Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Neil Gorsuch see many things differently. One cause, however, brings them together.

The cause is civic education, which includes the study of our system of government and incorporates a wider set of values relating to the rights and duties of citizenship. Through several joint appearances in recent years, the justices have demonstrated a good civic value — working toward a common goal with people who have different viewpoints — to bring this issue to the public’s attention. When they appeared together on the TV show CBS Sunday Morning in 2018, Sotomayor expressed concern about how a loss of civic knowledge has affected our society, although she could not have anticipated the damage yet to come. 

“It has been closely documented,” Sotomayor observed, “that the partisan discord in our country followed very closely on the heels of schools stopping to teach civic education.”

Did it ever. Which brings us to a counterexample. Calls for improved civic education from Supreme Court justices and public-interest groups draw polite interest, but when a mob storms the U.S. Capitol vowing to hang the vice president, national alarm bells ring at an entirely different decibel level. Many hope that the Jan. 6 insurrection, terrible as it was, will prove to be the turning point that finally drives the country to take action. The stakes, it would seem, can hardly get higher.

Certainly, civics is one of the rare issues on which progressives and conservatives can agree. Last summer, Republican pollster Frank Luntz surveyed more than 1,000 Americans, asking what could help bridge the country’s political divide. Civic education was the No. 1 answer. Steps have already been taken to address it. The Educating for Democracy Act, introduced in each of the last two Congresses with co-sponsors from both parties, would authorize $1 billion for increased civics and history education. But lack of funding, while important, is only part of the problem. 

It may come as a surprise to learn that, despite the travails of the last several years — or perhaps because of them — the state of civic knowledge seems to be improving, at least a little bit. In the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s 2020 survey of constitutional knowledge, just over half of respondents could name all three branches of government. That might not seem like many, but it is the highest level since the annual survey began seven years ago. Seventy-three percent correctly identified freedom of speech as one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, up from just 48 percent in 2017. The number of people who could name all five rights protected by the First Amendment (speech, religion, assembly, press, and petitioning the government — but you already knew that, right?) also was significantly higher than four years ago. Looking at a different measure of civic health, voter turnout was also higher in the last election than it has been in more than a century. 

One would hope that Princeton students arrive on campus with a solid grounding in civics. Most do know the basics, says Professor Frances Lee, who teaches a course in congressional politics. But they haven’t learned the underlying history of our form of government, including the philosophical foundations on which it rests, she says. Many don’t appreciate that governments exist to set rules for channeling disagreement. Politics, in other words, is supposed to be contentious. “I think they envision the process as a series of [procedural] steps instead of as an arena of conflict,” Lee observes. 

That tracks what Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, sees in the popular course he teaches on constitutional interpretation. “I really have to begin from scratch,” he says. Nearly everyone comes in knowing the three branches of government, but less obvious concepts, such as the idea that the national government is one of delegated and enumerated powers, are new to them. 

“Students come in believing that the United States is a [pure] democracy,” George explains, “and they are shocked — just shocked! — when they read Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist Papers warning that we must be a republic instead. But it’s not the kids’ fault. No one ever told them.”

One thing nearly everyone in the field agrees on is why civic education began to wane, and the culprit, indirectly, is Russia. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 also launched a panic that the United States was falling behind other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math. Public resources have shifted toward those STEM fields ever since, usually at the expense of social studies and civics. Today, the federal government spends about $50 per student per year on STEM education and only 5 cents per student on civics. (Most education spending, however, comes from state and local governments.)

STEM subjects have also gained popularity because they are less controversial and are seen as more likely to lead to a well-paying job. That dismays Danielle Allen ’93, a political philosopher and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, who has spent much of her career thinking about how to promote civic education. “National security and competitiveness are important,” Allen reasons, “but you want to succeed in that competition as the kind of society that you are. For the United States, it means succeeding as a constitutional democracy. So if you’re really serious about security and competitiveness, you’ve got to secure civic strength, too.” 

So, what should Americans know about their system of government and when should they know it? 

“I’m stunned by the number of people whose knowledge of American government begins and ends with Schoolhouse Rock,” says Chris Lu ’88, who served as a senior White House official during the Obama administration. “I feel like we need to give the entire country a civics lesson, from the average citizen all the way up to our leadership.”

One basic gauge of civic knowledge is the naturalization test administered to all applicants for citizenship. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service officer asks 10 questions at random from a list of 100, and the subject must get at least six right to pass. There are multiple-choice questions about the functions of government (e.g., If the president and vice president can no longer serve, who becomes president?), history (What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?), and public culture (Name two national U.S. holidays).

What should Americans know about their system of government and when should they know it?

Ninety percent of immigrants pass the test, but only 36 percent of native-born Americans succeed, according to a 2018 survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (now known as the Institute for Citizens & Scholars). Illustrating how civic education has declined over the last half-century, 74 percent of American-born senior citizens passed the test — but only 19 percent of people under age 45.

Because the federal role in setting education policy is limited (there’s another important civics concept), what is taught varies widely from state to state. Only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics in high school, according to a survey by the Center for American Progress. Another 31 states require a half-year, and 10 require nothing at all. Seventeen of the states that do require civics basically teach the citizenship test, which is better than nothing but still misses critical material. 

“If you reduce civic education to the memorization and regurgitation of random facts, you’re never going to achieve the ultimate goal of civic education, which is to prepare people for their role as citizens in our constitutional democracy,” says Emma Humphries, the chief education officer for iCivics, a nonprofit organization that promotes civic education by designing lesson plans for teachers and online games for students with titles such as “How to Win the White House” and “Do I Have a Right?” The group, originally named Our Courts, was founded in 2009 by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to combat public ignorance about the judicial system, but was expanded to include civic institutions in general. Sotomayor serves on the group’s governing board.

In late 2018, a number of organizations, including the Hewlett Foundation and the Koch Foundation, hired Rajiv Vinnakota ’93 to survey the state of civic education across the country. His report, titled “From Civic Education to a Civic Learning Ecosystem: A Landscape Analysis and Case for Collaboration,” was issued in December 2019. Vinnakota, who now heads the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, found broad, bipartisan agreement on the need to develop citizens who understand the basics of American government and history, are active in their communities, and love their country even while recognizing its imperfections. 

However, there was less agreement about whether — and how — to teach the skills and values necessary to be a productive citizen. “Knowledge about our political institutions,” the report stated, “is of little practical value to people who lack the social and emotional skills to interact productively with their neighbors. ... Many people fail to associate acquiring and practicing skills like active listening, negotiating, critical thinking, and compromising with civic education.” 

Last year, iCivics partnered with groups at Harvard’s Safra Center, Arizona State University, and Tufts University on the Educating for American Democracy initiative. With a $650,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, the project recently unveiled a roadmap for how to teach civics and train civics teachers. Acknowledging the emotional polarization surrounding the recent election, it began by saying that the United States “stands at a crossroads of peril and possibility.” 

Rather than propose a national curriculum for all elementary and secondary school students, however, the roadmap is organized around seven themes that any civics courses should include, such as educating students on the elements of the American system of government, how they were established, how they have changed, their benefits and drawbacks, and what it means to participate in a constitutional democracy. 

One of those themes, for example, is titled “We the People” and addresses ways of weaving the perspectives of Americans from different backgrounds into a single nation, the concepts and discussions growing in complexity as students get older. In kindergarten through second grade, for example, civics courses might study the origin stories that different groups tell about themselves and whether a society composed of many different groups needs shared rules. In grades 3–5, students might begin to examine the different levels of government each of us belongs to and how the definition of “citizen” has changed over our history. 

By junior high school, questions under this theme broaden to include the definition of pluralism, the ways in which the principle of majority rule interacts with rules to protect minority rights, how slavery and the forced removal of Native people shaped the American identity, and what it means to say that ours is a government of, by, and for the people. Finally, in high school, students might examine how the American experience of pluralism compares with pluralism in other countries and how their personal values relate to those that define the phrase “We the People” in the Constitution’s preamble. Along the way, students would read and discuss texts such as the Declaration of Independence or the Dred Scott decision within these broader discussions.

It is important to note that Allen believes students should be having these discussions throughout their academic careers and not crammed into a single course. Furthermore, woven into all of these lessons are other values that she considers essential for any good citizen, such as critical thinking, the ability to articulate an argument and respond appropriately to counterarguments, and how to be an intelligent consumer of information. In an age when many people get their news from social media, the last point is especially important. As Allen explains, “We’re just swimming in so much information that it’s incredibly hard, even for very well-educated people, to tell the difference between high-quality information and low-quality.”

Civics, Vinnakota adds, is more than just a set of facts, dates, and rules. It is also “a set of habits and norms, and engaging together towards a common good.” Those are things to be learned in school, but civic education neither begins nor ends there. It also, he emphasizes, “needs to come from home, your community, online, at work, and at church.”

Both left and right may agree that we need better civic education, but in these highly polarized times, consensus breaks down over what that education should look like. As Luntz noted in his polling, Democrats prioritize teaching American government, with an emphasis on learning the rules and how to change them. Republicans prioritize teaching American history, celebrating how our nation came to be and preserving it. 

Both Allen and Vinnakota reject the false dichotomy that civics should stress either patriotism or activism at the other’s expense. The ability to change the system depends on understanding what the system is and how it came to be that way. As Allen puts it, all citizens, whatever their politics, should seek to develop self-knowledge, knowledge of their community’s aspirations and values, knowledge of how power is organized, and an understanding of how to pull the levers of change when they choose to do so.

Ultimately, civic education is about more than knowing what a veto is or how the filibuster works. Another civics-development initiative that Allen directs, called the Democratic Knowledge Project, articulates four dimensions of civic education: civic knowledge (such as how a bill becomes a law); civic skills (how to find and evaluate evidence and form coherent arguments from it); civic dispositions (such as a commitment to the truth, the rule of law, and a sense of public responsibility); and civic capacities (finding and developing opportunities to engage in public life).

A good citizen, Allen observes, would vote, certainly, but also would know which part of government to complain to about, say, a zoning dispute. She would be able to frame a letter to her senator, know what gerrymandering is, and how to distinguish between paid and unpaid editorial content. And she would also be able, it is hoped, to recognize that unsourced YouTube videos making outrageous claims of election fraud should be viewed skeptically, if at all.

It seems unlikely that a better understanding of the vice president’s responsibilities in counting electoral votes would have stayed the mob that stormed the Capitol. (Members of Congress and other officials who do understand the 12th Amendment but misled the public have no such excuse.) But it’s more probable that the mob acted because those other civic virtues had atrophied.

Of all the statistics that highlight the decline of civic education, the most alarming one probably is this: A 2018 survey by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership & Governance found that fewer than 30 percent of Americans under age 40 believe it is essential to live in a democracy. And one in four young people don’t think it is important to choose our leaders through free elections. 

In an October 2020 essay for The Atlantic, Allen, who is Black, explained why she loves the U.S. Constitution, even though her ancestors were denied its benefits for generations. She sees the Constitution as “the world’s greatest teaching document” for how a diverse people can create a government that protects basic rights without becoming oppressive. She also loves it because, despite its flaws, we the people can change it.

“Because of its mutability,” Allen writes, “none but the living can own the Constitution. Those who wrote the version ratified centuries ago do not own the version we live by today. We do. It’s ours, an adaptable instrument used to define self-government among free and equal citizens — and to secure our ongoing moral education about that most important human endeavor. We are all responsible for our Constitution, and that fact is empowering.”  

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.