Research Highlight — Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners

Paul Carrese is the founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and one of four Principal Investigators on the grant that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the U.S. Department of Education just awarded to Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners. Along with Danielle Allen of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, Paul Carrese of the School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, Peter Levine of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, and Louise Dube of iCivics, the project will coalesce a team of more than 100 leading academics and practitioners in education, civics, history, and political science to set out a foundation for understanding and teaching American history and civics. The project will culminate in the issuing of a Roadmap that will outline high-priority civics content areas and make clear and actionable recommendations for integrating the teaching of civics and history at every grade band, along with best practices and implementation strategies that teachers, schools, districts, and states can use to shape their instructional programs. The group will hold two convenings throughout the next year, and present its Roadmap at a National Forum in Washington, DC in September 2020.

CivXNow: Tell us about the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at ASU.

Carrese: This is a new department. We are just in our third year. It was an initiative started by Arizona’s state government as well as the leadership of Arizona State University (ASU). It’s designed to create a new space in the curriculum for civic education, as well as programming and outreach for discussion of civic thought, and to create a foundation for preparing students for leadership in the public sector and the private sector. We try to reconnect a liberal arts education with civic education at the university level as the best foundation for American students to be ready for the 21st century world, and leadership in civil society, in the professions or in public affairs.

CivXNow: How big is the school now?

Carrese: We are new and still growing. We have about 13 faculty and we have an undergraduate major and a minor, and we are adding a master’s degree. We also have a very busy public affairs speakers program called the Civic Discourse Project for civic affairs to be discussed in a civil way. We like to emphasize that free people in liberal democracies always disagree about everything, even though they share certain fundamental values. So this restores some space for that in the university and then, because ASU is a public university, it’s really also a space for the broader community.

CivXNow: What are some of the themes you’ve tackled?

Carrese: The theme this year is directly related to the NEH and Department of Education grant project. The theme is Citizenship and Civic Leadership. Last year our theme was on Polarization and Civil Disagreement, restoring that idea, of civil disagreement, and the very first year was on Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity.

CivXNow: And how much interest has there been in the school, in terms of enrollment in classes and interest from the general public?

Carrese: We are still small relative to the scale of ASU (America’s largest university), but our student enrollment increases with each new semester. We teach about 300 students each semester in our undergraduate courses, and have about 100 students enrolled as either majors or minors in civic thought and leadership. We’re just rolling out the first master’s degree. In terms of attendance at our speaker events, we get thousands of people from the local community every year. And then we have a YouTube page. I stopped counting but at last count we were at well over 10,000 hits. We’ve had some marquee speakers such as Cornel West and Robert Putnam from Harvard that have had a very large attendance. We occasionally get members of the state Legislature attending, members of the state Supreme Court and members of the executive branch of government in the state.

CivXNow: And what does the master’s degree entail?

Carrese: The masters is for a target audience of teachers who work in traditional schools and also the homeschooling community, which is a big movement, especially in the southwest. So we developed a master’s degree to meet a local community need. We refer to it as a Master’s of Arts Degree in Classical Liberal Education and Leadership. So it’s something of a Western civilization oriented degree. The classics department here at the university is collaborating on the degree with us, but it also has some American politics and American civilization themes in it and also something of a civic leadership aspect to it as well. So it’s a curriculum at a master’s level to provide greater depth and intellectual development for school teachers working in schools, as well as homeschooling parents who are interested in this idea of liberal arts education for free people who are going to be citizens and leaders.

CivXNow: What role will ASU play in the Educating for American Democracy project?

Carrese: The NEH and U.S. Department of Education grant wanted three convenings, one of which would be in Washington D.C with the others elsewhere in the nation. The goal is to establish a framework for a national study on the condition of U. S. history education and civic education in K-12 schools. We proposed ASU for geographic diversity. It’s west of the Mississippi. And then I worked with a long-time academic colleague at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to be the host of another of the convenings. So there’ll be these two convenings, one in the south, one out here in the southwest, and then the third convening, at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

CivXNow: Why is it important to have two state universities in state capitals as hosts of these convenings?

Carrese: In each case, we are hoping to interest the state government officials, Departments of Education, others who ultimately will have to make decisions about new curricula or new standards for U.S. history and civic education. And I think that’s an ambition that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U. S. Department of Education had in mind for this project. It will be assessing the current state of education and research, while also looking toward a new Roadmap for standards and curriculum. And, of course, implementation of the Roadmap depends ultimately on state governments, state departments of education, as well as local Boards of Education.

CivXNow: What will the convening at ASU focus on exactly?

Carrese: The first convening will be in early February at LSU in Baton Rouge. The second will take place at ASU at the end of March, with the goal of further defining and refining the framework for the final report, and then during the rest of the spring and summer the project’s Principal Investors will have a chance to take all the good ideas from the two convenings in Louisiana and Arizona and the Steering Committee to actually write the final report.

This study has assembled a history task force, bringing together scholars with history teachers, the practitioners. We have a political science and civics task force, again with scholars, teachers, practitioners. And the third taskforce is focusing on pedagogy. — and so with the convenings we’ll have members from all three Task Forces and the Steering Committee, as well as federal officials coming together to develop the report with a dual focus. First, we will assess what’s actually going on in classrooms, and what research tells us about effective American history and civic education. Second, we will propose a new Roadmap with reforms for better modes of teaching and better attention to teaching of U.S. History and civics.

CivXNow: Why is this so important now?

Carrese: Well, America has been so successful that perhaps we have forgotten our educational mission. We’re the world’s greatest super power and economy, and an enormous cultural, political, military, technological influence globally. And I think the success of all of that has meant that we sort of take for granted how extraordinary and how difficult it is to develop a constitutional liberal democracy. Free people arguing about everything, about self-governing and getting done what needs to get done. We just take it for granted as if, “Look how great we are at it. Who needs to be educated about this?” But liberal democracies and constitutional democracy are difficult things to build and difficult to maintain and operate. To be able to say that America means something, you have to learn how to share certain civic ideals and then argue about them, disagree about just what they mean and how to live up to them, but do that in a civil and constructive way.

CivXNow: Why is this grant important to ASU?

Carrese: ASU is a public university with a president, Michael Crow, who has a very strong sense of our public mission. The national grant project makes perfect sense for us. It fits perfectly with the mission of Arizona State University under his leadership, to bring together university research, scholarship and teaching, as well as an awareness of the local, state and national realities. Promoting deeper civic learning about America and being an informed and engaged citizen is the core mission of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and particularly one of our centers, the Center for Political Thought and Leadership.

CivXNow: What do you think this is going to mean for the broader country and for civic education in general?

Carrese: First of all, we aim to produce an excellent study of the state of U.S. history and civic education and an excellent Roadmap. Second, we may define a model of curriculum. And third, we will look at implementation — getting states, departments of education, legislatures, and school boards to think about reforming, changing their curriculum and the emphasis they place on U. S. history and civic education. Our team has hope for the national effect and impact of this study, applying it and implementing it. That’s our aim. That’s our ambition.

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