This election cycle has brought up new concerns and claims about problems in United States politics and society. One of the concerns that has been widely shared is the fear that our public education system is failing our children. People are characterizing the United States’ population as ignorant and unaware, saying that the ubiquity of racism and sexism in this country is due to a lack of civic education in public schools.
It is easy to trace every prevalent social issue back to education. Indeed, education is the most effective way to significantly change society for the better. Through education it is possible to prevent outdated ideologies from being transferred to new generations. This gives younger United States citizens and residents the ability to do more than just argue with adults, telling them their beliefs are wrong. But I would argue that civic education is probably not the most significant contributing factor to Trump’s victory.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines civic education as “all the processes that affect people’s beliefs, commitments, capabilities, and actions as members or prospective members of communities.”
The Joe Foss Institute put it more concisely: civic education is the teaching of “how our government works and who we are as a nation, preparing them to exercise their vote, solve problems in their communities, and engage in active citizenship.”
Those who agree with this idea typically believe that a lack of civic education leads to ignorance of national values, and that this is the reason why Trump won, despite the fact that he defied some of those very same values. In 2015, eight states – Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin – passed laws that require students to pass some version of the citizenship test given to immigrants in order to graduate from high school.
I don’t think that the requirement of civic education in schools will mold individuals to be well informed citizens as much as these supporters hope. Historically, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have required some amount of education in civics. Before 2015, only eight states administered statewide standardized tests specifically in civics and American government. These included California, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Among these, Ohio and Virginia required civic tests for high school graduation.
When we look at the election results, six out of these eight states went red, pushing Trump further toward his presidency. Ohio and Virginia split the ballot with the former going red and the latter going blue. So despite the fact that Ohio, along with many other states, require civic education for high school students, it is clear that civic and U.S. governmental knowledge does not always guarantee support and advocacy for what many consider to be American values.
Another piece of evidence that Trump’s election cannot be blamed on the lack of civic education is the Constitution Day survey conducted by the Center for Civic Education on awareness of the constitution. According to the survey, although few Americans think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, there is widespread agreement on the basic ideas they contain.
What this means is that voters supporting Trump were likely well informed of national values upheld by these governmental documents.
So, what we must focus on instead is the reality that all individuals have the right to interpret these values on a personal level. Civic education alone cannot be held responsible for creating inclusive and open-minded individuals, since its main mission is not to inform students of a universal interpretation of national values. This is because ultimately, civic education does not have the power to alter personal interpretations of commonly held beliefs.
Another argument from supporters of increased civic education is that schools fail to create an equal environment for all students. Racism and sexism in schools are the source for those viewpoints in society.
I respond by saying that the argument which blames ineffective civic education for Trump’s election neglects the interactive relationship between education and society, in which society is the reflection of education and schools reflect the realities of society. As a subset of real life, schools are heavily shaped by actual society. This means that creating a perfectly equal environment within schools is impossible, as the greater society is nowhere near equal. What schools should aim to do is arm students with the knowledge and motivation necessary to fight inequality.
I firmly believe in education as a catalyst for change in the world. However, a lack of civic education may not have been the specific reason for Trump’s victory. After examining the role of civic education in schools, I raise the question: have we been too desperate to impose our values on others instead of arguing with the people who hold them?
My Khe Nguyen ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. She majors in political science.