Is literature the answer to tackling poor civics curriculum?

Experts say it can offer a valuable resource for discussing social issues

Judging by the cover, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" only seems like a story about two boys on a raft. But while the reader follows Huck and Jim on their adventure down the Mississippi, they gain much more than a tale about friendship. With each scene, Mark Twain offers a snapshot of American life within the nation’s transforming civic culture and complicated political past. 

Such stories can help the reader better understand differences in others through complex character narratives, say psychologists. Empathy and treating others kindly are not only the types of social values that colleges and employers say they desire in students. They are also the ideas educators often struggle to objectively discuss in the classroom  particularly when it comes to political history.

In light of the 2016 presidential election and its low voter turnout, many education leaders are now wondering whether a focus on “college and career” readiness within the curriculum is resulting in politically disengaged and unreflective citizens. As teachers search for resources to improve curriculum centered on America’s civic history and democratic systems, should they also look toward imagined works?  

Responsibly addressing 'PC' culture in the civics classroom

“There are some excellent civic education programs in the United States, but not enough of them,” says Charles Quigley, executive director for the Center of Civic Education. “Civic education, along with other important parts of curriculum, has been diminished or eliminated by an accountability movement that wants to focus on STEM subjects. The majority of students are now receiving an inadequate civic education, which is lamentable.”

In fact, the National Association for Educational Progress’s latest report card on civics education in the United States found that only 23% of 8th graders scored at or above a proficient level in civics. The score is not significantly different from 1998. Similarly, less than a quarter of high school seniors scored at or above proficient levels in the NAEP’s 2010 assessment, which was the last study to include 12th graders because of funding cuts.

Despite initiatives to develop civics education in the U.S., such as the federal Department of Education’s commissioning of a National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement in 2010, results from NAEP’s report card show that students aren’t faring any better.

One of the most pressing concerns with civics education is simply that teachers are not experts in U.S. civic history themselves. For example, the National Center for Educational Statistics' 2011-12 School and Staffing survey found that of 2,014,000 high school students, 92.9% were taught by government teachers who didn't have a major in the subject area. Of those, 78.3% did not have the certification to teach a civics course. 

Coupled with a lack of funding and policy initiatives to improve civics curriculum in the United States, lack of proper teaching in the classroom has left students with basic knowledge of democratic institutions and an inability to understand the historical or social background behind them, says Quigley.

But, lack of proper instruction on how the American political system works is only part of the issue, writes Jonathan Zimmerman,  professor of education history at New York University, for The Atlantic.

In addition to constitutional limitations on what teachers can discuss in the classroom, there is a general fear among educators of engaging children on their opinions when it comes to pivotal, but perhaps controversial, moments in American history — a phenomenon that has been morphed into a so-called "PC" or politically correct culture. As a result, schools are avoiding important conversations in the classroom and failing to teach children how to participate respectfully across their political differences, he writes.

How will children learn to 'engage those opinions' unless they do so in the classroom? That's become even more urgent over the past few decades, when Americans increasingly segregated themselves into communities of the like-minded,” wrote Zimmerman. He mentions a KRC Research poll that finds that the majority of American citizens believe the nation is dealing with a crisis in political incivility.

“When divisive subjects do arise, Americans don’t know how to discuss them. In the same KRC survey that revealed overwhelming concern about the incivility of modern politics, over a third of respondents said they avoid talking about racial inequality, abortion rights, or same-sex marriage for fear of the discussion turning ‘uncivil.’”  

And teaching students how to respectfully participate in a democracy and contextualize social issues as they become politically engaged is absolutely critical and should be a part of civics education, says Quigley.

"One of the principal purposes of school is to train people how to participate responsibly in civil society," says Quigley. "Democracy without enlightened citizens can become authoritarian. There is a need for better civics education, perhaps more now than ever with so much technology. It’s impossible to prove what’s true from what’s false. So better education is essential for the preservation of the democratic system."

Literature as a resource for empowering critical thinking

While putting more resources into civic education is going to improve the situation, it’s still not going to fix the larger issue unless there’s an attitude shift on how teachers should be engaging with their students, says David E. Kirkland, assistant professor in New York University's Department of Teaching and Learning.

"The election of Donald Trump has been a direct indictment on education reform, particularly the Common Core standards... The focus on career and college readiness and training elite workers as a national goal has been misplaced, and this election shows that," said Kirkland.

"We need another goal, the other goal of education can be training people to participate in multicultural democracies...creating citizens that are able to vote because they are able to discern between fact and fiction."

"The biggest thing that teachers and administrators need are students that are empowered to question."

David Kirkland

Assistant Professor, New York University Department of Teaching and Learning

The Common Core advocates a shift to 70% non-fiction texts in the classroom by 12th grade. Kirkland says that this lack of emphasis on literature and its worth within other parts of the curriculum is a mistake. Rather, teachers can use such texts by authors like Twain to teach values alongside the equally important historical and textual information.

"The thing that literature gives us beyond career and college readiness is civic readiness. We are living in a space where people are not trained to understand the world in a way where they can critically exhaust information and think about narratives in ways that might push for more fact," he said.

Teachers are often afraid of discussing controversial topics must understand that the classroom is inherently a political space, he says. Dave Powell, an associate professor of education at Gettysburg College, teaches a methods class, "How to Teach Social Studies," and he affirms Kirkland's statement in opinion piece for Education Week.

Powell says that teachers, particularly when it has come to this presidential election, are not only unsure whether to discuss politics in the classroom, but also generally scared to. 

And using literature to open students’ mind is one way of having them indirectly engage with important issues, rather than blatantly ignoring them all together. Rather, teachers ought to think about texts as places to play, where students can ask questions instead of merely following directions and memorizing bits of information.

"In terms of making a business investment, leaders in the industry need to know that investing in imagination and American ingenuity is about inspiring innovation in students," says Powell. "My democracy and freedom suggest that questioning is important. The biggest thing that teachers and administrators need are students that are empowered to question."

Finding the perfect balance for holistic civics education reform

In order for students to learn the types of social values that surround political realities, teachers should use literature as a resource. But, they must choose the books wisely and incorporate them into a better civics curriculum generally in order to really see student success, says Quigley.

“One strategy that people have used in schools is to have English literature classes that focus on stories with civics lessons. I think fiction is often capable of conveying more intensely and effectively concerns about human rights than a dry article and research findings,” he says.

“But, literature alone can’t bridge the gap. It needs to be an essential part of better civic education the deals with justice, democratic principles and social values.”

"We gain a much deeper understanding of the meaning of our civic culture when we read the literature that came from it."

Sandra Stotsky

Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas

By smartly incorporating literature into civics education, teachers can better contextualize historical and political realities, as long as they are used alongside textbooks and primary documents like the “Federalist Papers,” says Sandra Stotsky, Professor Emerita at the University of Arkansas. Literature is not a replacement for core civics teaching, but a necessary addition.

"Educators need to introduce more of the American writers from the 19th and early 20th century who talked directly about the kinds of freedoms we often take for granted and were part of their novels," said Stotsky

"There are basic political principles that play out everywhere including the local form of government that you can participate in. But you can also read stories about people interacting with their mayors their governors. Such interactions show what people could do that affect the reader," she said. "Histories about our laws and political systems become lively through literature, such as the trial in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' We gain a much deeper understanding of the meaning of our civic culture when we read the literature that came from it." 

And beyond just using stories to enhance civics lessons, literature is important for reminding students that they have the democratic right to participate and express their opinions, she said. This a value that Kirkland says is critical in today’s political climate and one that writers have consistently understood throughout history.

"Mark Twain used the fact that he was a well-known writer to talk about his views and criticize parts of American culture he disagreed with. This is an important message to share with students today, to be critical," she said.

"You can’t let people’s very individualistic and morals that are based on today’s ideas govern everything they read and learn, because today’s ideas will change. You need to understand what is changing and why."

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Filed Under: K12
Top image credit: Flickr; Neil Turner