This guest post is from Dr. Barbara Ferman, Founder and Executive Director, University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia and Professor of Political Science at Temple University. Please contact her directly with any questions or comments, at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s White House speech on January 10, in which he heralded Action Civics as a promising model for engaging current and future generations in the democratic enterprise, appears to have generated cheers from some and set off alarm bells among others. Such debate is what democracy is all about and should be supported and encouraged. However, as is too often the case, the debate is mired in confusion as to the purpose and practice of Action Civics. As Executive Director of one of the founding organizational members of the National Action Civics Collaborative (NACC), I would like to set the record straight with regards to this very promising practice—what is Action Civics, what is the value added and what does it look like in practice?
Action Civics is an iterative process of issue identification, research, constituency building, action, and reflection that is used to address real-world experiences that apply to the lives of students. It is a process that embraces collective action, encourages youth voice, agency and leadership, and emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society. In addition to building the skills, developing the knowledge and shaping the values that underlie a democratic society, Action Civics has been correlated with improved academic and behavioral outcomes. So, what is the problem? The problem is that students may embrace perspectives with which we disagree. This is a very real possibility but isn’t that what democracy is about? For example, I do not agree with Checker Finn’s perspective but I respect and absolutely defend his right to publicly articulate it. Democracy is not about unlimited freedom or irresponsible behavior, both of which threaten democracy. Rather, it is about learning to behave responsibly within a free society. Shutting students down or teaching about democracy in ways that are incongruent with its underlying principles does a disservice to the student, to education and to democracy. If we want our young people to participate in the larger society in ways that are productive, respectful, and that preserve our democratic institutions, we need to let them practice.
So, what does Action Civics look like in practice? What do youth take on when given the opportunity and support to make their voice heard? Here are a few examples from the founding members of NACC:
This is only a small sampling of how youth are engaging in the democratic process to make improvements in their education, the health of their communities, the way media portrays young people, and the political process itself. They are learning to be citizens in a democratic society and behaving professionally and responsibly. This is Action Civics in practice. Hopefully, President Obama will share Arne Duncan’s passion for and embrace of, Action Civics as a powerful antidote to our engagement malaise.