Questions surrounding the strength of our democracy dominate today’s headlines. Americans across every spectrum—ideological, political, racial, geographical, generational, cultural, you name it—express concern about our country’s trajectory. Unlike previous periods where economics, foreign policy, or education might have been the focus of common attention, today the shape and future of our nation’s very fabric is the primary focus of debate. Though we must allow for diverse perspectives and rigorous debate, we also know that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.”
The Institute for Citizens & Scholars brings together diverse people, across traditional divides, to build a constitutional democracy that works for all. In 2019, we released the whitepaper From Civic Education to a Civic Learning Ecosystem: A Landscape Analysis and Case for Collaboration, which noted a surprising consensus among practitioners in the civic education space that the current approach to developing effective citizens needed to be updated for the 21st century. At the time, our analysis revealed a broad concern that the current patchwork system of high school classes, after-school programs, and online platforms was failing to produce young people who are well-informed, productively engaged, and hopeful about our democracy.
The report concluded that the field must think beyond the walls of a classroom and imagine a lifetime of civic learning and practice. Classroom learning is the backbone of this education, but a comprehensive system of civic learning cannot be limited to K-12 schools. We must consider how people show up in their communities, how they build trust in each other, and how they feel about the future of the country. To cultivate young people as effective citizens, it was necessary to move from school-focused civic knowledge to also include a broader set of civic skills, dispositions, and capacities.
The report’s findings hold true today, including the idea that an organization-by-organization approach will be insufficient to create impact large enough and long-lasting enough to repair the fabric of our nation. This work needs to be connected with a large and effective network of advocates, researchers, funders, practitioners, policymakers, and innovators to ensure that citizen development is prioritized. In short, we need a field of civic learning.
Since the release of the report, it has also become clear that more people are working on improving civic readiness and opportunities than the original whitepaper accounted for. There are important contributions being made by academics, young people, scholars, citizen leaders, practitioners, funders and many others. The civic learning ecosystem is bigger than any one of us might think.
The team at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and I see a tremendous opportunity to collaborate across many traditional lines of division, build efficiencies, and galvanize resources to answer a question we all seem to have on our minds: how do we know if we are making progress as a democracy?
To begin answering this question, our team—working alongside many others—started by understanding who is already measuring components of this big question. What we have learned is that many more people are dedicated to civic measurement than might be apparent, many of them in adjacent spaces and using different terminology about the same skills and dispositions. Yet, at their core, they do also have some shared understanding of what makes for effective citizenry. And that, ultimately, is the major and encouraging, finding of the new C&S report, Mapping Civic Measurement.
It turns out that measurement may be the unifying force that helps us chart many paths forward towards a shared goal: a vibrant constitutional democracy in which we are all proud to participate.
I encourage you to explore the core, common ground the report has helped uncover and the plans to build on the findings in this report.
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