Civics Education Should Focus On Critical Thinking, Not Activism
One perceived upside of the Trump administration has been an increase in political and civic engagement, especially among liberals. This change has trickled down to schools: As The New York Times reported in June, there has been a revival in civics courses in middle and high school over the past year and a half. For someone passionate about civics education, this should be a source of optimism. But the subject matter of these civics courses is what matters, and a significant share of these new classes have been focused on increasing civic activism. “Getting out the vote” and engaging in activism should only come after students have weighed the arguments on every side of each issue.
In civics courses, once students have a basic understanding of how the U.S. political system works, the next step should be teaching them how to think about political issues, not how to act. Activism is meaningless if it’s not backed by a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue. An ideal civics program would teach students the principles, facts, and proposed solutions associated with each issue, and then allow them to come to their own conclusions.
In other words, students should be taught to pass an ideological Turing Test: They should be able to defend a position on an issue that they don’t themselves hold.
What does such an understanding of principles, facts, and solutions mean in practice? Let’s apply this framework to the minimum wage, starting with principles. Supporters of the Fight for $15 begin with the principle that, as Senator Bernie Sanders often says, “no one who works for 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” On the other side, the principle of the opposition to a higher minimum wage is that government should avoid intervening in the freedom of contract between organizations and individuals, and that the market does a better job of determining the value of work than a centralized government planner does. On the issue of economic theory, those who oppose minimum wage increases rely on a traditional model of a labor market, in which a higher minimum wage creates unemployment. Supporters of the minimum wage view the labor market as a monopsony, in which a single employer has the market power to force wages down; in a monopsony model, minimum wage increases would not necessarily lead to unemployment.
What are the facts on the issue? Well, the economic literature is mixed on the minimum wage. Listen to a debate on the topic on a podcast or radio show, and both sides will be able to point to academic studies suggesting that the minimum wage helps or harms workers. For example, recent studies from Minnesota and Washington have shown that raising the minimum-wage increases unemployment and sometimes reduces total payroll. On the other hand, the oft-cited Card and Krueger study from the 1990s found no change in unemployment from a higher minimum wage. When the facts conflict, students should be taught to understand how to evaluate studies and reports in order to figure out which papers present better data.
Finally, with regard to solutions: For minimum-wage advocates, an increase in the minimum wage is a solution to the problem of low wages, wage stagnation, and poverty. But students should also be aware of alternative solutions to these problems from opponents of minimum-wage increases. For example, ending no-poaching and non-compete agreements, which prevent fast-food workers from switching to competitors, would make employers compete for workers and offer higher wages. Relatedly, rolling back occupational licensing laws would give young, less-educated, and lower-income workers access to better-paying career paths.
Applying this rigorous approach to all political issues, from taxes to health care to the Israel-Palestine conflict, sounds daunting, and would take a significant amount of time for students to understand. That's why, as many scholars of education have noted, civic education should start much sooner, in elementary and middle school rather than high school. Learning civics, like learning a second language, requires constant thinking, speaking, and writing. In order to train the next generation of citizens and voters, we need a serious approach to civics education that focuses on critical thinking before action.
John Muresianu is a former history professor and Berkman Fellow at Harvard Law School. He has created two websites devoted to improving civic and general education: The Thinking Citizen and Liberal Arts Academy.