the study of civic affairs and the duties and rights of citizenship.
I was not a very good science student. Thus, I was surprised that my investigation into the relationship between inquiry and democracy took me to San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a science museum with hundreds of interactive exhibits designed to allow anyone, of any age, to interact with the natural phenomena of the world. Rather than offering an authoritative analysis of just how we interact with science, the Exploratorium is an environment where people can figure out how things work, where they can observe, touch and play, and in the process, “nurture their curiosity about the world around them.”
What if we encouraged our citizens to approach democracy just as the students at the Exploratorium approach science? Like science, democracy is a messy business. We try one hypothesis and it doesn’t work, so we try another. It’s through the exploration of democracy that we can uncover its properties and understand our relationship to it. The kids at the Exploratorium fall in love with science because they can touch, feel, see and ask questions about what otherwise seems so remote; we can do the same with democracy if we let children in. As with science, democracy is all around us. But we need to experience it firsthand. There’s a name for that: civics.
The Civic Function of Schools
It is bizarre to have to make the case that the public school system should prepare citizens for democracy. This is, after all, why our public school system was founded in the first place.
In his farewell address as president in 1796, George Washington “recommended ‘as an object of primary importance’ the creation of ‘institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.’ He gave a democratic argument for investing in education: ‘In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion,’ he said, ‘it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened,'” explains The Civic Mission of Schools, a landmark report released in 2003. It was Thomas Jefferson, however, who later made an explicit case for creating a public school system, from the early grades through university, and for that public school system to function with a civic purpose in mind. At his March 4, 1801, inaugural address, Jefferson stated that the principles of justice, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the “anchor of peace” should be “the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust.” Since the early times of our nation, the question wasn’t if the public schools should prepare effective citizens, but how.
Yet 100 years later, the American Political Science Association asked, “Is it not a curious fact that though our schools are largely instituted, supported, and operated by the government, the study of American government in the schools and colleges is the last subject to receive adequate attention?” This “practical education in our duties and responsibilities as citizens” is civics. History is the study of that which has happened. Civics prepares each and every one of us to make our own history, by giving us the skills to navigate our democracy.