Preserving the integrity of U.S. democratic processes, maintaining respect for the rule of law, and upholding the right to peaceably assemble are cherished principles that allow democracy in America to succeed and thrive. The attack on the U.S. Capitol this week by an insurgent mob seeking to prevent the counting of electoral votes violated these principles, and constitutes an existential threat to our democracy.
The shocking scenes at the U.S. Capitol building are a stark reminder of the importance of education in preparing young people for the rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship and societal membership. The National Academy of Education (NAEd) is deeply committed to advancing this foundational role of education in our society.
Four years ago, the NAEd started a conversation at its annual meeting about the need to better prepare students with skills in civic reasoning and discourse and an understanding of their value. Prompted by the research conducted by Hess & McAvoy in The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (2015), our members and fellows learned that classrooms were becoming more difficult places in which to have open and respectful conversations about controversial issues. We learned that some students thought it was a sign of disloyalty or family betrayal to read certain newspapers or periodicals. We also discussed the importance of understanding issues that are fundamental to democracy, including their history and how government works. We left that meeting convinced that as a learned society, we had an obligation to do a comprehensive review of the literature and instigate a scholarly conversation about civic reasoning and civic discourse. We convened an expert steering committee led by NAEd president-elect Carol Lee, who has guided the Civic Reasoning and Discourse initiative through a series of public forums and committee deliberations, and a report including recommendations for policy, research, and practice is expected to be published soon. We also encourage those in our community of researchers, educators, and policy leaders to work toward improving students’ abilities in civic reasoning and discourse, as well as improve the ways in which we prepare youth to fully participate in, preserve, and advance our democracy and our democratic institutions.
After the events of January 6, 2021, it seems that the roles of civic reasoning and civic discourse are more urgent than ever. We witnessed a mob of thousands breach the walls of one of our most sacred democratic spaces, the national Capitol, in an attempt to disrupt the Constitutionally-mandated work of Congress to count the state certified votes of the Electoral College. Not since the War of 1812 has the Capitol building been under siege, and that was by a foreign enemy. These domestic terrorists were urged on by none less than the President of the United States who had spent weeks falsely claiming that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him, despite the courts repeatedly rebuffing baseless lawsuits. The country has been on edge over whether there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the events of January 6 helped us to see just how fragile our democracy can be.
As scholars and citizens, we are both saddened and angered that the rules of civility in a democratic society have been so severely transgressed. We believe in citizens’ rights to dissent and engage in peaceful protest. However, when that protest disintegrates into lawlessness and anarchy, we recognize that our entire body politic is damaged. We disavow the behavior we witnessed at the U.S. Capitol. We do not believe anything that happened during that violence aids the cause of democracy. We hope that students at every level—elementary, secondary, and college—will have an opportunity to experience what it means to learn about and participate in a democratic society. And we hope to never see this kind of social and civic destruction again.