Action Civics Should be Celebrated, Not Banned

Anthony L. Ives is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Texas A&M University. Regina M. Mills is an assistant professor of Latinx and Multi-Ethnic Literature in the department of english at Texas A&M University.

This summer Florida state legislators unanimously voted to place new emphasis on civic education literacy and a type of education called Action Civics. Action civics has recently become part of the broader anti-CRT (Critical Race Theory) controversy sweeping the nation, however, and Republican Governor DeSantis vetoed the bill because he argued that focusing on civic education could provide a vector for CRT to reenter public schools in the state. This concern has been promoted nationwide to the extent that the anti-CRT bill in Texas (HB 3979) has aimed to ban this form of pedagogy. In this piece, we will suggest that this ideological movement misrepresents the value and character of action civics, which is in fact a deeply Tocquevillian, American and nonpartisan method for promoting good citizenship. Our argument is based in political theory and practical experience enacting action civics in the high school classroom.

Action civics goes by many names–service learning and civic education, for example–but has a shared set of principles. Action civics is a youth-centered, standards-aligned curriculum that asks students to think about what they value and teaches them how to act on those values. Rather than being assigned a topic to act on, students learn to consider what issues their communities, towns, cities, states, or country face, determine what options allow their voice to be heard, and imagine possible solutions. 

Action civics is part of a notable tradition in American political thought holding that learning through doing is as essential as book learning. While John Dewey is famous in teaching circles for this view, the idea that Americans primarily come to understand their civic duties and rights through experience is an older one. Alexis de Tocqueville, observing American democracy in the 19th century, concluded from his time in the United States that “true enlightenment is primarily the fruit of experience.” Americans primarily learned about their rights and how they could be exercised by governing themselves, especially at the municipal, local or county level. “The American,” Tocqueville said, “learns about the law by participating in the making of it.” Book learning, and being literate in general, is helpful, but the true way that civic education occurs in the United States, Tocqueville avers, is through people teaching themselves how the system works, by working through their systems of government on their own. Tocqueville specifies many aspects of the United States that are flawed and identifies attributes of democracy that he considers dangerous, but he is overwhelmingly positive about this characteristic of America, stating that he could “not find words adequate to express how much [he] admired [American] experience and common sense.” 

Contemporary groups that champion action civics all share these principles and since these principles form a part of our nation’s heritage, examples can be found across the political spectrum. Organizations that create teacher resources like iCivics, an organization founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner in 2009, promote “equitable, non-partisan civic education so that the practice of democracy is learned by each new generation.” Generation Citizen works to “inspire civic participation through a proven state standards-aligned action civics class that gives students the opportunity to experience real-world democracy.”

When Regina was a 9th-grade English teacher in Arizona, she taught a unit on activism called “Making Things Happen.” On the first day, she defined activism as follows: “Activism is taking positive, direct action to achieve something, whether it is in your home, community, state, nation, or the world. ANYBODY can become actively involved in an issue they care about or that affects them in a negative or positive way. Activists can both oppose laws, policies, and ideas but can also support laws, policies, and ideas.”

In preparing the activism unit, Regina asked herself: what does the process of taking action look like? So, she provided students with a five-step process, not entirely different from the writing process:

  1. Brainstorm: ask yourself, what things matter to you? Are there any issues that affect you or those you care about personally?
  2. Research your issue: using library resources and the internet, find a variety of sources that help you learn more about your topic and give you a sense of what all the sides look like. What solutions are already out there? Do any speak to you as worth pursuing?
  3. Create your action plan: is there a proffered solution that you want to pursue? Or do you think there is a solution that others might not see? Decide who you need to talk to (the principal, your congressperson) and what action you can take to move the needle towards what you believe is the correct course.
  4. Carry out your plan: attend that city council meeting, send that letter, distribute your flyers.
  5. Reflect on the results: be proud of what you did, no matter the outcome. Consider what went well and what didn’t. Activism is usually a series of actions, not a one-and-done thing, so what else might you need to do to make a difference in this area?

While teachers might consider providing a stronger focus on figuring out what others have already tried and finding other, like-minded people to run your plan by, the steps above aligned with the key English standards that she wanted students to master in non-fiction, research, and persuasive writing: to practice pre-writing skills like brainstorming; research skills like how to use library resources and find reliable sources on the internet; learn how to read a variety of texts (essays, op-eds, graphs, charts) for information; create an outline and writing/action plan; synthesize one’s research to make an argument; and try to convince others to do something in a persuasive text.

As a teacher, Regina scaffolded this project by having her class brainstorm one shared project, so they could do the steps together. That project ended up being on immigration, since Arizona SB1070 (or the “show me your papers” law) had just recently been put into effect, and it affected many of her students. Together, they read the law itself and discussed how to analyze such a text. They read a variety of op-eds about the law as well as charts and graphs that made pro- and anti-immigration arguments. They decided that writing a letter to an official would help students to put together their thoughts on how they felt about how Arizona was approaching immigration and allow students to share their own beliefs of what should be done. Students could choose the recipient of their letter. Some chose then-sheriff Joe Arpaio, learning that in fact voters determine who the sheriff is; others chose instead their state or US congressperson, believing that action had to be taken at the state or national level. Many received replies and reflected on what, if anything, the letters promised.

After this whole-class experience, students then went through the process again but focused on something they individually cared about and wanted to support, oppose, or change. When students shared common goals, they could work together for their project, providing valuable experience not only with “group work” but the reality of democracy – that groups of people must work together if anything is to get done.

Action civics, and its drive to have students connect their own interests and desires to organizations, causes, and concerns outside of themselves thus connects to another important feature of American life documented by Tocqueville: our status as joiners and creators of associations. Students assigned an action civics project quickly discover that they cannot affect change, raise awareness, or even fully understand a topic by themselves. They must connect with, organize with, associate with, or otherwise interact with a civic organization interested in the issue that they have taken up. Individually we are small, and it’s dangerous to go alone in the world of politics. But collectively citizens in a democracy can merge their concerns to partially overcome this problem. Teaching students a healthy understanding of what it means to be an autonomous individual requires two things: 1) that teachers validate their concerns as real ones, worthy of respect and encouragement and 2) that teachers provide students with access to knowledge and experience that will help them see how these interests fit with or conflict with the interest of their classmates, their communities, and their fellow citizens.

Tocqueville argues that associations not only naturally help people overcome their comparative individual weakness but help counter the problem of despotism. Despotic rulers will aspire to rule over democratic people, Tocqueville thinks, because it is potentially very easy to do so. To win all the despot must do is to persuade most people to merely care about their own concerns. Tocqueville thinks that democracy has a weakness in this regard: The equality of democracy disposes individuals “not to think of their fellow men, and [despotism] makes a kind of public virtue out of indifference.” Despots try to redefine citizenship as self-interested apathy. “Minds that aspire to combine their efforts to promote the common prosperity [the despot] calls disruptive and restless, and, altering the natural meaning of the words, he calls those who keep strictly to themselves ‘good citizens.’”

Civic organizations and associations of all kinds remind citizens that keeping completely to themselves is self-defeating and paralyzing — to achieve their goals, whether personal, political, cultural, material, or spiritual, they need to join with others. The activity and habit of joining such organizations is so pervasive in the United States that Tocqueville calls it a great school of democracy and a natural counter to the despot who wishes to snuff out political liberty. Especially in a world where the number of associations and individuals associated with them seems to be declining and the danger of authoritarianism is increasing, opportunities to remind our rising generation of this truth about America should be embraced.

Action civics provided Regina and her students with a connection to local government that they otherwise may not have known about or sought out. Chris López, then-Youth Development Coordinator for the City of Avondale, visited her classroom and shared the opportunities available for teenagers to offer their perspectives to the mayor and city council through the Avondale Youth Advisory Commission. After this activism unit, one of her students became a member of the commission until their graduation. In addition, several students who were unable to follow up on their own action plans joined the City of Avondale’s annual park clean-up.

Although action civics is a part of the traditional inheritance of American citizenship, prominent activists and scholars with influence have successfully persuaded state legislatures and governors that action civics is a left-wing ideological project. These critics argue that action civics is a “trojan horse” whereby left-wing ideology can be covertly placed on school curriculums. The worry seems to be that in investing students in political action itself, rather than just learning history or the lessons of past activism, that teachers will be politicizing the classroom, and that given the ideologies of the teachers themselves, that this politicization will inevitably be biased against conservative beliefs. Proponents of this view have gone so far as to draft model legislation banning the types of projects described in this essay. They have also engaged in political activism to get these bans passed into law in Texas, as well as introduced in other states.

The first response to such criticism must be that teachers are professionals who understand the bounds of their charge. Teachers can easily steer clear of ideological bias by allowing students to choose the civic issues they want to engage with and by aligning their goals not to a specific political outcome but rather a specific learning outcome. As shown above, action civics, whether in the social studies, English, or math classroom, aligns with so many K-12 Common Core and state standards already. The concept of backward design, the preferred method of curriculum design, asks teachers to begin with what we want students to be able to do by the end and build our curricula towards that goal. 

In Regina’s classroom, the projects undertaken by students ranged from trying to stop cosmetic companies from using animals in product testing, to a toy drive for a children’s shelter in the Phoenix area, to creating anti-abortion access pamphlets to distribute among students. When Regina pushed back on a project, she did so not to steer them to her political stance but rather to make sure they were learning the skills they needed.

For example, while projects on abortion are often controversial (and, since they are frequently grounded in religious beliefs, difficult to discuss in a classroom setting), she instead focused on asking the students to consider where they were getting their information and how they were making sure it was reliable. Had they read anything from other perspectives or were they accepting ideas because they agreed with them? What term were they going to use to present themselves? Was it possible (or even desirable) for them to use a neutral term for both sides? For example, “pro-life” and “anti-choice” are value-laden, charged terms, situating each side as either against life or against freedom. How do people on differing sides respond to each other’s criticisms and concerns? How could they, in their pamphlet, anticipate possible rebuttals? Was their pamphlet engaging in persuasive strategies or just preaching to the choir? By staying grounded in pedagogical goals–teaching them how to research and persuade responsibly– critiques are offered in service of gaining mastery of the skills, rather than an attack on their beliefs. We believe these questions help students learn these skills but also require them to reflect on their stances and their goals without making them take on the views of their teacher.  

Opponents of action civics seem to believe that high schoolers are naive and pliant; as former middle- and high-school teachers, we can tell you that is hardly the case. Students push back, and we should help students appreciate the power of push-back and teach them the skills to do so effectively and responsibly.

In addition, action civics is time-consuming work and requires building connections in the community so that you can help students effectively enact their action plans. These community organizations and city government bodies are not interested in being propaganda tools for teachers and know how to advocate for their own needs. When opponents of action civics caricature teachers as scheming propagandists, they also denigrate K-12 students and the agency of civic organizations across the political spectrum.

While it is important to rectify the false impression of classrooms and to defend the general integrity of the teaching profession, by far the most important reason for rejecting the attack on action civics is that these arguments undercut fundamentals of American citizenship. Civic education teaches students about rights made available to them by virtue of the protections for petitioning and free association provided by national and state constitutions. To describe active citizenship as “left-wing activism” is perverse (and itself overtly ideological).

People of all political beliefs need to learn and exercise their rights, and nothing about active civics encourages or promotes only one view of what might matter to students. Old and venerable traditions, laws and practices call on the American people to see how rights must be exercised to be protected at every level of government and in every generation. By no means are the only supporters of this view liberal or left-wing. President Reagan spoke strongly in favor of each generation retaining the spirit of engagement necessary to defend freedom, which he described as fragile and never more than one generation away from expiring. Important Supreme Court cases, written by justices from across the political spectrum, confirm that while high schoolers may not be voters, that they are citizens with rights confirmed by our national and state constitutions. Moreover, engaging in civic education in high school classrooms helps students see the complexities and rewards of citizenship, far beyond the binary of choosing to engage in a big street protest or doing nothing at all.

Students learn from a variety of modalities of instruction; insisting that action civics be banned because it is ideologically dangerous defeats the goals of teaching students to be good Americans. The ideal student is not an apolitical one. We cannot complain about the apathy of the youth and then work to continue that apathy. Educating students on their rights and responsibilities should not be reserved for those fortunate enough to attend university. Civic education is more needed than ever, to show students how a diversity of ideas, interests, and concerns can actually be addressed in real life, not in history books. The right tool for this job is action civics; and it surely shouldn’t be banned.

3 thoughts on “Action Civics Should be Celebrated, Not Banned

  1. As an Aggie, I hate to say that these two people have no clue what is going on in this country. We would celebrate civics being taught if it was as Pollyannaish as described in this article. Unfortunately, the goal of today’s radicalized indoctrinators is to brainwash students into thinking Marxism/communism is the way forward. If these two people don’t know that, they need to figure it out quickly.

    1. Teachers must help foster discussion of multiple perspectives and help ensure as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, that schools are a market place of ideas

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