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The Education Department released a report last week arguing that civics education should be reinvigorated and reimagined. The White House is suggesting that higher education is about more than just getting a job after graduation. College students also should know about the political levers that influence change and how to conduct public problem-solving with diverse partners.
"Unfortunately, civic learning and democratic engagement are add-ons rather than essential parts of the core academic mission," the report said. Basic civics knowledge is lacking as well. The National Assessment of Education Progress reports that only one-fourth of high school graduates are proficient in topics such as the American political system, principles of democracy, world affairs, and the roles of citizens.
The administration is calling for new, interactive thinking about civics learning that avoids rote memorization of processes. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor say it's time to move beyond your "grandmother's civics" of how a bill becomes a law. The Education Department's report takes note of AmeriCorps as a model for the "next generation" of civics learning. AmeriCorps, which is supported by both government and private entities, relies heavily on college students for tutoring, disaster aid, assistance to military families, and environmental preservation efforts.
The federal government cannot dictate AmeriCorps-like curriculum, nor can it force students to engage in civic or volunteer activities. But it can encourage civics involvement by forgiving some or all of student loans for people who work in public service. The government can also ask grant recipients to include civics learning in federally-funded education programs. Mostly, the administration can use its bully pulpit. "This call to action is an opportunity to develop and improve civic learning as part of a well-rounded education so every student has a sense of citizenship," Duncan said on the day the report was released.