Partisan Takes Won’t Define Nonpartisan Action Civics

By Amy Curran, OK Executive Director, and Scott Warren, CEO

(Editor’s note: The following commentary appears in response to a commentary published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’ Center for Independent Journalism criticizing the civics-education nonprofit Generation Citizen. OCPA’s center did not respond to a request that this piece be published on their site.)

In the last 10 years, Generation Citizen is proud to have played a leading role in elevating Action Civics as a new, increasingly prominent academic discipline. We feel privileged to have worked together with a politically diverse range of state education agencies and lawmakers — from New York and North Dakota to Oklahoma and Massachusetts — in order to revise social studies standards and pass legislation expanding student access to integrative civic education that blends knowledge of how our government works with opportunities to interact with our public institutions. As educators, administrators, parents and policymakers look for relevant and motivating pedagogies that help young people see their role in our evolving American democratic experience, Action Civics has created a vibrant, dynamic form of civics education.

With this success also comes criticism. Like any discipline that receives increased attention, Action Civics has received its own share, largely focused on a false notion that the discipline exists to promote progressive ideals. The latest version of this criticism came from David Randall of the National Association of Scholars, who penned a blog piece for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs criticizing the Oklahoma Department of Education for promoting and working with Generation Citizen. Randall, who has met with Generation Citizen leaders before, poses that our program “smuggles propaganda and vocational training for progressive activism into K-12 schools and calls it ‘action civics.’”

In America’s current climate, especially in the political realm, everything has become polarized. We seemingly cannot agree on anything, so to understand the type of civics education that our young people receive, it is understandable when people seek to fit it into the overall cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

But Randall’s claim simply does not reflect reality. As defined by the National Action Civics Collaborative, Action Civics is “an authentic, experiential approach in which students address problems through real-world experiences that apply to their lives.” This approach does include action, youth voice, youth agency and reflection. But we include these elements not because they breed progressivism, but rather because they are based on effective and proven learning approaches that studies show are the most efficient ways to teach civics education, period.

Students learn to advocate on issues of their choice

For far too long, civics education, when taught at all, has been a static discipline in which young people learn about a form of democracy that does not pertain to their own lives. Students are taught facts and figures, and told to take a test on how a bill becomes a law. This approach has contributed to diminishing levels of civic competency and knowledge among all young people, most acutely among young people from under-represented backgrounds, who receive less relevant civics education than their affluent counterparts.

To that end with Action Civics, we aim to ensure that young people understand how government operates and why it is relevant to their lives. We resist the artificial dichotomy between civic knowledge and civic participation, believing that the former prepares students for the latter in terms of basic duties like voting, performing jury service and so on. We do not tell our students how to advocate for change. In fact, we acknowledge and affirm their hope for a more just society.

Consider the following two examples in Oklahoma. In response to calls for criminal justice reform, students from across the political and geographic spectrum brainstorm and propose solutions that directly affect the wellbeing of their families and communities. Likewise on the topic of education, we have seen some young people push for more school choice while others advocate for a cap on charter schools. We believe in a vibrant democracy, one in which all citizens advocate for the issues they believe in. Success for Generation Citizen is not predicated on the success of young people’s action projects, but rather their ability to become engaged, informed and thoughtful citizens.

Generation Citizen believes passionately that an effective democracy requires a culture of deliberation and an exchange of carefully considered reasons. In short, we support a robust debate. To that end, we have welcomed supporters and board members from all political stripes. In order to succeed, we have to do it together. Contrary to what David Randall might think, past board members and volunteers have run for state legislatures and even the U.S. Senate — as Republicans.

We understand that Action Civics represents a change in the way civics is taught in that it brings the topic to life. Because this change represents something new, we welcome both questions and concerns of a new discipline that has had a track record of success. We welcome debate, and more importantly, welcome engagement with our young people. Rather than act as Randall did and criticize him directly in this commentary, we are engaging and meeting with him directly. After all, that is what we would teach our young people to do.