The Civic Literacy Curriculum: Teaching American Institutions and Ideals
Scott Applewhite)
The Civic Literacy Curriculum: Teaching American Institutions and Ideals
Scott Applewhite)
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The rise of “action civics,” which prioritizes political activism over basic civic knowledge, is proof that a good civics curriculum is needed more than ever. Fortunately, parents, teachers, students, and citizens wanting to learn or teach civics have a key resource they can look to: the Civic Literacy Curriculum.

Provided by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, the curriculum is a set of free, comprehensive resources on American history and government. Featuring more than 100 lessons and 200 videos, flashcards, and abridged study guides, it is divided into seven units, including the U.S. government, rights and responsibilities, and geographic symbols and holidays.

Associate professor Adam Seagrave says that the CLC was created “to support students, parents, and teachers who are engaged in the vital work of educating for citizenship in American constitutional democracy.” Seagrave notes that civics is a “largely under-supported task in schools.” When it is pursued, it “often lacks the attention to fundamental American civic literacy that the CLC promotes.” The curriculum “aims to address both of these problematic imbalances,” he argues, “which have powerfully contributed to the current crisis of political polarization and discord in the U.S.”

The curriculum rests on the foundational argument that civic education is much more than simply memorizing long lists of names and dates. Students should, of course, be able to recall that James Madison was the fourth president of the United States. But they should also examine the issues Madison dealt with as president. How did he think about the character and limits of executive power, both in theory and in practice?

Based on the U.S. Citizenship Test but going beyond it, the curriculum is available both at full length and in a series of shorter study guides. The full curriculum offers a comprehensive treatment of American civics and history lessons, including primary sources, exercises, worksheets, and discussion prompts designed both for in-school and at-home learning. Serving as a basic summary of the American constitutional order and U.S. political history, each abridged study guide features approximately 60 pages of material and resources, such as practice quizzes and hundreds of videos.

Each lesson begins with a background write-up, explaining the history and logic of American principles and institutions in detail. It includes exercises based on primary-source documents including major speeches from the Founders and Abraham Lincoln or decisions in crucial Supreme Court cases, along with some lesser-known texts. All of these resources have been edited for classroom use.

Students can gauge their knowledge by working through flashcards that feature questions from the Civic Literacy Test, a multiple-choice, 100-question assessment of their knowledge; students must answer 80 questions correctly to pass. The ASU faculty plans to develop additional learning sections to supplement the Civic Literacy Curriculum this year.

The curriculum was put together by a consortium of scholars at ASU’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership, a nonpartisan research center within the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. Established in 2017, CPTL focuses on traditional American constitutionalism and civics and the core texts and ideas that have shaped Western civilization. It features seminar-style classes that one would expect from a small liberal arts college while also giving students the advantages of a public research university, including one of the most impressive public lecture series in the country.

Seagrave hopes that the CLC emphasizes “the distinctively American components of American civic education.” In the United States, he says, students need to understand how America’s “history, institutions of government, and, most importantly, political principles provide an essential context and direction for civic participation.” The CLC is a valuable tool to help parents, students, and teachers understand, cherish, and defend the ideals and institutions of our constitutional republic.   

Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.