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A Republic, If You Can Keep It

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Moore
July 27, 2018

Earlier this summer, most Americans attended parades, family picnics, community fireworks and other celebratory events during a day off from work that officially observed the 242nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. That Declaration, and the Constitution that was developed a dozen years later, set forth the basic rights of Americans and the framework of our government.

To secure the rights promised, the authors affirmed that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” However, granting or withholding that consent requires us to form a consensus among a majority of citizens on the selection of our public officers and representatives, how we hold our government accountable, and how best to resolve the many complicated issues facing today’s society in a starkly divided America.

While, in the words of the Declaration, we may be “endowed by our Creator” with basic equality in the enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we are not at all naturally endowed with an understanding of how government works or our responsibilities as citizens in a democracy to ascertain “consent of the governed.”

“A republic, if you can keep it!”

Just how do we acquire the knowledge and skills we use to formulate our views, respect and understand opposing views, and find common ground acceptable to the majority while protecting the rights of all? These questions have haunted thoughtful public servants, as well as academics, at least since that historic conclave in Philadelphia in 1787. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what kind of government was established by the newly approved United States Constitution, is said to have responded, “a republic if you can keep it!”

As practitioners and scholars who comprise the American Society for Public Administration, we have a quintessential role in helping to preserve the American Republic. We must teach and practice civic education and engagement so that both the governed, and perhaps even the governors, have more than a casual acquaintance with the workings of our democracy and the aspirations of the American people.

Report: A Portrait of Civic Education in the U.S.

Recently, the Brown Center on Education, a part of the Brookings Institution, released its 2018 report entitled, “A Portrait of Civic Education in the United States,” which discussed whether U.S. schools are “equipping students with the tools to become engaged, empathetic citizens.” The report also explores whether all students are receiving the knowledge and skills or if schools are “equipping some students—or groups of students—better than others.” To answer these questions, the report examines trends in student performance in civics scores in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in recent years. Analysis of these scores shows, the report states, “that there are wide and persistent gaps by race, ethnicity, and income in civics.”

“The size of these gaps is disconcerting,” the authors write, adding,” civic participation affords political power, and broad participation is essential for a healthy, inclusive democracy.”

High Quality Civics Education

What does a “high-quality civics education” look like? The literature, which admittedly has a limited base of research in support, reveals different perspectives of a variety of “experts,” however, Brown concludes that the consensus among many experts involves what is called, “the Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning.” These “proven practices” are intended to support a “comprehensive and interactive understanding of civics.” To provide that understanding, an effective policy for civics education should include three key components:

  1. Civic knowledge: an understanding of government structure, processes, and relevant knowledge and concepts.
  2. Civic skills: abilities that enable students to participate in a democracy as responsible citizens.
  3. Civic dispositions: attitudes such as a sense of civic duty and concern for the welfare of others.

Role of Teachers in Civic Education

A third important aspect of the Brown Center Report is an analysis of the social studies teacher workforce — those on the front lines of any effort to improve civic learning and engagement. Unfortunately, there are no federal accountability standards for the teaching of civics or social studies. The Brown Center analysis of the social studies teacher workforce reveals that social studies teachers are significantly more likely to shoulder more responsibilities in unrelated and in addition to social studies leaving less time to focus on teaching civic engagement outside the classroom.

Without this level of attention to providing civics teachers with strong subject matter preparation and focused on civic education and engagement as their primary role, it becomes difficult to imagine civics teachers providing a lasting impact on young lives that will lead to their active role as citizens of our great country.

Conclusion

An especially noteworthy conclusion of the report is that “strengthening the social studies teaching workforce is particularly important at a time when many Americans are wondering about their country’s civic and political well-being – and are wondering about what schools could do to help.” ASPA members—both academic and practitioners—have a vested interest in a well-informed and engaged citizenry need to consider what our profession can do to “keep our republic” as well.


Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served in Washington, DC as Associate Director of FEMA in the Clinton Administration. A former college administrator and adjunct assistant professor of government at Bentley University and Bridgewater State University, Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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