Monday, May 8, 2017

Discussing Controversial Topics: Civic Education is Key

by Shawn P. Healy, Director, Democracy Program


In April, I participated on a panel at a Council on Foundations’ preconference in Dallas, discussing Philanthropy’s Role in Strengthening America’s Democracy.


I was asked to weigh in on a narrative that dominates our county today: (1) Are we a divided country? (2) And if so, how do you see civic education helping to bridge our differences?


The McCormick Foundation’s statewide civic education work offers guidance on how schools and educators can begin bridging ideological and geographic divides. Context matters a great deal. A controversial issue in one region is settled in another. Research suggests that most of us follow the guidance of our grandparents to not discuss politics or religion. For the junkies among us, we're more likely to discuss politics among those with whom we agree, leading to the ideological amplification that increasingly cripples our democracy.


Understanding how to productively discuss controversial topics and learning to appreciate others’ perspectives, even if they are different than yours, is a key ingredient in building a stronger democracy. And America's classrooms is the perfect setting to begin developing these skills.


And here is why: students enter school with surprisingly heterogeneous views, even in deep red or blue areas. This coupled with the fact they are being taught by educators with the training (or at least the potential) to facilitate difficult political conversations across various ideologies and beliefs. Learning these practices will not only illustrate that thinking differently is not wrong or bad, but may demystify conflicting beliefs and help students to approach those issues with greater objectivity.


Civic development in the classroom needs to happen beyond state and national elections. True, elections have consequences and the outcomes may frustrate some, but elected officials represent us all and we are obliged to work with them through the public policy process that follows.



Many issues have local resonance and are often less ideological than those that play out on the state or national stage. Politics is a game of addition, and policy making often requires the building of bipartisan majorities across legislative bodies and branches of government.


Our successful legislative push two years ago for a high school civics course requirement offers many of examples of how we were able to build strong bipartisan collations in the Illinois General Assembly which was controlled by a Democratic supermajority. As a result, the bill was later signed by our Republican governor.


Civic education is bigger than red-blue, urban-suburban-rural divides. It is about the future of our democracy. Local context considered, best practices remain central to youth civic development and must be offered universally. Illinois' civic health may be on life support, but the prognosis for its long-term recovery is strong thanks to the fruits of the #CivicsIsBack Campaign.

1 comment:

  1. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s leadership in promoting and funding civics education is critical to addressing the cultural divisions and political polarization that is pulling us apart and threatening our Republic.
    Thomas Jefferson addressed the need for civics education when he cautioned “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of a society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
    As citizens in a democracy, we are ultimately responsible for the quality of our civic life. We live in very complex times. Now, more than ever, each of us needs to become more knowledgeable and proactive in our role as citizen. Engaged citizens help create good government and healthy communities. It’s not easy being a good citizen. It takes education, time, effort and vigilance.

    If we want our government (local, state, federal) to promote and protect quality of life for all citizens, we need to take responsibility and educate ourselves and our children. Thank you for this insightful newsletter, for promoting and supporting the civics education of our children and for this insightful, educational, and challenging Civics blog. (Sheila Smith)

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