Understanding the extent to which misinformation has pervaded America requires one to look no further than the views of the voting electorate. A Monmouth University poll published in June paints a dire picture of where some American voters stand: almost one-third of Americans believe Joe Biden was elected because of voter fraud and nearly 15% of Americans will never accept the results of the 2020 election. If such polls are accurate, that would mean millions of voters believe the misinformation spewed by elected officials and the right-wing media.
What the polls also suggest is something even more dangerous for the functioning and future of democracy: Entire swaths of voters have little understanding of the basic operations of American government. Indeed, the Founding Fathers believed that information could empower the public to guard democracy. For instance, Thomas Jefferson said, “Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” At its core, Jefferson understood that strength, vibrance, and health of democracy requires voters to, at the least, understand how and why their government functions in the way it does.
However, when the prerequisite of a healthy democracy seems to have gone astray, what should be done? What happens when millions of voters believe what they hear from pundits or read on social media over the trusted voices of scientists and career public servants? These are difficult problems that will undoubtedly take time to solve and must be confronted head on.
To be sure, there is no magic solution that will reverse the lack of civic literacy. But as a recent graduate from a high school that mandated civics as a course for all students, I know that there is a tangible path forward to ensure that the next generation of voters is informed, educated, and understands the basic processes of American democracy — even in a hyper-partisan era. And it begins in one place and with one subject: the classroom and civics education.
While my high school mandated civics, I realize that is not the reality for many students across the nation. According to a study published by the American Federation of Teachers in 2018, only nine states and the District of Columbia require students to take a full year of civics education. Such an imbalance of states that require and do not require a years worth of civics fosters what Jefferson warned against: an uninformed citizenry. Take, for example, only 23 percent of eighth-graders achieving at or above average score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics Exam and, out of all but three Advanced Placement exams, the AP US Government exam scores the lowest at a 2.64 out of 5
Like mastering a science concept or math equation, understanding civics requires time and practice. Fortunately, following the insurrection on January 6th, Congress and many states have introduced legislation that would bolster funding for civics education — realizing that an informed citizenry serves as a bulwark against tyranny and ensures the vitality of democracy. Of course, not every student will walk away as a scholar on the US government. But increasing civics education is a step in the right direction: teaching everything from the Declaration of Independence to public opinion polling will allow students to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the workings of government.
Schools, however, should go beyond merely passively teaching students about the processes of government. As a part of civics education, students should also be required to actively apply what they learned in the classroom to their community. At my high school, this was known as Action Civics. At the end of the year, students identified a problem facing American democracy, researched solutions to fix the problem, presented the solutions to peers and teachers for feedback, and ultimately, tackled the problem in our community. My project entailed proposing a Congressional District Plan to reform the electoral college.
For schools that have implemented Action Civics, the results have been transformational. Based on the National Action Civics Collaborative, schools that utilized action civics not only found that “90% of students increased civics skills,” but also the number of students who felt they could make a difference in their community doubled, from 40% of students to 80% of students. Not only does making civics engaging for all students ensure they know how American government works, but it fosters students to become active change agents and leaders for democracy.
My high school teacher told all his students to embrace the “civics lifestyle.” While civics should be taught in the classroom, it should — more importantly — be embedded in everyone’s life, whether it be going to a town hall or voting in every election. With a renewal — and transformation — of civics education, we can strengthen our increasingly fragile democracy, combat the misinformation perpetuated by various actors in the political and media spheres and begin to inch closer to a government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people.