- - Monday, December 31, 2018

Montgomery County, Maryland, is expected to go “all in” next year on a new policy encouraging “civic engagement” by high school students, allowing them to take several days off each year to participate in political activities and causes.

If the new policy is approved by the school board, as expected, the large suburban district — with more than two dozen high schools — will join a growing list of jurisdictions where activism seems to trump education.

The situation has become so egregious that a group of high school students in Rhode Island is suing the state for malfeasance, claiming in their lawsuit that the state’s failure to require the teaching of civics leaves them unprepared to function as “capable citizens.”

Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln would have agreed. The hardest thing about self-government, they both claimed, is keeping it going. How do we do that?

Throughout American history every generation has provided schools to teach the next generation what it needs to know about self-government. Americans believe that all are created equal, but none of us is born understanding the separation of powers or our federal system of government. Those things need to be taught; only by learning about them can one understand their importance. This is what civic education is all about.

A common complaint now is that civic education no longer works. Surveys show that Americans, and especially younger Americans, know little about their government. A survey released this fall by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, for example, found that “only one in three Americans (36 percent) can pass a multiple-choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test,” which is given to immigrants seeking citizenship. A score of 60 — a D-minus where I went to school — is considered passing.

The most recent (2014) National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam was even more sobering, showing that only 23 percent of the 29,000 8th graders given the test were found to be “proficient” in the subject.

To address this problem, some argue that civic education needs to put more emphasis on civic engagement. Instead of improving civic education, they argue, the solution is to get kids involved in civic projects, such as starting a recycling program or cleaning up a local park. Massachusetts recently passed a law allowing students to participate in a civics project. The Montgomery County initiative would take this even further.

But what about the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights and the significance of spending bills originating in the House of Representatives? Doing a civics project won’t teach kids about those elements of self-government. Nor will it teach them about checks and balances, the role of the judiciary or the other elements of our constitutional system.

More importantly, civics projects won’t lead students to understand the fundamental principles of self-government. It won’t lead them to reflect on what Lincoln meant when he said in the Gettysburg Address that America was “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It won’t lead them to think about the importance of Harry Truman’s comment that “in a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have.”

Emphasizing civic engagement over civic education is a worrying trend because to engage politically is to take sides, to be a partisan.

There is nothing wrong with partisanship. It is as necessary in politics as it is unavoidable. But at a time when we’re concerned about partisanship that seems to have lost contact with fundamental principles and any sense of the common good, the last thing we need is civic engagement without civic education to temper and guide it.

The best way to get students involved politically is by studying the words and deeds of the men and women involved in past controversies and encouraging the students to discuss and debate these words and deeds in class. Civic engagement prompted by this kind of serious, challenging civic education will lead to informed, capable citizens. That’s the kind of engagement all Americans should want to encourage.

• David Tucker is the director of teacher programs at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, and general editor of its “Core Document Collections.”

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