Can Teaching Civics Save Democracy? : NPR Ed Democracy thrives off an informed and active community, researchers say. The way to secure that future is integrating civics classes in K-12 education.
NPR logo Can Teaching Civics Save Democracy?

Can Teaching Civics Save Democracy?

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Teaching civics to students can help them be more engaged voters.
LA Johnson/NPR

Young adults are losing faith in American democracy and have difficulty distinguishing between "fake news" and reliable news. That's according to a new research paper out from Tufts University.

The solution? Support civic learning programs in K-12 education at the state and local level, the researchers argue.

"We know that if you study civics in high school you are more likely to be an informed voter," says Peter Levine, co-author of the paper and an associate dean for research at Tufts.

The paper is part of an effort to reinvigorate civics classes in schools across the country. It was presented at a summit in Washington, D.C., that was attended by foundations, nonprofits, researchers and universities.

They hope to expand civics education to 10 million students by 2021 -- an effort that would require $100 million in funding. Organizers say they are in the process of raising that money.

Civic learning has been an afterthought in school, the researchers argue. They offer six tips:

  1. Schools can offer courses on civics, government and law. Students who are better informed are more likely to vote.
  2. Host discussions of current controversies, which can create an interest in government for students who get to discuss American civil life.
  3. Try service learning opportunities where the community and students can come together to develop habits of community engagement.
  4. Student-led volunteer ideas can teach students to work together on group projects and foster civic participation.
  5. Let students speak! This can help students feel their voices are respected and valued.
  6. Programs like Model U.N. can simulate adult civic roles. iCivics, which is a widely used civic learning program, uses role-playing games to simulate government. It helps students participate in government processes such as national elections.

Florida requires civics classes and has implemented many of these practices.

After the state made civics a priority, seventh-graders were surveyed. A majority reported that they planned to be involved in civic life and 68 percent stated they were proficient in civic knowledge, according to the report's authors.

Civics classes also have the added potential of helping students distinguish between propaganda and fake news from reliable news sources, and encourage students to engage in their community to address any problems.

"If people feel engaged in their community," says Levine, "they are more likely to vote."

Previous studies have recorded that 24 percent of millennials thought the government did a poor job in running the country. With the requirement of civic education, the authors say, this will allow democracy to sustain with the rising generation.