An Interview with Robert Pondisco: Civic Education in A Time of Turmoil

Jul 29, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Robert, I understand that you have a new title and a new position. Tell us about it.

I’m working on a new civic education initiative called CitizenshipFirst. It’s based at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a very successful network of charter schools based in Harlem, New York. Our goal is to ensure that the civic mission of education isn’t forgotten. We are living in an era of tremendous dynamism in education. In the main, that’s a very good thing. But we are at risk of losing touch with the founding purpose of schooling in America, which was not the private dimension of preparing kids for college and career, but preparing them to be the active, engaged, and self-advocating citizens our nation needs.

2) Robert, I have been to Europe and I know that Civic Education is a very high priority. Why does it not seem so important in the United States?

I honestly don’t know why we’ve let it become an afterthought. It used to be our highest priority. E.D. Hirsch’s last book, The Making of Americans, pointed out the our earliest thinkers about education were very concerned that America’s fortunes depended on an educated citizenry that prized democratic values. We have evolved over time from a view of education as a public good – preparation for citizenship – to a view of education as a private good. Ask someone why we send kids to school and they will almost always say something like, ‘So they can go to college, get a good job and earn a nice living.’ There’s nothing wrong that. But the pendulum has swung too far. We need to prepare our children for both the private and public spheres

3) I used to teach social studies – but how is Civic Education different than Social Studies?

Social studies is an indispensible part of civic education. If you want kids to be active, engaged citizens, they need to understand why citizenship matters, why our civic traditions are worth keeping and the sacrifices others have made for them. That means a good grasp of history. One of problems with civic education is that it’s become a bit of a sausage – a little bit of everything goes into the mix: civics, social studies, service learning, character education. My personal bias is toward a rigorous study of history, coupled with real-world engagement with public affairs, what my partner Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep calls “authentic civics.” In other words, why have student elections when kids can play a role in real elections? Why have student council when they can testify in front of the City Council on real issues they care about? The best way to demystify civic engagement is to get students civically engaged.

4) I know that there are 100 Senators in the U.S. Senate. But the exact number of representatives escapes me. It seems that most Americans should know a little about how their government functions at both the state and Federal and even local level. But this seems to be lacking—Why?

Both as a culture and as educators, we simply place less value on knowing things that previous generations took for granted. For several decades, education has valued skills like critical thinking and problem solving over any particular body of knowledge (and overlooking the fact that those skills are knowledge-dependent). In the era of Google, knowledge as an end of schooling is even more under attack. You can argue that knowing the number of representatives or who wrote the Federalist Papers is trivial pursuit. But knowledge of how government functions, of the public processes and institutions that shape our lives as citizens of a republic, is knowledge that must be broadly disseminated.

5) At the current time, we seem embroiled in a great debate about immigration, and immigration reform. Why should the average high schooler or even college student know about these issues?

I’m less concerned about any particular issue than a general lack of engagement with public issues and current events at large. One of the ironies of the Information Age is that we are not better informed. We are ill-informed about more things. It is increasingly easy, even inevitable, to live in our own media and information bubbles. And for students this disengagement is particularly worrisome. There are no good reasons NOT to make engagement with current events, public affairs and civics a cornerstone of K-12 education.

6) The high schools of America SHOULD be preparing our students for citizenship and involvement. Instead, they seem to be preparing them for college. Who really makes some of these curriculum decisions- or do they come from the “bully pulpit” of the White House?

The decline of civics and citizenship as an end of education has many culprits. But let’s be honest: the education reform movement at large is as guilty anyone of neglect and indifference. By viewing the goals of education through a strictly economic lens—college and career readiness, for example, or the need to compete internationally for jobs and opportunities—we have arguably debased the currency of education. We risk making it a nothing more than vocational training. Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with preparing kids for college and career. But citizenship deserves to be the “third C” and at least as important.

7) Now, your organization–what are you attempting to accomplish over the next four or five years?

One of the very first things we’re doing is a campaign to ensure that every student in the U.S. be able to pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test by 2026, the 250th birthday of the country. We require every naturalized citizen to take and pass the U.S. Citizenship Test. Shouldn’t we expect native-¬born Americans to demonstrate the same minimal knowledge of civics and history? If Americans are to be a cohesive people; they must share certain civic ideals and knowledge. That starts with common knowledge of and support for the ideals enshrined in our Constitution. Passing the U.S. Citizenship step isn’t the finish line. But it’s a pretty good starting line in reviving the public purpose of education.

Beyond that we are working to develop curriculum, both drive and celebrate innovation around civic education, and start a network of schools across the country that are committed to education for citizenship. There’s a lot of work to do.

8) I know that you were once involved with the Core Knowledge Foundation. Will you be working on a Core Knowledge book of information regarding Civic Education? Are you looking for input or writers ?

Great idea. Mind if I steal it? I view civic education as very much of a piece with the Core Knowledge ideal. A broadly educated student is well prepared for the challenges of citizenship. Civic participation – voting, volunteerism, membership in civic organizations, etc. – is highly correlated with education level. This is utterly unsurprising to me. The first and most important relationship a child has with a civic organization is with a school. If that relationship is satisfying and successful, it sets the stage for a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship. If it fails, disengagement happens, often for life. Anyone who is concerned about disenfranchisement of voters in America should also be concerned about K-12 education. That’s where it begins. It should end there too.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

You might ask what are the tangible changes and benefits you expect to see as a result of ramping up civic education in America?

A better informed citizenry. People who are able to advocate thoughtfully and passionately for their ideas without demonizing those they disagree with. Adults who know how to make things happen in the world to better their lives and their communities. Students who no longer conceive of government as a force that acts upon them. We can’t allow them to see themselves as powerless to effect change in their communities, or worse, that approaching public officials is like begging the great and powerful Oz for favors. That view of government ought to be repellant to a free people. Students need to know how to pull the levers of power. More importantly, they must be inclined to do so.

The other tangible benefit is a broader, more capacious view of education. Who wants to reduce their careers to a few points on a standardized test? I don’t. Getting schools back into the business of creating citizens for the republic, not just employees, is the best, most noble work I can think of. It’s a good reason to want to jump out of bed and go to school every morning.

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