Social media platforms have allowed the world—including children and adolescents—to witness the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department while desperately pleading for his life. Subsequently, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul along with municipalities across the nation have erupted in protest, and in some cases, violence. These responses reflect deep rooted and long-standing anger and fear that need to be acknowledged and dealt with. What, if anything, should the National Academy of Education (NAEd) have to say about what we are witnessing in our country? Addressing these powerful emotions in addition to promoting civic engagement, civic reasoning, and discourse are vital to the health of our democracy.
Over a year ago, the NAEd initiated a project on “Civic Reasoning and Discourse” in an effort to improve students’ learning in these areas by ensuring that the pedagogy, curriculum, and learning environments that students experience are informed by the best available evidence. The project’s chair, Carol Lee, further emphasized the “role of interdisciplinary knowledge building to prepare future citizens to wrestle with tensions as they present themselves both in our history, democracy, and contemporary political debates.” Pedagogically, this involves improving students’ capacity to “talk across political and ideological differences…by teaching [them] to weigh evidence, consider competing views, form an opinion, articulate that opinion, and respond to those who disagree” (Hess and McAvoy, 2015, p. 5). It also entails inspiring young people to participate in civic life—encouraging them to ask difficult questions about their country’s challenges and supporting them as they develop creative and innovative civic solutions toward a better future (Mirra & Garcia, 2017). In the context of current conditions in the United States, these concerns are not merely academic.
Civic engagement, civic reasoning, and discourse are vital to the health of our democracy. However, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 24 percent of the nation’s 8th and 12th grade students score proficient on tests of civic knowledge (https://www.nationsreportcard.gov). Also, the Youth Participatory Survey of young people between ages 15 and 27 found that young people were more likely to evaluate political content in arguments as accurate based on their own prior views (Kahne & Bowyer, 2017). In addition, research on the amount of time students spend learning civics and the process of engagement and civil discourse show dramatic declines over the last 30 years, at the same time that the evidence reveals the critical role curriculum plays in preparing students to participate in a multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural society (Levinson, 2012; Rebell, 2018). Increased attention to the cultivation of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions is essential to civic engagement, civic reasoning, and discourse, as well as learning the perspectives of our neighbors.
The public outbursts attached to Mr. Floyd’s death are not limited to his case. Over the past few weeks we also witnessed or learned of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, who like Mr. Floyd, are also African American. As members of an education research honorific society, we recognize that events like these have a direct impact on our entire society. The thoughtful scholarship of several members of our Academy, which has informed Supreme Court decisions on issues of affirmative action and the responsibility of public schools to provide civic education, tells us that how children, youth, and adults come to understand and engage in civic reasoning and civic discourse about events that reflect racism, discrimination, and bigotry is fundamental to the preservation of our democracy.
The National Academy of Education, in solidarity with local, national, and global communities, expresses its condolences to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and pledges itself to continued scholarly inquiry that may lead to deeper knowledge and understanding of human socialization toward civic debate to strengthen the bonds of democracy in a dynamic, diverse, and multicultural society.
Hess, D.E, & McAvoy, P. (2015). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge.
Kahne, J., & Bowyer, B. (2017). Educating for democracy in a partisan age: Confronting the challenges of motivated reasoning and misinformation. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 3-34.
Levinson, M. (2012). No Citizen Left Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mirra, N. & Garcia, A. (2017). Civic participation re-imagined: Youth interrogation and innovation in the multimodal public sphere. Review of Research in Education, 41, 136-158.
Rebell, M. (2018). Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.