All the Lawyers Agree: There is a Crisis in Civics | MIT Center for Civic Media

All the Lawyers Agree: There is a Crisis in Civics

On Monday, I attended the conference Civics Education: Why it Matters to Democracy, Society and You co-presented by Harvard Law School and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. I liveblogged all four panels for the Center for Civic Media:Logo from the iCivics game 'We the Jury'

I want to summarize some of the key points made by panelists and in questions from the audience. But more importantly, I want to respond to what I think were some glaring omissions in the discussion.

Key Points and Problems at the Conference
Howard Gardner (my former boss at Harvard Project Zero) offered four elements in the first panel that he deemed necessary for successful civic education and outcomes: 1) Kids need to have stuff they care about, 2) they need to feel efficacious that they can do something about an issue, 3) they need the relevant knowledge and skills, and 4) they need to adhere to a value system that justifies their civic engagement. Howard stressed this last point, saying that i didn’t matter if they felt efficacious but if they didn’t have a sense of the greater good to which they are working, it was irrelevant. He complemented this framework with research findings that show that underprivileged kids often have a deep passion to work on issues affecting them, but that they rarely feel efficacious. Privileged kids had the opposite problem: plenty of confidence in their efficacy, with little passion. Many panelists later used these points as starting blocks for their own remarks, and the important dichotomies between passion and action, and knowledge and sense of efficacy were debated.

Peter Levine from CIRCLE and Tufts University made an unexpected (to me) argument during the first panel that youth should be learning how to do public policy analysis in high school civics classes. His point underlined the themes of a need for deeper and more critical civic literacy and possibly the need to write civic education into the curricula of multiple subjects, including math and science.

Gene Koo from iCivics in the second panel, as well as several other panelists and audience members, discussed that crisis in civics education is running parallel with and exacerbated by what seems like a crisis in professional development for teachers. He talked about how iCivics offers professional development and in many cases teachers don’t have the time or the money, a result of a larger lack of support for professional development by school administrators. This is part of a larger budget crisis in education but when we compare it STEM education, we also see where are priorities are.

Justice David Souter offered an eloquent argument during the third panel for 1) the importance of a traditional civics education involving a thorough understanding of the Constitution and the three branches of government, and 2) the need for a unified value system under the Constitution to keep the disuniting tendencies inherent in the United States’ nature from tearing us as a country apart. Justice Souter suggested that understanding the fundamentals of government lays the groundwork for actualizing the values of our democracy. His point about the Constitution as a unifying value system was an elaboration on and suggested solution to Howard Gardner’s earlier point. Later in the same panel, Harvard Constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe disagreed with Justice Souter’s characterization that the Constitution housed a singular value system, saying instead that it actually housed a plethora of value systems that different citizens place upon it. This to me sounds like exactly why we struggle with polarization despite a reverence for the Constitution shared among both citizens and politicians.

Richard Freeland, the Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts, repeatedly argued that one of the key problems with civics and civic education right now is that youth are developing with an antagonism or revulsion to government and traditional politics. He saw danger in statistics showing a great willingness for Millenials to engaged in nonprofit service or Occupy-like activism, and seemingly repudiating interaction with our formal political system. Diana Hess echoed this sentiment, decrying the traction that recent arguments against voting have been getting (like Quinn Norton’s perhaps?). Diana went on to argue that we have an obligation to let youth see value in the political system even when it’s not working as well as we want it to. She tried to support her question by asking, “How well was the political system working during Jim Crow?”

Meira Levinson, HGSE professor, during the fourth panel challenged the reduction of the definition of civic engagement and education (as an ideal) to knowledge of and interaction with the state and traditional politics. She offered instead that civics lies on a number of continua such offline vs online. Moreover she emphasized that we are at a point where any teacher or civic educational experience able to fall somewhere on the continuum is better than where we are right now. Meira also critiqued a reductionist model of the 1960s activism as embodied by strong leaders pushing for legislative action. Citing Facing History’s Civil Rights curriculum, she described how traditional political engagement was just one, late part of the movement and that organizing and movement building, civil disobedience, public opinion campaigns, and many other levers and techniques were being activated simultaneously by the activists and those efforts predated the rise of figures like Martin Luther King. If we are going to hold up that era as an ideal we understand how it actually happened. Similarly, an audience member remarked that her experience in a classroom in the 1960s didn’t match the epitome of political discourse that everyone was holding up, rather she felt disconnected as a youth from the establishment. Earlier, HGSE Dean Kathleen McCartney said that her experience in the 1960s was that the teachers basically didn’t know how to talk about the Vietnam War and parroted the establishment line of “we need to be there because of the Domino Theory.”

Justin Reich from Facing History and Ourselves and the Berkman Center, gave some examples of non-traditional engagement during the fourth panel and argued that we should be actively studying these and thinking about how they fit into our civics education. He referenced the ~2.5 million Facebook profile images that were switched to support gay marriage last week, and argued that we might dismiss this as slacktivism or clicktivism, but that this meant something authentic to those that participated, and it does have an impact when done at such a large scale. He also talked about the online video game League of Legends, which has a community "Tribunal" that allows for courtroom like arbitration for in-game conflicts between players. Justin claimed that more youth were participating in this justice system than the one in real life. He ended his statement by suggesting we not classify what youth do as having less value simply because it’s not what WE did.

Scott Warren, founder of Generation Citizen, was someone who I was eager to hear talk during the fourth panel because I was familiar with his model of training college students to serve as civic instructors in underprivileged schools. I know he was there because a lot of the folks in the room celebrate Generation Citizen’s work as renewing the civic promise of schools through an embodied service-learning model. Scott’s success seems to be built on embracing a traditional model of civics education blended with local acts of civic engagement. He talked about how a student in one of his classes at Boston Arts Academy questioned the school’s complicated recycling system, which led to the petition through a Boston Councilor to provide single-stream recycling for public schools that was successfully adopted. Scott then dismissed the use of technology in civics as too much of a fad, his evidence was a Staten Island civics class in which the teacher asked if students wanted to create a Facebook page for their action and they responded that they don’t use that, they’re all on Twitter now. He argued that it’s actually the older generation that’s so enamored with the civic potential of technology and don’t understand how youth really use it. Thus, it was more important that he focus on teaching the fundamentals of the system. He scoffed at the Facebook profile image campaign asking, “Is Justice Kennedy on Facebook?” and concluding that The Supreme Court likely isn’t paying attention to public opinion.

What’s Missing for Me
I gave this post a snarky title. I should just appreciate that Harvard Law School and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools were able to marshal such high profile speakers for a single event dedicated to civic education, a topic and cause that I care deeply about.

At the beginning of the day, Justice O’Connor opened by saying that it’s been pretty hard in her lifetime to get any general interest in civics education. Gene Koo who runs her other project iCivics agreed that it’s a very rare opportunity to get together and talk about civic education. A proud alumnus of HLS, he then addressed the law students in attendance saying that they were part of what gives him hope for civic education because when he thinks about who has the responsibility to the rule of law it is “us lawyers and future lawyers.”

It’s that remark - perfectly appropriate to the context - that made me wary from the start. Lawyers have a huge stake in American democracy, it’s where they get their livelihood and so many of our elected officials are lawyers. In the 112th Congress, law degrees were held by 167 Members of the House (38% of the total House) and 55 Senators (55% of the total Senate). And it seems it’s always been that way. There were many other voices at the conference on panels one, two, and four (panel three featured Justices O’Connor and Souter, Judge Ken Starr, HLS Professor Laurence Tribe, and HLS Dean Martha Minow).

Still the agenda focused heavily on the crisis in civics being with respect to the ability to understand the branches of government and how a bill becomes a law (civics in the tone of Schoolhouse Rock as my advisor Ethan Zuckerman describes it). A lot of the panelists argued that civic action would follow from knowledge. All of the statistics point that a good civic education (now only available to college graduates) is the key indicator civic engagement. But what are our metrics? Knowledge of the checks and balances in our form of government and voting? These are weak indicators of civic engagement.

If we were to realize the ideal civics education and outcomes articulated by many of the conference’s panelists, I think we would get a highly educated and highly passive polity. They would be well-versed in the machinations of American government, they would trust in the political processes, despite their recent hiccups, and they would vote at every election dutifully. Then, they would go back to being passive, yet critical(!) consumers of information and MAYBE potential public officials if they feel called to greater service.

I’m definitely simplifying and caricaturing the discussion. And I don’t mean to fold in the several critical voices that we heard from, like Meira Levinson and Justin Reich. I just felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities to dig into the useful framework that Howard Gardner laid out at the beginning of the conference. Privilege and inequality are real and affect the experience that many citizens, and especially youth, have when they look at the civic landscape and feel ignorant or impotent or both. This is more than disillusionment with the current gridlock in Congress, this is a structural inequality that doesn’t even allow the underprivileged to get their hopes up only to be disillusioned.

My colleague Willow Brugh asked a great question during the third panel that passed right over the heads of the panelists. She asked about this issue of privilege. That privilege not just in terms of access to quality (civic) education but also in access to the means of action was real and mattered. She challenged the panelists that their positive experiences with the American government political processes were a result of their privileged position. Things worked for them.

Unfortunately, Justice Souter immediately disagreed with her characterization that there was dichotomy between privilege to know and privilege to act, and proceeded to cite research evidence showing that education was the best predictor of civic action. Another young woman suffered an even more dismissive retort from Justice O’Connor when she asked about teaching global citizenship, which was “a very different” issue because there’s no binding constitution across the globe.

Dismissing these questions out of hand, hurts the civic project in my mind. At least Dean Minow suggested that global citizenship might become more relevant with the rise of the internet changing our perception of geography. But that’s not enough. There are fundamental forces changing our civic experience and new technologies that are mediating our civic discourse and interactions with our government. And there are contemporary civic practices, including activism, that matter and should be thought of as integral to civic education whether that’s in the classroom or purely experiential.

Willow’s own response to the conference (which is very much worth your time) addresses this point. She argues that the complaints of many of the panelists about the lack of civic engagement in the US is ironic since their vision of civics involves such little engagement. She describes a conversation she had with Jo Guldi about how traditional civic spaces and practices like the “town hall” are really therapy. They aren’t really active participation. Participation is more like protest. It’s taking a stand AND putting some skin in the game.

In Ethan’s civics framework, these would be thick forms of participation. Voting is a thin form of participation, and should be -- if voting becomes a thick form of participation we get lawsuits, he quips. But we should respect both voting and protest. We should respect 2.5 million Facebook profile image changes. We should respect organizing as we saw in the Civil Rights Movement and we see today among DREAMers. And we should respect a good, independent public policy analysis or City Hall resolution. All of these represent valid forms of civic engagement. However, they are not all equally accessible.

Prof. Tribe offered an anecdote, that Willow also picked up on in her blog post, in which he discusses how a law student challenged him on the reality of the separation of church and state when he couldn’t go down to Grendel’s Den and get a beer because it was within 500 feet of a church, which had the statutory right to veto liquor licenses within its immediate vicinity in Massachusetts. They took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won, and now Professor Tribe gets free beer at Grendel’s for his pro bono work. But there’s a difference between raising an issue to a celebrated constitutional law scholar in your midst and to your underprepared, average high school teacher.

An HGSE student asked the final, compelling question of the day, “Can a disengaged teacher, who doesn’t feel they are heard, actually engage with their students?” Carlos Rioja from Youth On Board (a fantastic youth-empowerment organization) talked about how schools embody disempowerment in many ways. Underprivileged youth go to under-resourced high schools and experience little but an environment of disempowerment. The system is not working for, or reaching them. Should civics look the same in that context as it does at Phillips Andover?

This reminds me of Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. Capabilities are freedoms to act -- they are structural like poverty itself. Development is about giving people capabilities. Most youth, and many adults too, lack the fundamental capabilities for civic engagement. The research cited by Howard Gardner in the first panel, talked about how underprivileged youth have passion but lack a sense of efficacy. Ethan talks about the potential of a ladder of engagement on which we might scaffold thin and more symbolic or expressive forms of civic action, like changing your Facebook profile image or signing on online petition, to thicker and more impactful or instrumental forms of action, such as direct service in a community like disaster relief or the recent movement toward civic hacking.

Facebook profiles represent a domain that youth of most backgrounds have control over. And even for those citizens who don't have the requisite internet access, we shouldn't redirect them away from civic outlets like community service, even if they do so out of a revulsion to our political system (sorry Commissioner Freeland). During the third panel, Judge Starr mentioned Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone and the crisis presented by the decrease in associational life in the US, making the point that we need both community values as well as the individual liberty to support our democracy. And while the ideal that Bowling Alone celebrates is deeply problematic for several reasons, the basic idea that private, non-formally political actions have real civic consequences should be appreciated. These actions support our democracy in important, and not fully understood ways, and we should acknowledge the potential for them to inspire the direct forms of political engagement we epitomize, like when helping with disaster relief becomes campaigning for FEMA reform.

Justice O’Connor likes to say that iCivics is “not your grandmother’s civics.” But in many ways it is. Their video games teach the same principles just in video game format. They address the problem of a boring civics lesson, but they fail to address the sense of efficacy that someone is left with when they’re not role-playing as a Supreme Court Justice or The President of the United States. Fortunately, she doesn't stop there. During the third panel, Justice O’Connor suggested that all we have to do is get students involved in some local problem that raises a Constitutional issue: let them get involved, bring a petition before a public body, and it will get them turned on right away. I think that’s a great idea. I think such offline activities nicely complement an online version of traditional civics. However, I don’t think this needs to be in lieu of alternative, and more contemporary, forms of civic practice on- and offline, including forms that represent capabilities empowering a wider swath of society. I want us to go further. I want us to agree that the civic mission of schools and our shared value system should support all of this civic potential.