“Since the founding of this Nation,” said former president Ronald Reagan, “education and democracy have gone hand in hand. ... The Founders believed a nation that governs itself, like ours, must rely upon an informed and engaged electorate ... instill(ed with) the self-evident truths that are the anchors of our political system” (italics added).  

Indeed the American Founding Fathers, familiar with classical languages, may have known that in its original meaning in Greek, the word “idiot” refers to someone ignorant about public affairs. In contrast, a “citizen,” coming from Latin, is someone who lives among and, in their contemporary Adam Smith’s interpretation, cares for the welfare of others.

The difference between engaged citizens and uneducated idiots, then, is concern for others and knowledgeable engagement in civic affairs.  

Being both engaged and educated is the purpose of civics education, which involves not only an understanding of civic facts and knowledge, but also a mastery of skills and an internalization of dispositions that are civically minded — turning “We the people” into citizens and not idiots. Unfortunately, our public educators today are being hamstrung as civic content and ideals become the punching bags of partisan politics. The strength and growth of our nation is hampered as a result.

At Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies, we conducted two research projects to explore the state of civics education in Utah. One study examined teachers’ sense of civics education, surveying social studies teachers as well as fourth and fifth grade teachers (who cover Utah studies and U.S. history, respectively).

Overall teachers feel civics is being taught well at their schools, and they express commitment to teaching civics knowledge, skills and dispositions. More than any other incentive, teachers say, “I have a responsibility to prepare future voters.”  

Unfortunately, despite K-12 teachers’ efforts, Utah adults fared dismally in another UVU study by political science professor Jay DeSart. Utahns received a failing grade in civic knowledge, not much better than Americans as a whole.  

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Why the discrepancy? Teachers describe a dearth of the time and resources that would support their efforts in civics education. Additionally, civics is not only best taught, but also best retained when civic knowledge, skills and dispositions are blended.

Good teachers can combine a content lesson on, say, the colonial Committees of Correspondence with discussion of the skill of collaborating with others to bring about change. Studying John Adams and Josiah Quincy’s defense of British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, or Harriet Tubman’s heroic rescues, provides reason to emphasize the civic disposition of championing the rights of others. Content lessons on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Compromise of 1876 offer the chance to evaluate compromise, another civic virtue, including what makes for good compromise and what does not.  

Listed here are additional widely recognized civic skills and dispositions to complement the teaching of civic facts and content: 

  • Respect for founding documents and ideals.
  • Thoughtful engagement with American history. 
  • Love of country. 
  • Engaging civilly with others, across differences and on difficult topics.
  • Respect for the rule of law and for institutions. 
  • Thinking critically about information. 
  • Distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources.
  • Standing up for one’s own and others’ rights and liberties. 
  • Working with adversaries and ability to concede defeat. 
  • Encouraging truthfulness, self-control and responsibility.

Yet some of Utah’s teachers are concerned that they will face repercussions if they teach the content, skills and dispositions basic to civics education. Sadly, politics, and therefore civics, is so politically charged and polarized that teachers feel unable to engage in substantial ways. Even as they shared that they seek unbiased and nonpartisan sources, they also expressed fear of being the “sacrificial lamb,” as one wrote, should they include discussions of contested topics.  

And yet, how else is a democracy made? Are we true citizens if we cannot respect differences within the body politic? 

Let us be supportive as Utah’s teachers promote civics education. After all, these skills and dispositions, combined with the ability to both celebrate and critique our nation’s founding and our failures, our ideals and our imperfections, create the difference between uneducated idiots and engaged citizens. 

Lisa R. Halverson is a civics education fellow at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies.