What should every American know? This question has long been debated, discussed, and deliberated. Answers need to come from all of us—not just a powerful few. This simple question, when truly participatory, compels us all to explore together what it means to participate in civic life, and how we might realize the aspirations of our democracy. These considerations are especially relevant when it comes to America’s young people, and it is important to consider what role schools and classrooms play in practicing civic participation with our youth.
A new partnership between Chicago Public Schools and the Aspen Institute’s Program on Citizenship and American Identity (CAI) was created in the spirit of these inquiries, aiming to elevate young people’s perspectives, beliefs, and values as vital to our national conversation of civic purpose.
But national civics assessments indicate a troubling decline in students’ civic skills and knowledge over the past several decades. Perhaps even more disturbing is the widening “civic empowerment gap” that has emerged between wealthy school districts and their counterparts. According to Harvard education professor Meira Levinson in her 2014 book No Citizen Left Behind, young people of color in low-income communities have far fewer opportunities to engage in civic life. These disparities also extend into the classroom as approaches to civic learning across the country are varied and can often be centered on learning about government and facts rather than cultivating civic dispositions and habits.
Chicago Public Schools is an outlier in this trend. CPS is leading the country in addressing this inequity through an innovative civics course called Participate: A Civics Course for Chicago’s Youth, which aims to advance civic learning by centering students’ experiences and identity in the classroom through an inquiry-driven experiential curriculum, teacher training, and student programming. Through this capstone course, students develop the critical knowledge and skills necessary for active and engaged participation in our democracy by exploring essential questions: “Who has power in our democracy, why do they have it, and how do they use it?” And: “How can I exercise power by participating in our democracy?”
Every day, Chicago students are examining these questions. Teacher Dustin Voss at Fenger Academy High School says, “My students are quick to answer that power is not static,” referencing past remarks by the executive director of CAI, Eric Liu. “If they do not use their power, someone else will.” Moreover, Maral Eidell, a teacher at Chicago Academy High School emphasizes that “every student should know that their voice matters in a true democracy.”
Participate is not based on a textbook; instead it features a flexible curriculum that includes a variety of engaging interactive lessons reflecting best practices in civic education, including discussion of current and controversial issues, participation in simulated (or actual) democratic procedures, and interaction with policymakers and prominent figures in the students’ communities. “Having them practice ways to [make change] while in high school should create a lifelong commitment to making a difference in their own lives and communities,” says Donald Davis, a teacher at George Washington High School. The reality is that young people already have civic knowledge that is valuable. We need to treat civic learning as actively participating in democracy rather than passively learning about it.
As one of their innovative approaches to civic learning, CPS will incorporate What Every American Should Know (WEASK), an initiative by CAI, into the Participate curriculum by asking students to explore and interrogate the very question of what every American should know to navigate civic life in the United States today. WEASK provokes engagement with this critical question— not by suggesting an answer but by inviting all Americans into the conversation about our collective civic identity and purpose. By crowdsourcing ideas from individuals around the country about what terms and references all Americans should know, and encouraging dialogue and discourse around this very question, WEASK seeks to elevate a diverse range perspectives, questions and identities as of equal and essential value to civic life. Submissions are invited in the form of top 10 lists, which are then aggregated into a national list of what every American should know. Participants in the WEASK initiative have highlighted a range of topics, from classic American historical references such as “the Gettysburg Address” and “America the Beautiful,” to more recent cultural references, including “undocumented” and “whiteness.”
By inviting CPS students to reflect on their own lived experiences and identities to generate their top 10 lists, WEASK initiative and Participate civics course catalyzes critical reflection for students to think beyond knowledge alone to skills and dispositions that are critical to becoming an empowered civic actor in our democracy. CPS and the Aspen Institute are working together to highlight Chicago students’ perspectives of what every American should know to be powerful civic actors in our democracy, and to demonstrate how students are translating their knowledge into action in their communities. By defining their own answers to this question, CPS students are lending their voices to strengthen our collective realization of our democracy.