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Reviving civic education is key to preserving American democracy.

By Louise Dubé, Shawn Healy, and Julie Silverbrook

Mount Vernon tells not only the story of a man and a place in early American history, but also of the people and the social fabric that animated the founding of the nation. Today’s U.S. constitutional democracy flows from these.

In his first inaugural address, President George Washington said, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

(Photo by Tracy A. Woodward)
(Photo by Tracy A. Woodward)

At its core, representative democracy is a set of legal structures and institutions—as Washington made clear in his Farewell Address in 1796—but it can only be sustained with a civil society that seeks the ideals the structures were designed to attain.

For example, the balance of power reflected in the three branches of government is central because it assumes that disagreement is the organizing principle behind self-government. It bakes in the understanding that Americans—as a people—will need to overcome inevitable disagreements and need structures to move them toward resolution.

Here and abroad, the bonds of civic friendship— the willingness and ability to compromise and solve common problems—have frayed. In many places, they have ruptured.

But what is frayed can be mended. The actions of ordinary people, as well as leaders, can change the path of a nation—as they did in 1776 and 1787, and many times since. The civil society reboot needed to mend a torn civic fabric starts with teaching young people about the U.S. Constitution, the nation’s institutions, and the necessary norms to sustain and strengthen a healthy democracy. The United States will not sustain its constitutional democracy without reinvigorating civic education. As the country nears the 250th anniversary of its founding, now is the time to make civic education a priority.

The Great Experiment: Democracy from the Founding to the Future

Watch the full panel discussions from the 2023 George Washington Symposium, featuring an outstanding lineup of remarkable and thoughtful historians, authors, journalists, and leaders.

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With history interpreter Don Francisco in the lead, children at Mount Vernon march and learn about the music of the Revolution. (MVLA)

A Call to Action

Democracy requires the consent and participation of the people. Consent is built from confidence in institutions and the norms that uphold them. This doesn’t happen magically. It must be nurtured and sustained. According to the late Sandra Day O’Connor, former Supreme Court justice and the founder of iCivics, the country’s leading civic education nonprofit, “The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”

Today, U.S. classrooms spend very little time on civics (the study of the rights and duties of citizenship) and history. At the federal level, 50 dollars per student is spent on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math). On civics? Just 50 cents. The most reliable assessment of what students know, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, makes clear how the United States is faring in educating the next generation in history and civics. Only 13 percent of students assessed are proficient in U.S. history, the lowest performance in any discipline, and 22 percent are proficient in civics. These scores are the predictable result of a lack of investment. They are an urgent call to act.

The Role of the Education System

American institutions of learning—including K-12 schools, museums, and institutions of higher education— have an essential role to play in preparing the set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions of a revived civil society. The founders understood that self-government requires a citizenry informed on how a constitutional democracy should work and how they should take part in the functioning of that democracy. That is in part why American public schools were created. K-12 schools have the scale needed to affect change. No other institutions serve such a vast majority of children in the United States, and no other institutions are in almost every community.

A wealth of data shows that a lack of civic knowledge persists well into adulthood; unfortunately, there are few opportunities after schooling to meaningfully redress a lack of civic education. George Washington understood the danger of this, calling for public education and warning that people cannot be expected to self-govern according to ideals of which the nation fails to enlighten them. Without an enlightened citizenry, the constitutional democracy that Washington and his contemporaries fought to create would be at risk.

Repairing the civic fabric involves teaching students about legislation, voting, and other fundamentals of American democracy. (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

Without an enlightened citizenry, the constitutional democracy that Washington and his contemporaries fought to create would be at risk.

Nonpartisan Initiative

In recent times, a lack of consensus about what and how to teach history and civics has proved challenging for educators across the country, resulting in a citizenry and electorate poorly prepared to understand, appreciate, and utilize a representative democracy.

An important nonpartisan initiative, Educating for American Democracy (EAD), has created a new framework for the teaching of civics and U.S. history. More than 300 experts in civics, pedagogy, and political science worked through differences to reach consensus. The result: an inquiry-based roadmap for educators that weaves history and civics together and inspires students to learn by asking difficult questions, and then seeking answers in the classroom through facts and discussion.

The roadmap challenges students and educators to acknowledge that constitutional democracy has never been, and never will be, perfect. It can become more perfect, however, if citizens understand the nation’s nuanced past not just from their own perspectives but also from the perspectives of others—and learn the skills and processes needed to work toward solutions together. Neither a curriculum nor a set of standards, the roadmap is designed so that any state, district, school, classroom, or informal learning space can use its framework to meet the needs of any given community.

In 2021, iCivics, along with Harvard, Tufts, and Arizona State University, released the EAD Roadmap to the public. The EAD initiative was first funded under the Trump administration and has continued under the Biden administration. Curriculum based on the framework is now being piloted in districts around the country, with the goal of reaching 60 million students by the year 2030.


Repairing the civic fabric of this country, however, requires a larger movement. Over the past five years, more than 300 organizations of varying viewpoints have come together to form the CivXNow Coalition, a project of iCivics. Its members—including Mount Vernon—are supporting bipartisan policies that expand and improve civic education vital to a functioning democracy. The coalition is working to offset the federal funding imbalance of history and civics through support of the Civics Secures Democracy Act, a bipartisan bill that would infuse one billion dollars annually into civic education.

CivXNow also created a template to help states craft policies that support universal, equitable access to high- quality civic learning opportunities, including requiring stand-alone civics courses in middle and high school, and dedicated instructional time for civics in grades K-5. Since 2021, seven states have adopted new course or instructional mandates: four in high school (Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, and Rhode Island) and three in middle school (Indiana, New Hampshire, and New Jersey).

(Photo by Christian Monterrosa, SIPA USA, AP)

Mending the Nation’s Civic Fabric

The founders understood that negotiating solutions to disagreements is a critical feature of the nation’s institutions, and that is even more true today as the country has grown and become more diverse. Against the threat to democratic norms and social order, civic education is the thread Americans can use to mend the nation’s civic fabric. As Washington said in his first annual message to Congress—what would become known as the State of the Union address: “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

About the Authors

The authors work for iCivics, the country’s leading civic education nonprofit. Louise Dubé is the CEO, Shawn Healy is the senior director of policy and advocacy, and Julie Silverbrook was the senior director of partnerships and constitutional scholar in residence.