 percent of those surveyed could name all three branches of the U.S. government, and 35 percent could not name a single branch. Their 2016 survey found that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government. And at the same time, there is a wave of growing anger at the government not working.

Lacking knowledge not only makes our citizenry ineffective for making government accountable, but it leads to distrusting democracy altogether. Kahlenberg and Janey noted that a 2011 World Values Survey found that, “When asked whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase of one-third from a decade and a half earlier. Such figures suggest that our core democratic cultural values are slipping away. 

Civics is about cultural values, not just elections

Damian Ruck’s December 2019 Nature research article, “The Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies,” revealed that stable democracies tend to rest upon two cultural foundations: “openness to diversity and civic confidence.” To survive, democracies must be “tolerant towards minority groups” and “civic institutions, including government and the media, [must] command the confidence of the people.” Teaching civics in schools should build confidence in a democratic government’s ability to be representative and tolerant of all citizens.

However, civics classes can be selective in the historical information provided to students and thus politically biased. Consider how former President Trump’s 1776 Commission and the New York Times’ 1619 Project have been viewed.

In September 2020, Trump announced he would establish a 1776 Commission to promote patriotic education. He wished to combat the “result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” The 1619 Project was cited as an example where “the Left has warped, distorted and defiled the American Story.” On November 2, the day before the 2020 elections, Trump by executive order established his 1776 Commission. The day before the January 6 insurrection, the commission of 18 members met for the first time. 

No professional historians were included. The commission chair was Larry Arnn, president of the private conservative college Hillsdale College and a founder of the far-right Claremont Institute. On January 18, 2021, two days before the end of Trump’s term and only 30 days after the commissioners were appointed, they released a 41-page “The 1776 Report.” It came without citations or footnotes and no identification of its primary authors. 

The report promoted “patriotic education.” Trump, and seemingly most of the commissioners, felt that schoolteachers who echoed the Times’ 1619 Project theme were attacking the country’s founders and principles of freedom and liberty. The Times said to the contrary, its 1619 Project’s aim was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” The 1776 Report, reflecting Claremont Institute’s political orientation, saw the Project as an expression of progressivism which they considered an “ism” like fascism and Communism. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary when she kicked off the 1619 Project with an essay headlined: Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true. Her article is a polemic on the evils of slavery buttressed by extensive historical data. That evil began with the 400,000 enslaved Africans sold into America before the international slave trade was abolished. Although they formed one-fifth of the young nation’s population, they were treated as property that “could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift, and disposed of violently.” They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, they laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, and they made vast fortunes for white people North and South. They fought in every American war; the first person to die fighting the British in the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a fugitive from slavery.
The 1776 Report and the 1619 Project represent a long-standing cultural division in this nation in determining a civics curriculum. Conservatives highlight the written principles of the American revolution and believe that emphasizing our nation’s dependence on slavery is a deliberate slight to honoring our civic heritage. Liberals insist that slavery created America’s civic institutions and a culture that still divides our country along racial lines. The challenge is to teach students how government functions and how democratic principles that are the foundation of our unique republic must guide government functions to administer justice fairly to all citizens. Yet the current efforts at promoting civics education focus primarily on the mechanics of governing.

Civics education is fragmented and incomplete

According to The Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government study or civics classes. Thirty-one states only require a half-year of civics or U.S. government education, and ten states have no civics requirement. Since decisions are made by each state or school district, there is no required national coordination on fundamental principles or topics to be covered by civic classes.

The constitution leaves public school education in the hands of the states. Consequently, there is no federal jurisdiction to make civics a requirement or to define the subject matter. Federal financial aid only amounts to 8% of the total cost to run the nation’s public schools, according to national data collected for the 2017-18 school year. The remainder of the funding is about evenly divided between educational districts and states. Most K-12 federal funding goes to the most economically vulnerable students through the National School Lunch Program and the Title I program. That money goes for social assistance, not educational programing.

To reach some standard measurement of civic education, 17 states require high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam before graduation. Unfortunately, the exam is heavy on dates and minutiae. It does nothing to measure comprehension of the principles underlying our republic.

Other states take more of a hands-on approach by allowing credit for community service, although almost none requires it. Only Maryland and the District of Columbia require community service and civics courses for graduation. Surveys have shown that states with the highest rates of youth civic engagement tend to prioritize civics courses. Ten states with the highest youth volunteer rates have a civics course requirement for graduation.

Nonprofits have stepped up to expand the discussion to include the principles of seeking social justice as part of our heritage. One of the most significant collaborative efforts is an alliance of 36 nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations that formed the Civics Renewal Network, which grew out of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Their primary function is offering free online classroom resources for civics education, much of it available for teachers through the one-stop website

Another successful effort has been iCivics which offers free lesson plans, games, and interactive video games for middle and high school educators.  By 2015, the iCivics games had 72,000 teachers as registered users, and its games had been played 30 million times. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor left the iCivics organization as her legacy and iCivics is committed to unveiling the larger context around institutional racism.

Teaching Civics Nationally Will Not be Easy

Image by Harish Sharma from Pixabay

By far the most ambitious plan underway to teaching civics is the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education. The roadmap is not a national curriculum nor a set of instructional standards. Instead, it recommends approaches to learning civics. The initiative involves over 300 academics and educators. An executive committee of seven, including the executive director of iCivics, Louise Dubé, coordinates the effort. They have an ambitious plan to reach 60 million students by 2030 and provide them with access to high-quality civic learning opportunities. Over 100,000 schools have been designated as “civic ready” with a Civic Learning Plan and resources to support it.

This effort places civics lessons in the context of our country’s complex cultural history, one that championed liberty and freedom while still enslaving people for over 200 years. Instead of preaching a singular view, this initiative encourages debate and exploring the need for compromise to make constitutional democracy work. 

While this roadmap may serve as a template for teachers willing and able to teach civics, it is still a long way off from establishing any federal standards or recommendations for topics to be covered in civic classes. The last time that was tried, in 1994-1995, the Senate rejected the National History Standards proposed by the National Endowment for the Humanities/U.S. Department of Education by a vote of 99 to 1.

In keeping with this localist tradition, Trump said that the federal government should protect and preserve state and local control over schools and curricula. His administration opposed imposing a national curriculum or national standards in education. But Trump went further by rejecting the Common Core curriculum, which state governors and school districts created, not the federal government. That curriculum specified what students should know at each grade level in the fields of math and reading. Since 2010, 41 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have adopted the curriculum. As of 2015, five states had repealed Common Core, and additional state legislatures were repealing its use in their state.

States were encouraged to adopt the Common Core by the feds providing waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. However, that act was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which prohibits the federal government from coercing states in any way from adopting the Common Core and any similar academic standards. Unless that law is amended or a new one passed, there will be no required national curriculum for teaching civics in public schools. Efforts to share a common civics standard will continue to be limited to nonprofits encouraging states and school districts voluntarily to coordinate their efforts. 

Improving our civics education is no easy task. Our country’s federal model delegates power to the states to control public education. The word “education” appears nowhere in our constitution. Within their boundaries, only states can mandate a civics curriculum. Teaching civics that promote democratic cultural values, such as tolerance and inclusivity, would have to be approved by state legislatures.

Democracies worldwide face a similar challenge, although all democracies need to teach civics. Charles Quigley, the Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education, summarized that need. “Democracy requires more than the writing of constitutions and the establishment of democratic institutions. Ultimately, for a democracy to work, it must lie in the hearts and minds of its citizens. Democracy needs a political culture that supports it.”

This story is reprinted from Nick Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


  1. So Federal mandates on school curriculum is your answer ?? Teacher/school administration have had no part in dumming down our youth. If you check, I think you will find private school children are more aware of civic questions and better educated generally, so doesn’t SOME of the blame fall on government’s involvement in our system ?

  2. Last year’s Educating for Democracy Act, which is now known as the Civics Secures Democracy Act, is not a government mandate. If you blame the lack of civics in our public schools consider that local communities and the states account for 92% of their funding. So you can’t blame the federal government.
    Also, the underlying ignorance of understanding our civic values is due to our culture of neglect, not a domineering government.
    If you think that students are ignorant of our civic values, do you think religious schools would be a better place to teach them? Keep in mind that private schools account for 25 percent of the nation’s schools and enroll 10 percent of all PK-12 students. Most private school students (78 percent) attend religiously affiliated schools. White students make up 69 percent of private school enrollment. Not a neutral ground for inspiring inclusivity or civic values not shaped by religion.

    • So 69% of private school enrollment is white.
      Just fwiw Non-Hispanic whites make up around 2/3 of the US population.
      (⅔ = 67%)

      So I’m not sure what your statement is supposed to mean except maybe you think about race too much? (Dwelling on race doesn’t help black people but simply offers progressive whites the opportunity to look good.) Next thing you’ll urge us to go to a re-education camp in the interest of “anti-racism”.

        • Phil, I totally agree “we are not all alike and are not going to think alike, no matter where the brainwashing comes from.” There is a real challenge trying to set a reasonable approach for teaching civics that does not promote one’s own or a communities’ own values upon students.
          A former teacher wrote to me in response to my essay: The central issue with teaching civics is the values influencing the presentation of that curriculum. Those values may be in conflict with family values, religious values, social values of your community. How that civics course is shaped, or allowed to be shaped, will depend on the jurisdiction offering it. Instead of opening dialogue with those we teach, it may actually serve to reinforce current values.

  3. i am glad that 31% of the private school enrollment is non white ; it would seem like progress to me, probably because of charter school acceptance by minority parents.
    When i attended parochial school we had civics in the 8th grade (in fact I remember debating DC’s lack of representation 1953).
    Nick, we are not all alike and are not going to think alike, no matter where the brainwashing comes from.

  4. Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, your statement: “Dwelling on race doesn’t help black people but simply offers progressive whites the opportunity to look good,” is a judgment you are free to express. But projecting motivations to any political opinion goes down a rabbit hole for both those on the left and right. It is easy to attribute motivations, particularly without providing some consistent measurable behavior as evidence. It leads to fearing that the other will impose drastic measures, like setting up re-education camps.

  5. Maybe one approach in Seattle would be to have a series of weekend seminars or a summer camp on civics, taught by volunteers (former electeds, retired profs, citizen activists) who know the way things really work. No charge, cross-generational, diverse, partly Zoom-y. A pleasant way to learn and to launch networking that might get more folks interested in public service. I can see Chamber, Municipal League, League of Women Voters, UW Alumni Association and others pitching in. I nominate Licata, Richard Conlin, and Dan Evans as the troika to make this happen.

    • Dan Evans was a fine governor.

      But I wonder if he has the energy to speak out. His silence over the last four years of Trump speaks very loudly and my interpretation is that he is tired and wants to be left alone.

  6. David, Thanks for another innovative idea! I think it would take a lead agency and dedicated staff to get this underway. It is a solid idea that I think it would attract the attention of some organization to take on that challange.

  7. To bad Bob Gogerty is not alive, no one better to explain how “Politics really works” (not as civically as thought) 😉


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