The rise of Donald Trump has led to calls to fix high school civics. Some want to change its content, others its delivery, and still others its share of the curriculum. Representing this last view is the Washington Post‘s Colbert I. King, whose column includes this peroration: “The declining civic portion of public education . . . is a threat to our democratic values. It must be addressed, and now. Only a demagogue would argue with that.”

I argue with that.

In Kansas, the Post informs me this morning (we demagogues, unlike our victims, still read the paper), six high school boys are running for governor. The article is full of ironies: the would-be governors aren’t old enough to vote; one candidate, Tyler Ruzich, rushes from a debate to his part-time work as a grocery store cashier; and Ruzich observes that, in Hamilton’s time, “someone my age could be commander of a frigate.”

The article’s climax involves an interchange among two of these candidates, Ruzich and Jack Bergeson, and Soledad O’Brien on her nationally syndicated show. The show is taped the day after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The article implies that the Florida shooting makes O’Brien take the candidates seriously: O’Brien “didn’t ask whether they were old enough to drive.”

Instead, she asks Ruzich about Parkland.

Instead of finding better ways to tell teens the political facts of life, many adults after Parkland have begun to listen to and learn from high school students. As a high school English teacher, I’ve spent years learning from them through their discussions and research papers, most of which address matters of public concern. Now some American students, suddenly in the news, are taking their learning outside the classroom to discover how the kind of argumentation they’ve been trained in, based on facts and reasoning and respect, works in our public realm.

Parkland students were in the galleries when, days after the shooting, Florida’s House of Representatives voted two-to-one not to consider a bill banning the kind of military weapon that mowed down their friends. One Parkland student was photographed covering her mouth as if she were about to sob or vomit. So it goes.

At his hotel with his mom the morning of O’Brien’s show, Ruzich watches Parkland student David Hogg address Florida’s lawmakers on CNN: “We’re children. You guys are the adults. You need to take some action.”

But most of the action recently has come from the students. They – and we – are up against what Hannah Arendt calls “automatic historical or political processes,” ones that seem both disastrous and inevitable. Yet action – “the work of faith,” as Arendt calls it – can perform miracles to interrupt these processes1:

. . . in the realm of human affairs, we know the author of the “miracles.” It is men who perform them – men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.2

Man’s civic action stems from his ontological relation to the world, Arendt says: “man is a beginning and a beginner.”3 Because these teens are closer to their beginning than adults are, as I see it, Arendt’s “men” now include boys.

On national television, Ruzich, a Republican, answers O’Brien’s question about gun control:

If I’m making an enemy of the NRA, that’s something I’m kind of proud of, to be honest. I’ve seen what gun violence does. It’s time that we change the rhetoric and the discussion. Because clearly we are too far gone to say it’s a mental illness problem.

The students in Florida and Kansas are not just entering public space; they are creating it.

Our public realm is shrinking. As Philip Gorski puts it, our society believes, with Ronald Reagan, that “the true domain of human freedom [is] the marketplace, not the public square.”4 We are not far behind China in this respect. Our students are trained in civics, but they leave high school or college for the “real world” in which leadership and creativity are not often put to the public’s service but to private gain. American conservatives used to mistrust the modern marketplace – a liberal idea, after all – precisely because it tempted citizens away from republican virtue.

We vaguely believe our democracy is modeled after ancient Athens’s, but we’ve forgotten our civics lessons that informed us about Athenian democracy. It wasn’t just the city’s small size that permitted more participation. After all, Athens became the center of a Greek empire after the Persian Wars, and most places its league conquered became their own democratic poleis. Athenian juries sat not twelve but at least five hundred.5 Any citizen could speak at the general assemblies. In nearly every civic position, Athens had not a single officeholder but a college or a group of magistrates, and the citizens rotated in and out of office annually. These policies were inspired by the Athenians’ fear of tyranny.6 Many Americans believe that a fuller democracy leads to demagoguery and tyranny. But the Athenians reasoned that the greater the democracy, the smaller the chance of tyranny.

Mr. Trump wasn’t elected because of democracy; he was elected because of an institutional check on democracy that gave him the election despite his losing it by almost three million votes.

A lack of democracy causes misinformation, which in turn can lead to tyranny. King cites a study indicating that only a third of American adults in a recent survey could name their country’s vice president. But misinformation that exploits powerlessness is worse than ignorance. Vast numbers of Americans believe, for instance, that Trump won the popular vote and should postpone our next presidential election until he is satisfied that the system is no longer rigged. This isn’t the result of an inadequate civics curriculum. It’s the result of inadequate civics. Our politics is a spectator sport, and a dull one at that. People are susceptible to believing anti-government, “deep state” conspiracies because they feel powerless and invisible.

This invisibility worried John Adams. America’s poor wouldn’t disrupt society, he believed, but would not have the leisure time for civic engagement and the public visibility it brings:

The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed . . . He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market . . . he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen . . . To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable.7

Of course, Adams’s observations about the poor’s lack of free time apply as well to a large portion of today’s American middle class, which works longer and harder than its counterparts in other industrialized countries. Our emphasis on the marketplace over the public square is costing us.

Compared with today’s America, my public high school is a hotbed of democracy. Its many clubs and teams resemble what Alexis de Tocqueville describes in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. Like most high schools, the cafeteria is broken into cliques, and students must learn how to navigate among them, a great skill in a pluralistic society. Students are inoculated against demagoguery not so much by learning the three branches of government as by learning how to distinguish popularity from friendship and truth. The student-officeholder-to-student ratio is high. When they vote – and they vote in both class and schoolwide elections, and their turnout is near one hundred percent each election – they listen to candidates who are empowered to make changes that affect how students experience high school. Officeholders negotiate with the school administration to realize changes that are outside of their direct control. By the way, the civics classes and teachers are first rate. I saw all of this at my previous high school, too.

How does this high school civics experience apply to the civic responsibilities students face when they graduate from high school or college? We consider an adult a model citizen if she doesn’t dodge jury duty and votes once a year. Is that enough democracy? The students go from practicing democracy in school to becoming mere spectators as adults, and the school’s inoculation against demagogues, in many cases, loses its efficacy.

How can we transplant high school’s civic engagement to our adult world? For one thing, we should seek to shield politics from necessity. We can learn even from the Athenians’ practice of slavery if we understand the institution as a cruel means of conquering necessity, which for the Greeks constituted a private, pre-political sphere. Only Athenian men who had conquered economic necessity could participate in public life. A school tries to insulate students from some aspects of poverty – it institutes clothing drives and free and reduced lunch programs, for instance – in part for the same reason Athens allowed only free men in its polis – so its members can learn and participate without the distraction of necessity, and so the community can have the benefit of their talent and insights. If we believe in equality, then we could take steps to move the poor into the public realm, not because they otherwise wouldn’t be adequately represented but because they otherwise wouldn’t be seen – wouldn’t be fully human in our eyes, despite our idealistic protestations to the contrary. In the private realm, their poverty is measured by their lack of life’s necessities. In the public realm, though, their poverty is measured by their transparency and ultimately by our own commensurate civic poverty.

High school teaches us also to take responsibility for the local. We connect to government if we participate in it. What if we took steps to take responsibility for our subdivisions the way the Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students are taking responsibility for their school community? What if the states ceded more power to the local governments, and the local governments more power to the precincts, boroughs, and subdivisions? What if the local mattered again? Edmund Burke may have gotten it right if one applies his idea of the local not to love but to civic friendship and engagement:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.8

We need a revival of local, civic engagement. Our republic, in other words, needs a deeper democracy.

Public space can be created by policy, as the Athenians created it, or by acts of faith, as the members of the French Resistance created it when, as Arendt puts it, “without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute wily-nilly a public realm where – without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe – all relevant business in the affairs of the country were transacted in deed and word.”9

Through action, these students in Kansas and Florida are creating public space. At the risk of sounding like a demagogue, I think we could learn more about democracy from our children.

Feature image: “Philly students #CounselorsNotCops rally” by Joe Piette. Above image: “Student lie-in at the White House to protest gun laws” by Lorie Shaull. Both used by permission.

  1. Arendt, Hanna. Between Past and Future, at 166.
  2. Id. at 169.
  3. Id.
  4. Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, at 188.
  5. McInerney, Jeremy. “Athenian Courts and Justice.” The Age of Pericles.
  6. McInerney, Jeremy. “Democracy and Government.” The Age of Pericles.
  7. Adams, John. Discourses on Davila, Works, Boston, 1851, vol. V1, p. 239-40, 267. 279.
  8. Burke, Edmund, quoted in Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, at 359.
  9. Arendt, supra, at 3.

4 thoughts on “Don’t fix civics class. Fix civics.

  1. I was very heartened by your article. I’ve seen a huge leap in community activism in the last couple months in my area. I think the young people gave a discouraged population some direction and inspiration.

  2. This presents a very interesting and informative perspective on the state of civics education today. Back when I had classes in middle and high school, they were more focused on the overall facts and mechanics of our government instead of how we can unite to fix important issues. Every student in civics right now should read this. Thank you for such a good read!

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