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Can teaching civics in schools help break down barriers in American society?

Fierce divisions seem to drive a wedge in much of American life at this moment and how we view government. Now, a prominent team of educators has released a new plan that calls for revamping history and civics classes in schools as one way to bridge the gap. Harvard professor Danielle Allen, a principal investigator for the Educating for American Democracy project, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fierce divisions seem to drive a wedge into so much of American life at this moment and how we view government.

    Now a prominent team of educators says one part of the solution likely starts with what's being taught in our schools. They're out with a new plan that calls for revamping history and civics classes in schools. This approach, they say, can be both patriotic and reckon with difficult legacies.

    Harvard Professor Danielle Allen is a principal investigator for the group Educating For American Democracy.

    Danielle Allen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, tell us how this group came together, and what is the problem you're trying to fix?

  • Danielle Allen:

    Sure. Thanks so much, Judy. It is good to be here.

    Many of us across higher education, across K-12 have been working on rebuilding civic education for a long time. We look at young people who report that they actually don't have faith in democracy or don't consider it essential to live in a democracy.

    We look at the polarization around us. We have been working to rebuild civics for more than a decade. And in the summer of 2019, the National Endowment for Humanities put out a call for proposals, inviting a group to come together and president a road map for excellence in history and civic learning for all learners.

    Our first goal was to really bridge, to bring together geographic diversity, demographic diversity and viewpoint diversity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what — my understanding is, though, what you're not doing is, you're not recommending that every teacher in every school teach history, civics the same way.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Exactly. That's right.

    What we are doing is, we are issuing an invitation to the nation's community of educators to join a process of experimentation. We are not saying, here are the answers, sort of on high, of how you should teach. Instead, we're saying, here is a set of questions that every learner should have the chance to encounter over their K-12 education.

    And we are proposing some design challenges. For example, how can we narrate our history in ways that are both clear-eyed and honest about our failings, but without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of our achievements, including the founding, but without tipping into adulation?

    So, those are some parameters, guardrails. Now here's an invitation. Community of educators, let's experiment. What kinds of histories can we tell within those parameters? How can we explain the value and purpose and functioning of constitutional democracy within those parameters?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what would some of these new ways of teaching history and civics, what would they look like? I mean, if it's not all going to be exactly the same, there are going to be some things in common?

  • Danielle Allen:


    Our hope is that everybody starts to use the same set of questions. And these questions are history questions and civics questions.

    To give you an example, if you look at state standards now, very often, what you will see is a list of names and dates, so the Boston Tea Party and Shays' Rebellion, three branches of power, for example, or three branches of government.

    And we're suggesting, instead, we want to ask questions. So, when you're thinking about the American Revolution, what were the perspectives that the colonists, that indigenous Americans, that free African Americans and enslaved African Americans had on the British government?

    You still have to learn a lot of stuff to answer that question. But the goal is to engage students in a process of inquiry, working with primary sources to really help them dig into a broad understanding that integrates perspectives.

    We also ask civics questions. How do we define fairness? What are the different possible ways of defining fairness? How does fairness come into our lives and our communities and with one another? And so it's really about engaging students in those hard questions and debates, and then working hard on how we debate productively with each other.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And with — Danielle Allen, with the thousands of school districts around the country — we know education is run at the local level — are you — is this being received well everywhere?

    I mean, how are you — what kind of feedback are you starting to get?

  • Danielle Allen:

    We have had extraordinary feedback.

    We had a team of over 300 people working on this, educators, scholars, practitioners. We talk to parents. We talk to students. We have a remarkable array of civil society organizations that are contributing to this, and, again, from across the political spectrum.

    So, for example, the Bill of Rights Foundation is a supporter of the work. The American Federation of Teachers is a supporter of the work.

    For implementation, our argument is on behalf of what we call collaborative federalism. There is a role for every part of our system. But, at the end of the day, yes, you're right. It's at the local level that civic learning is really going to take root.

    So, we argue that schools should create civic learning plans. We do recommend that states should require this of schools. The federal government, we think, has a role in supporting professional development and investing in diversifying the pipeline of educators, investing in innovation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some of civics education, we know, was pushed out in the desire to improve STEM, so-called STEM education, science, technology, math, and so on.

    Is it is it an either/or thing that schools are still facing on this?

  • Danielle Allen:

    It shouldn't be an either/or. We need our investments in STEM education. And we also need our investments in civic education.

    We invested in STEM as a part of becoming a competitive society globally. We were thinking about national security competitiveness. We were thinking about economic competitiveness. The truth is that we want to compete on the global stage as the kind of society we are, namely, a constitutional democracy.

    So, we also need civic strength. And to achieve that, we have to invest in civic education, so that young people understand our institutions, have a reason to appreciate and engage in them, and have the skills and dispositions to be effective as civic participants.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will be really interested to see how this develops.

    Danielle Allen with the group Educating for American Democracy, thank you very much.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Thank you, Judy. It's a pleasure. Take good care.

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