What is Civics?
Civics is instruction in the rights and duties of citizenship. The word’s root is the Latin word for citizen.
What it means to be a citizen varies from one society to another, but the basic contrast is between a person who is a “subject,” such as the subject of a king who must take the king’s orders, and a “citizen” who has rights and within limits orders his own life.
In America we are citizens, not subjects. But we are always at some risk from those who would prefer us to be obedient to their orders and thus forfeit some (or all) of our rights as citizens.
Our form of government is a “republic.” America is sometimes described as a “democracy,” but this is misleading. A republic is a representative form of government. We generally elect our leaders, and we rely of democratic means (i.e., voting) to accomplish this. But we are not a simple democracy, which would require a popular vote on every public matter.
Both the theory and practice of government can get complicated. People in a republic have to weigh many factors to decide how best to arrange their public affairs. For that reason, civics is something that requires study. Children don’t pick it up as easily as they learn how to use a cell phone or as easily as they learn the lyrics of a popular song. To learn how to be a citizen requires learning some history, philosophy, and qualities of character.
Traditionally, American civic education at its beginning stages consisted of learning about the reasons for the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the writing of the Constitution. These events—usually called the Founding—lead on to learning about the kind of federal government the Constitution put into place. The division between a two-part legislative ranch, an executive, and a judiciary is easy to grasp. At a slightly deeper level, students can begin to understand why that three-part division was chosen and why it has remained ever since. Along with learning about the federal government, young children learn about state and local government, and how they differ from federal branch.
In other words, civics instruction begins with understanding the structure and function of government in American life. Within this framework, many important details remain to be filled in. What are our duties to government? Why vote? What is a jury? Why pay taxes? Who serves in the military? What is a prison? What are the qualifications for elected office?
The answers to such questions make little or no sense unless you first have a basic understanding of how our government is organized and why it is that way.
Where Did Action Civics Come From?
The New Civics builds on radical activists’ steady extension of service-learning and civic engagement into America’s education system, dating back to the 1960s, mightily expanded in the 1980s, and becoming eligible for federal funding in 1990s. The New Civics received a federal imprimatur in 2012 when the U.S. Department of Education issued the report A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, which called for a “New Civics” that celebrates diversity, embraces of the “sustainability” movement, and teaches children how to be “citizens of the world”—to replace the traditional civics instruction that taught students the facts and principles necessary to assume the responsibilities of American citizenship.
The U.S. Department of Education’s simultaneous push for the nation’s schools to adopt “The Common Core State Standards,” which encouraged teachers to reduce history and civics to modules in English Language Arts, facilitated the removal of traditional civics instruction from America’s schools. New Civics, increasingly known as “action civics,” filled the resulting gap with a curriculum that denied students the chance to acquire knowledge of how our governing institutions work or why they were created, and instead taught partisan political commitment, protest, and activism, often with the guidance of overtly partisan teachers. This partisan commitment was almost exclusively toward radical ideological causes such as “sustainability” and amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The activists who champion New Civics now use every level of government to assault all components of civics education. The federal government, as noted above, has supported New Civics since the Education Department published A Crucible Moment in 2012. Stanley Kurtz has summarized how action civics is taking over our K-12 schools, by way of state laws such as in Massachusetts and Illinois, and via nonprofit organizations such as Generation Citizen. The National Association of Scholars’ report Making Citizens details how the New Civics works at the undergraduate level, and particularly how education departments combine the New Civics with teacher training. The College Board’s AP United States Government and Politics Advanced Placement Examination now requires students to complete a Project Requirement of action civics. The New Civics has already infiltrated America’s education system and is on the verge of taking it over.
The New Civics has also received unwitting support from education reformers who do not realize that radicals who invoke “civics” are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics, but iCivics now endorses action civics and so-called “antiracism.”
What Is At Stake?
2019 and 2020 made painfully apparent the acid effects of the New Civics and its allied educational movements on America’s national cohesion and heritage of liberty. In August 2019, the New York Times launched The 1619 Project, which called for “reframing” all of American history (and civics) as the story of white supremacy and black subjection. The Times published this as a special issue of its Sunday Magazine, which concluded with the announcement that a 1619 Project Curriculum was already being sent out by the Pulitzer Center to teachers and schools as a supplementary curriculum.
Within months, the 1619 Project Curriculum became established in thousands of classrooms across the country. The 1619 Project Curriculum already promotes action civics lesson plans, such as political activism to soften criminal laws and/or amnesty criminals, on the grounds that America’s justice system is tainted by “systemic racism.” Generation Citizen now promotes action civics to promote the revolutionary Black Lives Matter movement.
The U.S. government’s 1776 Commission stated in its The 1776 Report (2021) what had now become apparent to every American willing to face facts. Radicals who espouse identity politics, and those who espouse such overlapping ideologies of critical race theory, multiculturalism, so-called “anti-racism,” and Neo-Marxist forms of “social justice,” seek to annihilate our liberty, our republic, and the national culture that underpins them both. Their favored educational tactic is to remove traditional civics from our schools and to replace them with New Civics, which inculcates the successor ideology of identity politics instead. These radicals seek to do so by packaging their radical agendas under labels such as “anti-racism”—although Americans already reject racism as part of their capacious and welcoming nationalism. The American creed is already e pluribus unum—America forges its citizens from all the nations of the earth.
The New Civics will obliterate from our children’s memory the America worth loving and defending and will create a cadre of trained activists dedicated to replacing the American republic with a Neo-Marxist “social justice” regime. The New Civics will impose this new curriculum with all the coercive power of government—and will do so at taxpayer expense.
What Is Success?
American civics education teaches the founding principles and documents of the United States, the key events of American history, the structure of our self-governing federal republic, the functions of government at all levels, how our governing institutions work, and the spirit of liberty and tolerance that should animate our private interactions with our fellow citizens. Such civics education should teach students to take pride in what they share as Americans—an exceptional heritage of freedom, a republic that has succeeded in making liberty a fundamental principle of our government, and the joyful accomplishments of their common national culture.
By the time students leave high school, they should comprehend the rule of law, the Bill of Rights, elections, elected office, checks and balances, trial by jury, grand juries, civil rights, military service, and many other points in the traditional American civics curriculum. College undergraduates, and especially graduates of education schools, should also learn how these civic fundamentals emerged from Western Civilization, including through developments in Western political theory and American history.
Noah Webster wrote in 1788 that,
every child in America should be acquainted with his own country. He should read books that furnish him with ideas that will be useful to him in life and practice. As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country; he should lisp the praise of liberty, and of those illustrious heroes and statesmen, who have wrought a revolution in her favor.
A selection of essays, respecting the settlement and geography of America; the history of the late revolution and of the most remarkable characters and events that distinguished it, and a compendium of the principles of the federal and provincial governments, should be the principal school book in the United States. These are interesting objects to every man; they call home the minds of youth and fix them upon the interests of their own country, and they assist in forming attachments to it, as well as in enlarging the understanding.
The means of civics education should all lead to this end.
The Challenge of Action Civics
American civics education is under sustained assault by radical activists. Their New Civics uses the pedagogy of service-learning to teach action civics, also known by names such as civic engagement, civic learning, community engagement, global civics, and project-based civics.
In recent years, some educators saw an opportunity to replace the old civics. It was first called “new civics,” but gained other names as it grew, including “action civics.” The basic idea was to rush students into “doing” stuff rather than just learning. Civics could be a perpetual field trip spiced with exciting forms of “advocacy.” Students could learn about government by jumping right into lobbying legislators, protesting injustices, and volunteering their time for public projects. When the “new civics” first received federal endorsement in A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future (2011), commissioned by the Obama administration, it called for “civics education” defined by a combination of diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability, and becoming “a citizen of the world.” New civics has become steadily more radical. By 2021, the U.S. Education Department defined civics education as The 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi’s “anti-racism”.
New civics or action civics puts the cart before the horse. Young children have no basis to judge the merits of the political causes to which action civics recruits them. They have no understanding of what our government is or how it works. What action civics gives them is the excitement of identity politics and the thrill of pleasing their teachers. This provides a foundation of the bigger thrill to come of expressing one’s identity through protest and alienation from all that came before. At bottom, new civics is an “I hate America” curriculum, though it is typically dressed up in a red-white-and blue costume. To judge by superficial appearances, new civics is a “I love America so much, I want to fix it” curriculum. Only when you look closely at the proposed repairs do you discover that it is really about destroying the basis of American self-government.
The new civics:
- Teaches students how to organize and take part in mob intimidation and calls it “civic engagement.”
- Treats America’s founders—Washington, Jefferson, Madison—as hypocrites and power-hungry oppressors.
- Treats the Declaration of Independence as a lie and the Constitution as pro-slavery.
- Looks on American history as mainly a story of rich white men exploiting the poor, women and minorities.
- Treats American prosperity as grounded in rapacious treatment of the environment, the dispossession of Native peoples, and the subordination of immigrants.
- Treats the free market as a tool of systematic abuse.
- Teaches students the American republic isn’t worth preserving and that civic virtue consists of tearing it down.
The New Civics threatens to replace all of America’s civics education with Neo-Marxist “social justice” propaganda, vocational training for left-wing activism, and Alinsky-style community organizing techniques adapted for use in the classroom.
Not every advocate of the New Civics consciously works for all these goals. The true radicals enlist many Americans who think these pedagogies and subject matters are more innocuous. Some New Civics advocates even consciously steer clear of entanglements with initiatives such as the 1619 Project Curriculum. But the radicals will provide the programmatic details that put the New Civics’ vague rhetoric into practice.
The New Civics, which instills utopian visions grounded on national self-hatred, will have a revolutionary effect, regardless of the good intentions of some of its advocates.
Timeline: The Rise of Action Civics
- In 1985, several influential university presidents founded Campus Compact to support student volunteerism and community service. Service-learning advocates took over Campus Compact’s campaign, and from that vantage point inserted service-learning into virtually every college in the nation. They then gave service-learning a new name—“civic engagement”—and used this new label as a way to replace the old civics curriculum with service-learning classes.
- In 1993, the reauthorization of the National and Community Service Act codified fiscal support for service-learning into federal law.
- In 1994, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act significantly extended federal control of state curricula.
- In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act significantly furthered federal control of state curricula.
- In 2010, the Common Core State Standards Initiative established a tight bureaucratic framework over state curricula.
- In 2011, the federally commissioned A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future drafted the roadmap for imposing action civics on the nation.
- In 2012, the U.S. Education Department endorsed the vision of A Crucible Moment with its own Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy.
- In 2013, the National Council for Social Studies issued the College, Career & Civic Life C3 Framework For Social Studies State Standards, linked to the Common Core. The C3 Standards gut traditional civics and require action civics.
- In 2015, Illinois passed a law to require students to take a stand-alone civics course including service-learning; the Illinois law, and a follow-up law in 2019, have become models for action civics proponents around the nation.
- In 2018, iCivics founded CivXNow to push for policy change to promote action civics.
- In 2018, Massachusetts passed a law to require students to take part in “civic engagement.”
- In 2020, federal legislators introduced the Educating for Democracy Act, which would provide a flood of federal money for action civics.
- In 2021, federal legislators re-introduced the Educating for Democracy Act as the Civics Secures Democracy Act.
What We Must Do
The Civics Alliance supports the vision of the Civics Education Open Letter and Civics Curriculum Statement. This document provides the principles that should guide civics education, from kindergarten to education school. They also provide enough programmatic detail to guide education reformers and policymakers as they work constructively to renovate traditional civics education and to ensure that civics education reform will preclude both the New Civics and myopic attempts to compromise with the advocates of the New Civics.
These documents emphasize what can be done at the state and local levels, both because New Civics advocates currently guide federal policy and because the state governments and the localities still control the bulk of public education. Yet the Civics Alliance will work at whatever level of government offers the opportunity for constructive civics education reform.
The Civics Education Open Letter and Civics Curriculum Statement emphasize the following principles:
- Civics education should consist of large amounts of required factual knowledge and the study of primary sources.
- Civics education should ban “service-learning,” the essential component of New Civics pedagogy. This ban should be expanded into an explicit ban of “action civics” if necessary.
- Civics education should be subject to external tests, to ensure that teachers actually teach what they are supposed to teach and that students actually learn what they ought to learn in their classes.
- Civics legislation should aim to remove all education bottlenecks where radicals can force New Civics on students, such as curriculum standards, general education requirements, and teacher licensure requirements.
- Civics legislation should seek to use special commissions to create and enforce proper civics standards, so as to bypass predictable sabotage from radical activists within education department bureaucracies.
- Civics legislation should focus on dual-courses, core transfer curricula, general education requirements, and the mutual recognition of civics courses among states, because they are the essential administrative means to convey civics education.
- Civics education should emphasize the principles of federalism and localism, both to fit civics education to local preferences and so as to avoid creating coercive education systems that New Civics advocates can capture.
How We Will Succeed
The Civics Alliance will rally opposition to the immediate danger posed by the New Civics and work for constructive programs of traditional civics education at the different levels of American government—the localities, the states, and the federal government.
Defenders of true civics education must not enter into coalitions that endorse fatal compromises with radicals who would hollow out the civics education our citizens need to sustain our constitutional republic. They must not endorse supposedly nonpartisan New Civics education that provides a fig-leaf for anti-American identity politics and vocational training for left-wing activism. Education reformers must instead work through their own coalition, which endorses rigorous civics education that explicitly excludes the New Civics and prohibits its favored pedagogy of service-learning.
The Civics Alliance will host a series of model civics education bills, drafted by the National Association of Scholars, which will translate into legislative language the principles in the Civics Education Open Letter and Civics Curriculum Statement. We will provide curriculum resources and grassroots resources, to inform other members of the Civics Alliance as they spearhead their own campaigns. We expect that policymakers in different states will follow their own paths as they translate the principles of these documents into legal language. The members of the Civics Alliance will support different efforts to restore civics education, confident that they will all lead to the same destination—the preservation of civics education that sustains our republic and our nation.