Civics summit provides reasons for hope

Authored by Hans Zeiger

There are many reasons for discouragement when we look at the state of American politics, the apparent dysfunction of our governing institutions, and the toxicity of our public discourse. Indeed, large numbers of Americans admit to discouragement, disappointment, or frustration about the state of our country, as shown in a Pew Research Center study of political attitudes released in September.

At the same time, we have done little as a country to reverse our decades-long failure to prepare citizens for the responsibilities of self-government, and civic knowledge is on the decline. Scores in civics and history were significantly down in recent national tests – in fact, only 22 percent of eighth-graders scored high enough to be rated “proficient” according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress for civics. K-12 schools have not devoted the resources they should to civic education, and we are reaping the consequences.

But after spending time with about 200 civics advocates, leaders, and funders at a recent National Summit on Civic Education in Philadelphia, I am feeling hopeful about the way forward.

Presented by the Jack Miller Center, where I serve as president, and the Union League Legacy Foundation, the Summit brought together people who are working in one city or region, and others who are working on a nationwide scale. Some may have been working to tackle our civic education challenge for many years, and others have come to this movement more recently because we see the need is so great. In the room were people from every part of the country, Republicans and Democrats and independents, bringing different perspectives and life stories.

But speakers talked about the need for finding common ground as citizens. Political scientist Danielle Allen of Harvard said we must confront our “siloed communities of conversation.” We need “a common language” for talking about America, said political philosopher Ioannis Evrigenis of Claremont McKenna College. Love of country, he said, “comes from a shared understanding.” Luke Ragland of the Denver-based Daniels Fund spoke of the need for “common cultural touchstones for civics.”

Independence Hall during autumn season in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

Speakers also talked about the pressing need to emphasize the study of primary source documents. Evrigenis described “the value of in-person wrestling with texts.” Tamara Tweel of the New York-based Teagle Foundation emphasized the importance of “a shared text” and “a shared table” as conditions for effective educational discourse. Funders themselves should commit to “learning together before we start giving together,” said Tweel.  

At the Summit we discussed recent developments on the civics landscape —from innovative Schools of Civic Thought that are forming on public university campuses across the country, to the Educating for American Democracy framework for K-12 civic education, to new ways of engaging students in civic learning like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s National Civics Bee. Stakeholders at every level of civic education are invested in pushing back against decline.

In a keynote address, legal scholar Alberto Coll of DePaul University called for a renewed emphasis on teaching civic virtues including prudence, deliberation, and moderation. Another keynote speaker, political scientist Paul Carrese of Arizona State University’s School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, called for “civic friendship” along with civic education as keys to America’s future. 

Over the two days we met, we found a few areas of disagreement. That was okay, because we share a commitment to the country, and to the ideals to which we pledged our allegiance at the opening of the Summit—“to the republic…one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We came together in Philadelphia to find solutions to our big civic challenges that call for educational remedies.

Following on a previous Summit at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the fall of 2022, the Summit is filling a void in the civic education landscape. The leaders who gathered in Philadelphia see the critical importance of civic education grounded in America’s foundational principles at this moment in our country’s history.

Next year, we will meet once again, and we aim to convene even more leaders. Our meeting will be on the heels of what’s sure to be a historic and polarizing election. It will be more important than ever to find common ground when it comes to our civic dialogue, and the values we seek to pass along to the rising generation. We cannot allow the heat of political debate to alienate us from our shared purpose as a people. The values and principles of the American Founding are too precious to be monopolized by one side of the political aisle.

We also have an opportunity to build unity as we approach the 250th anniversary of American independence in 2026. Our remarkable republic has endured for so long because it is founded on eternal principles. This important anniversary is an occasion to lean into civics – indeed, the United States can only carry on into the future if we successfully impart the values of an enlightened patriotism to the rising generation.

Hans Zeiger is the president of the Jack Miller Center, a nationwide network of scholars and teachers who are committed to advancing the core texts and ideas of the American political tradition. 

Authored by:Hans Zeiger


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