Civic education comes in many varieties. Some projects emphasize core knowledge, while others skip over almost all of that and teach students to become community activists. Giving mere lip service to core knowledge, however, makes it easy for “action civics” demagogues—often, kids’ own teachers—to manipulate the agenda in favor of social struggle on “social justice” issues. Best is to leave advocacy out of the classroom and stick to basic principles on which practically all citizens can agree, like those in the Constitution: equal treatment under the rule of law and a federal system of separated powers that check and balance one another.
What counts as action civics? For the Action Civics Showcase of the Chicago Public Schools in 2018, for example, schools submitted projects on the following:
The “need” for composting, in order to “protect the environment.”
Raising awareness of “racism in the criminal justice system” and “the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Addressing gun violence by protesting with “March for Our Lives” and student walkouts.
“How the travel ban is affecting refugees” (this one was at an elementary school).
Addressing school culture regarding “LGBTQ issues,” including teach-ins and a Day of Silence.
“Unwanted insects in their school” and “choice to wear non-khaki pants.” (OK, these and many others were rather apolitical.)
It is not hard to come up with neutral projects, and several projects were neutral (reducing fights at school; fixing the water fountains). But too many projects were not inclusive of all students. Students almost always took only one side on an issue and, quite frequently, it was the progressive side on an issue of interest to progressives. (An important exception: several projects worked to discourage illegal drug use.) He who controls the agenda has great power to control the outcome.
But proponents of action civics also point to the benefits of activism projects in general. Students gain voice and a sense of efficacy, for example, and they improve in social and rhetorical skills needed to make their points persuasively.
So, if action civics proponents were true to the idea that any topic is fine—any problem or solution a student chooses is about equally valuable—they would have no problem with a thoroughly conservative list of topics to help students think about which problems to work on.
Accordingly, conservatives might suggest that proponents of action civics help students think about the following issues in their communities and in the nation and world. Of course, just as with issues of social justice, the environment, “whiteness” and antiracism, “equity,” and so on, students would be encouraged to develop their own opinions and solutions.
Topics around which conservatives may be expected to develop action civics curricula include:
Addressing black-on-black crime in cities such as Chicago.
Addressing the mismanagement of Democrat-controlled cities such as Baltimore.
Mitigating the unintended consequences of gun control in cities such as D.C.
Addressing the problem of public entities that negotiate with unions, especially teacher unions, without having the right incentives to negotiate. Should any public unions exist?
Mitigating problems caused by overregulation including environmental regulation which, for example in California, causes unaffordable housing. Which regulations should be rescinded?
Mitigating the unintended negative consequences of rent control.
Raising awareness of the benefits of clean nuclear power.
How to address the federal budget deficit by reducing or ending entitlement programs and higher-risk federal student loans.
Breakdown of the family as a result of the sexual revolution. Which elements of the revolution should be reversed?
How to increase the marriage rate and decrease the divorce rate as well as single-parent families.
Addressing transgender activism that harms confused children for life; how to reduce stigmas of transgender illness.
Whether to support freedom of conscience by repealing antidiscrimination laws that reach beyond traditional accommodations such as food and shelter.
How to reverse states’ Blaine Amendments that impede religious/secular equity.
How to stop illegal immigration.
How to address the murder involved in elective abortion and euthanasia.
Should there be a mandatory core curriculum at universities, minimizing electives?
Addressing the negative effects of race preferences in admissions (mismatch effect) and addressing the discrimination involved in race-based and sex-based preferences in public contracting.
How to preserve and extend First Amendment rights by, for example, raising awareness of the value of Citizens United in increasing Americans’ voice.
To address city and state budget issues, should public pensions all become defined contribution rather than defined benefit? What other pension reforms would help?
How should Americans get involved in addressing religious persecution and oppression of women and sexual minorities in Muslim-majority countries?
Again, to be clear, the curriculum on each issue would never tell students what to think about these problems. These topics merely would constitute the initial menu for students to consider as they develop their own positions and decide what they would like to work on to make the world a better place.
Insofar as social and economic conservatives are being invited to support action civics, many of us wonder how well our preferences will be tolerated. How much room is there for us at the table?
Meanwhile, the critical-thinking part of the curriculum may well include elements such as the following. These elements involve basic financial and economic literacy.
Taxation and opportunity cost: If you think something is underfunded, whose money are you going to take away in order to increase the funding?
Diminishing returns: If you want to increase the funding for something, remember that each dollar does not have the same result.
Public vs. private spending: incentives toward efficiency often work best when people spend their own money on things they want, rather than the way government officials do it, spending other people’s money on things that they believe other people ought to want.
Government debt is ultimately a wealth transfer from younger people to older people.
Action civics for conservatives is, anyway, a Swiftian proposal. These projects take a lot of time, and they can suck weeks out of a school year when minutes for core knowledge are scarce. The polarizing topics are often the most interesting and engaging ones, yet we have quite enough polarization today. Embedding civic knowledge in games, simulations, story, and deep discussion of original documents can do well to lock that knowledge in, without needing to forge community organizers starting in elementary school.
Engaging in civil society is good, of course. But save community action for voluntary student clubs, and let civics focus foremost on understanding the basics.
Adam Kissel was deputy assistant secretary for higher-education programs in the U.S. Education Department, 2017–18.