How do we cultivate thoughtful, engaged and informed citizens, and what is our civic mission? In his farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan posed the question, “Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?”
Fast forward a few decades and the answer seems a solid “no.” What might have been a clarion call by the 40th President back then has turned into a formidable crisis in the 21st century.
- According to the most recent civics report from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released in 2018, less than a quarter of American eighth-grade students are “proficient” in civics knowledge. When it comes to U.S. history, a mere 15% of eighth graders attain that designation.
- A recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed an overall increase in civic knowledge among American adults, yet nearly half of those surveyed could not name all three branches of government. Nor could one in five name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
- Among those Americans surveyed by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, only 15% knew when the U.S. Constitution was written. Only 25% knew how many amendments it contains.
The study of civics and history is where American students obtain the critical skills needed to understand and participate responsibly in our constitutional democracy. Yet somehow, we aren’t making the grade.
Missing the Mark
There is much discussion about the reasons why. One argument holds that civic education is no longer a priority. It has been crowded out by other curriculum, such as STEM initiatives. Likewise, at the university level, enrollment in history courses has declined dramatically in recent years, resulting in fewer newly minted history teachers.
Another debate centers on what makes for good and accurate history these days. Should curriculum focus on first principles and our founding documents? Or do we need to reframe the conversation to include a broader interpretation? Think the 1776 Commission vs. the 1619 Project (a topic for another day).
A Creative Prospect
The challenges in the classroom are evident even if the solutions are not. We won’t attempt to turn the ship in this blog post. But here’s an interesting proposition: K-12 is not the only space to cultivate thoughtful, engaged and informed citizens. In his new book, The Civic Mission of Museums, author Anthony Pennay suggests that the nation’s 35,000 museums have an important role to play in teaching history and promoting civic health.
“Museums preserve and pass along and interpret the long history of the world,” writes Pennay, who serves as the chief learning officer for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute (RRPFI) in Simi Valley, California. Moreover, museums have a long reach. As a whole, they “serve more students than the entire public-school system in the United States.”
Museums can produce a positive effect on their communities, and when it comes to teaching civics, Pennay believes museums can do more than simply impart knowledge. They can contribute to a civic mindset, skillset, and action. “In order to benefit their communities, museums serve as gathering spaces, places where the affairs of the community can be explored as a community. A museum performs its civic duty when working with and helping cultivate civic leaders.”
In The Civic Mission of Museums, Pennay highlights three very different museums, all actively and dynamically engaged in civic education with their communities. The first is the Museum of Art at the University of New Hampshire, which partnered with the university’s Civil Discourse Lab to give people in the community a way to convene and discuss tough issues. The programs developed used art and film to build skills in civil discourse.
A second example is the Exploratorium in San Francisco, where the museum’s Studio for Public Spaces launched a public exhibit called Middle Ground in the heart of the city. The goal was to extend the museum’s “front porch” into the community and provide a space that would bring a broader collection of people together in a dynamic way.
And finally, on his home turf, Pennay describes how the Reagan Foundation, through its Annenberg Presidential Learning Center, partners with the National Speech and Debate Association each year to host the Great Communicator Debate series. “Effectively harnessing the tools of communication is an incredibly important civic skill,” says Pennay. “If a citizen, a member of a community, has the ability to communicate, that citizen has the ability to bring about positive change and inspire others.”
The Museum in Your Backyard
While COVID has forced many museums to shut their doors this past year, many have amped up their online experiences. “How to make an impact online has been a conversation in the museum space for years,” says Pennay. “The pandemic forced innovation on a massive scale, and those museums that successfully innovated will have done a good job of extending that front porch into the community.”
So what museums are in your community? Why not take a tour—in person or virtually—brush up on your history, and become a more engaged, informed citizen. Here are a few virtual suggestions you can try:
- This Monday, February 22, join the Mount Vernon Ladies Association for a virtual celebration in honor of George Washington‘s 289th birthday! Register for the event HERE.
- NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars this week! Jump on a webinar Wednesday, March 3 with scientists from the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History to learn what Mars reveals about life in our universe. Sign up for the webinar HERE.
- The National WWII Museum in New Orleans will host its annual International Conference on World War II Friday March 5 and Saturday March 6. This year’s conference is virtual and free of charge! Register to attend HERE.