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October 13, 2022

When We Fail to Teach Our Kids the Basics About Civics, We Risk Losing Our Democracy

Students must learn the importance of democratic government, free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power, and to see government as their own.


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From county commissioner to U.S. Senate, election deniers are on the ballot across the country. As the United States grapples with the gravest threats to our democracy since our founding, social studies, civics and history teachers like me wonder if one answer lies right inside our classrooms: a renewed commitment to civics education, so every student in America learns the fundamental principles, knowledge, skills and values necessary for democratic citizenship and a functioning representative government.

On Jan. 6, 2021, we almost lost our democracy. But it wasn't a freak accident. It was the culmination of a series of calculated assaults on the rule of law, perpetrated by a president who flouted basic democratic rules and norms on a weekly basis. I often marveled at the reckless abandon with which former President Donald Trump and his cronies ran roughshod over the principles most of us learned in grade school. And when polls suggest nearly half the people in this country agreed with his assertion that he won the 2020 election, I realized: We'd failed each and every one of them. Disinformation and distortion trumped fact and freedom; everyone needed a lesson in Civics 101, stat.

This sounds like a joke, but scholars firmly believe that a more robust civics education can actually help protect democracy, and in turn, enhance national security, promote free and fair elections and sustain a more robust and participatory civil society. The key is to start early, present the facts, and engage students in the real-life implications that civics has for their lives and for the world around them. For our country's security and to preserve our place in the world, civics education must be front and center. Students must learn the importance of democratic government, free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power, and they must learn to see government as their own—their instrument for bettering their community and society. Civics education is a means for us all to see our role in a democratic government and our nation's security and posterity. And seeing a role is the first step in having a role.

Teaching the basics of how our government works—including how everyday people can affect change—is patriotic, not partisan. But election deniers and other extremists are doing their level best to remove it from curriculums or censor the types of history our kids can learn. You need only watch footage of white supremacists storming the Capitol, or hear the rhetoric of Doug Mastriano, who is running for governor in Pennsylvania, or Donald Bolduc, who is running for Senate in New Hampshire, to know that there are real consequences when extremist politicians remove civics education from our state standards or censor our schools. Whether they're teaching civics or geography or U.S. history, teachers have always approached the responsibility of these subjects with great care; only recently has this become the subject of manufactured partisan attacks.

When I taught social studies and civics in the 1990s, seeing students recognize their agency as potential voters during our unit on the right to vote was remarkable. I taught that lesson with the same level of seriousness that I taught them about the peaceful transfer of power or the three branches of the federal government, because all have equal consequence for our democracy. Yet today, states are once again passing laws challenging people's right to vote and challenging teachers' authority to teach the full history of our country's fights to expand voting rights.

If we don't teach the historical context of these important struggles, our younger generations will lack the fundamental knowledge of how these rights were won: They won't know the conflict, the struggle, who fought for what rights, what that means and why it matters. Understanding how you gain power and how you lose it, and when to sound the alarm—all of this is vital for students' understanding and willingness to take their rightful place as engaged, informed citizens in American democracy, so they, as voters, will decide who represents them, instead of politicians deciding who votes and who wins. Without critical thinkers, democracy doesn't stand a chance.

And while it may be too late to prevent the consequences of the former president's damaging antics, we have an opportunity with the upcoming elections—and the ones after that, if we can protect them—to make sure the folks running for office represent a basic commitment to our democratic ideals, regardless of party affiliation, and that our electorate is informed about their rights and the democratic process. It's important that we get this right, both in our classrooms and at the ballot box.

Let's hold candidates accountable by asking everyone running for public office to commit to the basics: honoring free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power. Let's also engage school boards and state legislatures to create local and statewide civics education standards that help ensure these lessons get taught with integrity, and let's support the bipartisan Civics Secures Democracy Act, sponsored by Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), which enshrines into federal law the connection between civics education and the preservation of a vibrant, functioning democracy. Our future depends on it.

A More United America: United We Stand

This collection provides professional development webinars, lesson plans, and resources on teaching the U.S. Constitution, current events impacting our democracy, and educational resources to combat hate and to make our democracy strong again so that every person has rights and a role to play in our collective future.

Republished with permission form Newsweek.

Randi Weingarten

RANDI WEINGARTEN is president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, which represents teachers; paraprofessionals and school-related personnel; higher education faculty and staff; nurses and other healthcare professionals; local, state and federal government employees; and early childhood educators. The AFT champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for students, their families and communities. The AFT and its members advance these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through members’ work.

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