Public schools

Mandating Civics in Schools Won't Fix American Democracy

Who cares if Americans can't answer basic civics questions?


On the campaign trail in May, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy provocatively proposed raising the voting age to 25 for Americans who have not had any kind of civic experience, such as serving in the military or working as a first responder. Ramaswamy doubled down on his brand of civic boosterism in June, when he tweeted that high school seniors should be required to pass the same civics exam administered to immigrants seeking citizenship. "The fact that this is controversial in America," he said, "is a damning indictment of our Republic's health."

Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, is riding a bipartisan wave of civics alarmism that has swelled recently due to increasing political polarization, lagging voter turnout compared to other developed nations, public ignorance of basic facts about American government, and a widespread perception that misinformation is increasing. But there are good reasons to question this narrative and to doubt that dialing up civics instruction would strengthen democracy. And the fact that deeply polarized Americans express bipartisan support for better civics education suggests they are not on the same page about what that should look like in public schools.

Critics like Ramaswamy blame policy makers and schools for de-emphasizing the study of how to participate in governing society. According to the Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of U.S. government or civics, with the rest requiring only a semester or nothing at all. In response, prominent legislators have proposed increasing federal funding for civics and even imposing federal civics standards on public schools.

An October 2022 poll by the nonprofit organization iCivics found that 79 percent of Americans think civics education is important and that 69 percent think it is more important than it was five years ago. In a January 2023 Atlantic essay, then–Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass said inadequate civics education keeps him up at night more than climate change, terrorism, or Russia. Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor, despite their divergent judicial philosophies, have joined forces along with iCivics to promote better civics education as a "national security imperative."

By some metrics, all of these people have a point. A 2022 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 47 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government and that 25 percent could not name any. That means large shares of Americans consistently flunk basic questions that also appear on the American Citizenship Test.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows declines in eighth-grade scores in both civics and U.S. history in recent years. Between 2014 and 2022, eighth-grade civics scores fell from 154 to 150 out of 300 possible points. Eighth-grade U.S. history scores fell from 267 to 258 out of 500 possible points over the same timeframe. American voter turnout, another traditional barometer of civic health, lags behind the international average for developed countries despite surging in recent elections.

It all sounds pretty bleak—until you zoom out. From 1994, the first year the NAEP's U.S. history test was administered, to 2022, eighth grade scores dropped by only one point, from 259 to 258. From 1998, the first year the NAEP civics test was administered, to 2022, eighth grade scores were unchanged at 150. Recent declines are likely due to pandemic-related school closures.

There is scant evidence that American students and citizens were ever well-informed on these subjects. Although "systematic comparisons are hard to find," George Washington University political scientist Samuel Goldman noted in a 2021 column for The Week, "the [high school] graduation rate passed 50 percent around 1940, and it was not until the 1960s that the median American had completed high school. It's unlikely those generations learned substantially more in civics class because most of them never completed a high school civics class. What polls we do have from the period confirm that civic ignorance is nothing new."

Americans' ability to answer basic civics questions does not mean much anyway. Many people who were educated in the U.S. can recall the phrase "mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell," but that does not mean we know anything else about cells or mitochondria, and it certainly does not imply scientific literacy. Most people do not need civics knowledge in their daily lives, which is probably a good thing, since it means a citizen's life does not demand constantly keeping up with government activity.

Nor is there much evidence that beefing up civics instruction would have measurable benefits. A 2022 study published by the Annenberg Public Policy Center looked at 18 states that had adopted the Civics Education Initiative, a standardized civics curriculum, beginning in 1996. From then until 2020, the study's authors found, young people who graduated high school in states that required the curriculum were only slightly more likely to vote than young people in other states, and the difference was not statistically significant.

Political flashpoints such as the election of Donald Trump, the January 6 riot, and the George Floyd protests have been used to illustrate the consequences of our poor civics standards and the need to restore them. But understanding how a bill becomes a law is not a prophylactic against believing in QAnon conspiracy theories or storming the Capitol.

Notably, contemporary debates over civics instruction seem to increase political polarization rather than reducing it. Consider the increasingly popular teaching of "action civics," a model that prioritizes activities like organizing protests over studying and absorbing civics knowledge. This is civics with an explicit leftward bent, which has predictably alarmed conservatives. Many Florida teachers were similarly outraged, the Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this year, when Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a civics training initiative for teachers that appeared to be "infused with a Christian and conservative ideology."

It seems that many Americans would be happy to impose a civics curriculum on public schools, provided it churns out citizens who think just like them. The urge to use public schools to shape ideology ensures endless political battles over what constitutes good civics education.

Even a universally beloved civics curriculum would come with tradeoffs. Civics instruction was condensed partly because schools started devoting more time to reading, science, and math—skills that are far more fundamental to being a good citizen.

One way to allow for multiple approaches and reduce the risk of state indoctrination is to expand school choice. Although that solution runs counter to the popular call for more robust, standardized curricula, it reflects a core American civic virtue: pluralism.