Based on the evidence in my research, training, and experience as an educator, I strongly believe that young people are not being taught enough about our American way of government to become the next generation of leaders that we need in our country. We have two critical problems in our republic today, at the federal, state, and local levels–a civic-knowledge gap and a civic-skills gap.
In regard to our deficit of civic-knowledge, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania said in a 2016 post that 31% of respondents to their survey could not name any of the three branches of government and only 26% could name all three. As you can imagine, this reveals merely the tip of the iceberg. If our citizens do not know the Constitution and how our government works, how can they be expected to participate and care in any informed, responsible way?
While there are some efforts to increase the level of civic education in our schools, much more can and should be done. Atonement Academy will not merely teach civic knowledge; we will cultivate civic knowledge and understanding across the curriculum and in the model of the school itself. I plan to elaborate on this concept in a later post about micro-schools, but in education bigger is not better, especially with regard to learning certain kinds of skills and knowledge, including civic ones.
A small school is better able to create a useful and engageable microcosm of the wider society. Civil society exists in multiple layers of institutions, of various sizes and kinds. A school must prepare a person to be able to participate in a coherent, real community that is not merely a clique or an interest group, but involves a fairly diverse group of people coming together to function as a community–a type of microsociety or to use Burke’s famous phrase, a little platoon. We simply cannot cultivate civic skills en masse, such as in a school with multiple hundreds of students–especially the necessary civic skills of listening to and communicating with people who are different than us.
The dearth of such civic skills in our nation leads directly to the current political polarization. Social media contributes to polarization. It cannot replace offline conversations and community. When people have an actual space, physically and socially, in which to communicate effectively across differences, they will feel less polarized. A civic-focused microschool especially benefits teenagers, who need and want to learn these adult skills so that, as they transition into full voting citizenship and into the wider society, they not only thrive but also impact their society in a positive way.
What we mean, then, by civic skills is ultimately civic virtue, considered by the founding fathers to be utterly necessary for a thriving and free society. And what they meant by civic virtue, we often call simply character.
The next big event in a typical high school student’s life is not college or even career; it is earning the right to vote by turning 18. And yet why do we not emphasize this as much as college or career? We can and must teach both civic knowledge and skills, or the results will be disastrous for the greater good of our society.
As George Washington, the father of our country, put it, “A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”