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.

There is no best formula for preparing citizens. We’ve done it different ways throughout our nation’s history. We’ve emphasized history education–teaching a limited history, at that–to facilitate the assimilation and acculturation of immigrants. Up until the 1960s, we offered civics classes that served as “indoctrination in Americanism, patriotism and so forth. Sort of a mindless George Washington and the cherry tree,” says Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, who has been promoting civic education for over forty years. And though the subsequent “correction,” as the market would call it, led to an improved and more accurate treatment of history, “the history books then left out American government or the history of American government,” Quigley told me. This form of history, too, was inadequate for the preparation of citizens.

Civics education in schools creates young people who turn into the citizens that our democracy requires. And, most importantly, civics in schools works. Young people who study civics talk more frequently about political affairs with their parents, peers and teachers. Young people who have taken a civics course are often two or three times more likely to say they have engaged in political activities than those who have not. Among the 18- to 34-year-old alumni of the Center for Civic Education’s We the People program, 92 percent said they voted in November 2004, compared to 78 percent of the general population.

And young people who participate in civic engagement activities will do better in high school reading, math, science and history, and are more likely to graduate from college. They learn the three Rs but they also learn the why. The why makes all the difference.

The State of Civics Knowledge

If you believe that the success of our participatory democracy is directly related to how it prepares its youngest citizens, then you must worry that our democracy is in sorry shape.

Since 1969, the federal government has tested young people on their civic knowledge–that is, their understanding of the inner workings of government and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The abysmal performance of American children on these civics exams tells us that we are failing to educate our children about their critical role as citizens.

On the 2006 exam, only one in four American twelfth graders was found to be “proficient.” Five percent of twelfth graders tested could explain three ways in which the president can be checked by the legislative or judicial branches. One in two could explain the outcome when state and national laws conflict.

Twenty-eight percent of eighth graders could articulate the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Only one in four could, when presented with a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, explain “two specific ways in which marches and demonstrations such as the one illustrated can achieve political goals.”

Our young people’s civic ignorance is a long-term threat. The decision to vote can be traced to our civic knowledge. “Nonvoting results from a lack of knowledge about what government is doing and where parties and candidates stand, not from a knowledgeable rejection of government or parties or a lack of trust in government,” write Samuel Popkin and Michael Dimock. That was George Washington’s point all along: active citizens are integral to democracy, and schools are the training grounds for those citizens.

The Decline of Civics as a Priority

Civic education is a guaranteed applause line from both sides of the aisle–similar to “energy independence” and “high standards.” And our elected leaders do give it lip service. Said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander in 2003, hosting hearings on teaching civics and American history, “It is time to put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American.” Just one year after 9/11, President Bush brought historian David McCullough to the Rose Garden to launch a new effort to connect America’s young people to our nation’s history. The president said, “American children are not born knowing what they should cherish–are not born knowing why they should cherish American values. A love of democratic principles must be taught.”

Yet Bush’s willingness to back up the statement made in the Rose Garden was inconsistent at best. After budget proposals in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 recommended elimination of funding for the Center for Civic Education’s signature We the People program, Bush did make room in his 2004 and 2005 budgets for the initiative. But his budget for fiscal years 2006 through 2009 all recommended defunding We the People. Bush’s justification for elimination read, “Request is consistent with the Administration’s policy of terminating small categorical programs that have limited impact, and for which there is little or no evidence of effectiveness, to fund higher priority programs.”

Rather than strengthening We the People and the Center for Civic Education, Bush was willing to abandon the program completely. Although the Bush administration created a separate (and completely different) We the People program at the National Endowment for the Humanities, it attempted to push civics programs away from specific spending authorizations and into broad programs where funding was anything but certain. In effect, the administration tried to get rid of the Center for Civic Education.

The education policy Bush championed, centered on the No Child Left Behind initiative, emphasized standardized testing, to the detriment of instruction in history and civics. Bush and his secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, believed that concentration on the basics that get tested would “trickle down” into students’ understanding of history and civics. Spellings assured those who were worried about the absence of classes in history, civics, art and so forth that “job one is to do reading right and well, and some of the rest of this stuff I think will take care of itself.”

But there has been little progress in the performance of America’s young people on civics exams since the introduction of No Child Left Behind. The civics knowledge of eighth graders has not changed since 1998, the last time the exam was offered. Twelfth graders, too, performed the same in 2006 as they did in 1998. Although there was an increase in performance in the fourth-grade pool, fewer than one in two could identify the role of the Supreme Court. Seventy-five percent of students knew that one has to be a US citizen in order to vote in a presidential election; the others thought one must be a citizen to drive a car, own a business or write a letter to a newspaper editor. Only 14 percent recognized that defendants have the right to a lawyer. The average score for fourth graders was 154 out of a possible 300.

Trickle-down theories–whether in economics or in education–didn’t work out too well for the Bushes, and they don’t work out well for the future of our democracy. Students don’t automatically learn history just because they learned reading. They don’t acquire the skills transmitted through civics class just because they can do math. Children cannot apply their reading and comprehension skills to history or civics if there is no forum for the application. And with teachers and schools making dramatic shifts in their educational programming to emphasize the subjects that are being tested, to the point of excluding everything else, Spelling’s argument about the ripple effects of emphasizing the basics becomes impossible to prove.

It’s true that students who read and write better would be more likely to thrive in a history class, and would bring a stronger base from which to engage in a conversation about how to understand and participate in their government. But how would we know? Spellings’s argument is circular: these tests increase reading skills, and–when applied–reading skills improve history, so let’s keep up the tests and take time away from history. Not to worry; students will continue to have the skills to apply to something that they will never learn. Civics, on the other hand, teaches young people not just how to absorb information but also how to question. They ask how their democracy works and why. They ask how it could work better, and what we can do to make it work better.

Still, the institutionalized civics programs of the 1960s were not a magic bullet–they were ineffective at imparting knowledge or excitement about political history or contemporary events. Or, as Quigley put it: the courses were boring. Effective civic education programs now use case studies to bring “reality and relevance into the classroom as well as the excitement of discussion and debate.” Other simulations, such town meetings, hearings and lobbying exercises, develop participatory skills. Quigley’s own Project Citizen, one of the most popular civics programs, “actively engages kids in going into their communities, interviewing people, doing survey research, identifying public policy problems, developing their own proposed solutions and political action plans, and trying to have an impact on City Hall.”

“One of the things about this movement in civic education,” Quigley told me, “is that it does foster an inquiry method. It’s like case studies, examination, analysis, discussion, debate, role playing, simulations.” As Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, puts it, “Civic education that teaches people to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. Instead, we should reform major institutions.” The reform of institutions–whether the local school board or Washington lobbies–begins with asking questions.

“As people, we’re all naturally curious,” Allyson Graul, director of the Youth Civic Engagement Center at Alternatives in Hampton, Virginia, told me. “But in so many ways our society has shut down our curiosity and replaced it with these right-wrong answers.” In Graul’s city, young people are learning how to ask questions again. Their canvas is the democracy of their schools and city. Hampton youth are learning how their government and systems work and are learning that questions are key to their ability to express their own power. High school students are decision-makers–they sit on a youth commission, are hired to work in the planning department, advise superintendents and even give away city funds to endeavors they view as worthwhile. The town created this system of youth civic engagement not because it was cute or because they were motivated by Thomas Jefferson. They did it because they saw the disaffection of their young people, and they knew that the only way to change direction was to let young people ask questions and have the power to deal with the answers.