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Learning Civics through Digital Engagement: An Oxymoron?

Left far behind in the wake of No Child Left Behind has been the teaching of Civics. Once a ninth grade fixture in social studies since World War I–yes, a century ago in a surge of enthusiastic curricular change, educational progressives in the U.S. established Civics to prepare students to be responsible citizens. By the 1950s, U.S. students took Civics, Problems of American Democracy, and U.S. Government in high school. Since then, these courses have shrunk considerably.

The decline in course-taking has occurred over decades as policy elites have replaced the civic mission of public schools with one that seeks to make public schools an arm of the economy. With state standardized tests and accountability seizing schools over the past quarter-century, teaching Civics has become a casualty of the narrowed school curriculum. Whether course-taking is equivalent to civic literacy is debatable but the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics revealed widespread lack of knowledge about the mechanics of government and democratic practices.

Consider further the following facts drawn from the 2011 report, Guardian of Democracy (p. 14):

*In 2006, in the midst of both midterm elections
and the Iraq war, fewer than half of Americans
could name the three branches of government,
and only four in ten young people (aged 18 to 24)
could find Iraq on the map.

*Only one in five Americans between the ages of
18 and 34 read a newspaper….

*Over a year after his term began, President Obama
is still thought to be a Muslim by 32% of Americans
and is thought to be foreign born by 25%.

Rather than cite more facts taken from the report and the NAEP Civics test, take my word for it. These figures are depressing.

Recent reports, Civic Mission of Schools (2003) and Guardian of Democracy (2011), make a strong case for elementary and secondary school students knowing about government, having skills to analyze print and non-print media, and participating in class, school, and community activities.

Why is youth’s lack of knowledge, interest in government, democracy, and community engagement of central importance? Because a working democracy needs revitalizing every generation so the young can become adults who maintain democratic and socially just practices. Sure, I could quote Thomas Jefferson and others to support the point; I could repeat what former Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor and former Congressman Lee Hamilton who jointly chaired the commission issuing the report Guardian of Democracy recommended to remedy the loss of the civic mission in schools. But I won’t because I assume readers do not need further justification for civic literacy and democratic practices.

Instead, I want to consider some recent research about digital participation by children and youth that suggest a different strategy to revitalize democracy in schools beyond restoring Civics courses. That research is anchored in the obvious facts that children and youth use the Internet and social media to get news, voice their views, and hear other perspectives. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence document that the Internet and social media are (and have been) used to mobilize both youth and adults to political action (e.g., Middle East, China, Occupy Wall Street) While there are certainly risks involved so, too, are their opportunities for educators to consider how youth’s digital participation is linked to civic engagement in and out of school.

Joe Kahne and his colleagues at Mills College have researched youth’s digital participation in online communities and as individuals for the past five years even following up a sample of youth who turned into adults.

What did they find?

1. Contrary to the popular wisdom that online activity distracts the young from real world action, they found that online participatory communities promoted civic engagement.

Specifically: ” [W]hen youth were highly involved in interest-driven online participatory communities they became more likely to volunteer in their community, raise money for a charitable cause, or work together with other individuals to solve a problem in the community where they live (p. 9).”

The researchers recommended social network games around academic activities such as InterroBang aimed at 6 to 12 year-olds.

2. Contrary to popular wisdom that the Internet reinforces youth’s parochial perspectives, online activity exposes the young to diverse points of view.

Specifically: “[O]ur findings revealed that few young people, 5 percent, report interacting only with those whose views align with their own. Most youth, 57 percent, who report exposure to views that align with their own, also report exposure to individuals who hold divergent views. In line with a good bit of political theory, we view this dual exposure as desirable.”

The authors conclude that the “virtual world can be good for the real one.” Policy elites and educators can promote media literacy, close the gap in access to certain devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets) between low-income and high income families and media literacy experiences in schools, and, finally, bridge out-of-school youth engagement activities (e.g., after-school programs and neighborhood groups such as the Philadelphia Student Union).

Kahne and his colleagues’ research into the connection between digital participation and community engagement is rich in its implications for educators, like myself, who seek to restore the civic mission to public schools.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...