by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Between 10 and 15 years ago, Political Science experienced a renewed interest in civic education.  The National Conference on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (NCCLDE) produced a report in 2012 featuring numerous examples of Americans teaming up to make a difference in their communities.  Retired U.S. Senator Bob Graham and his co-author Chris Hand published the first edition of their book America: The Owner’s Manual in 2009.  In the book, Graham argued that since retirement, he has concluded that the best hope for the renewal of American democracy lies in teaching a new cadre of involved, interested citizens who begin their journeys of civic activism by making change at the local level.  The American Political Science Association (APSA) hosted their first annual Teaching and Learning Conference in 2005, while the Journal of Political Science Education had debuted the previous year.  The political science teaching world was abuzz with ideas about how to get students to roll up their sleeves, get involved in government at the local level, and prepare for lives of civic engagement.

I was deeply involved in this process.  I met Graham at the annual MPSA conference, and we exchanged business cards after he delivered a talk on his book.  I had already begun teaching the book in an introductory political science course and I was anxious to talk with him about it.   I’ll never forget the thrill of getting a phone call from a retired U.S. Senator while I was eating dinner with my wife and in-laws.  One thing led to another, and I applied for my first and only sabbatical to date, working with Graham to develop a curriculum to teach civic engagement to high-school students in 2012.

From there, things got complicated.  Graham and I collaborated, and I reached out to local high school civics teachers in Kansas and western Missouri in hopes of meeting with them and sharing our ideas.  I did indeed have several such meetings and even guest-taught classes in three different high schools.  However, the more we invested in the project, the more complicated it got.  Teachers told us that they were excited about our ideas for getting students involved in local policymaking, but they feared opposition from school administrators.  They told us that the administrators were extremely wary of any type of controversy and would not approve student projects off-campus.  One teacher even told us that administrators blocked a project in which students sought to start a community garden—a nonpartisan project if ever there was one.  We were also advised that school districts’ legal councils would not approve any project in which students provide their own transportation to a school-sponsored event, due to fear of lawsuits.

Graham and I produced our article, Teaching Active Citizenship: A Companion to the Traditional Political Science Curriculum, during my sabbatical.  It was published in PS: Political Science and Politics in 2014.  In it, we offered a brief summary of the ideas in his co-authored book combined with a discussion of my experiences implementing it in my college classroom.  I relayed one story in which a student got the speed limit lowered on a dangerous stretch of road where a friend of his had been killed.  Other student projects in my class including getting local government to enforce housing codes, pressing apartment managers to make their facilities ADA-compliant, and working with local school districts to develop anti-bullying policies.  Students had the option of working on their project individually or forming small groups.

Overall, students had mixed reactions to this curriculum in the introductory course.  As the above examples show, some were extremely enthusiastic and made real and meaningful change in their communities while learning key lessons about civic engagement.  Others were not so sure.  A common complaint on teaching evaluations was that this was too much commitment for a general education course.  Some students struggled to identify any issues on which they were passionate enough to make a meaningful difference, instead choosing topics that they thought would be easy, such as complaining about university parking, which I later prohibited as a topic unless it involved disabled accessibility or the like.  One even dismissed the idea entirely, writing “I faked my project” on teaching evaluations, which in turn led me to a new policy of calling community partners to ensure that the students were indeed working with them.

I should not have been surprised.  Again, some students in this course enthusiastically embraced the projects and accomplished some truly remarkable things.  Others produced projects that were works in progress and did not complain.  Yet the existence of a small but vocal group of dissenters is something I should have anticipated.

During the sabbatical, I read John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s 2002 book Stealth Democracy.  The book shifted my entire view of political science, and that, combined with my mixed experiences in the high schools, served as warnings that teaching civic education would not be as easy as I thought.  In the book, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue that many Americans do not wish to have a “deep democracy.”  These citizens have little interest in civic engagement.  They would rather spend time doing things they enjoy, such as watching and attending sporting events, shopping, spending time with friends and family, catching up on work, and pursuing hobbies.  Civic engagement often means attending long meetings which, at best, lead to brokered compromises.  Many Americans have little interest in, or patience for such activities.  Hibbing and Theiss-Morse back up their conclusions with extensive use of focus group data and surveys.

According to these authors, what this group of Americans would prefer is a sort of benevolent dictator.  They had little interest in compromise, instead believing their own opinions to be correct and seeking to force others to abide by those opinions.  According to this line of thinking, contrary opinions are incorrect, therefore they need not be taken into account when policy is made.  Also, these voters hate drawn-out compromises, negotiations, meetings, and conflict, so forcing others to abide by their opinions (the “correct” ones) would avoid these messy, time-consuming negotiations.  Hibbing and Theiss-Morse did find one issue on which these voters were passionate, and that was that public officials not use their offices for personal gain.  Hence, the benevolent dictator—someone who will make policy decisions and implement them with a minimum of negotiation or compromise, but do so strictly in the public interest, not in the pursuit of personal gain.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse also take this argument into the field of civic education.  In their 2005 article “Citizenship and Civic Engagement,” they set forth their view that some civic education curricula may actually make the problem worse.  They point out that many forms of civic engagement involve people grouping together with like-minded individuals.  Many voluntary associations also tend to make decisions by consensus.  These lessons are inapplicable to policymaking in a pluralistic democracy, where deep divisions are inevitable and important decisions are rarely made by consensus.  Hibbing and Theiss-Morse go so far as to argue that such “lessons” in civic engagement may actually cause voters to withdraw from politics, feeling angry and disillusioned at the lack of like-minded consensus that they had grown to expect from their civic participation.

Instead of the standard lessons, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue that students much be taught the “barbarics” of politics.  Students should be forced to wrestle with deep, values-based differences of opinion, without losing respect for one another.  Simulations and other class exercises should involve messy negotiations that end in compromises that do not completely satisfy any side of the debate.  These, not lessons on groupthink and affirmations, are they keys to teaching effective civic engagement, according to these authors.

I taught Introduction to Political Science for the last time in 2015, knowing that my class rotation was about to change.  Having had a chance to reflect on my own experiences, along with the deep impact that Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s work had on my own thinking, led me to re-tool my teaching.  First, I moved the civic engagement projects out of Introduction to Political Science and into State and Local Government, another general education course I teach where they are a better fit.  This change has been very successful, producing many successful projects and positive assessment metrics and teaching evaluations.  Recent examples of successful student projects include creating a “one stop” information portal for students to know their rights and their options when seeking off-campus housing in our community, and pressing city government to reclaim the site of an abandoned construction project.

The second part of my new approach involved the Introductory course.  I realized that in a country where more than 40% of eligible Americans (including those who do not bother to register) do not vote even in Presidential elections, pushing college students in an introductory course to get heavily involved in local government may be a bit ambitious.  I have often lectured to students that voting is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for democracy, so I decided to start there.  My new plan was to create a course in which students learned to be educated, thoughtful, registered, frequent voters.  I reasoned that if this was successful, those students who so chose (including all political science majors, as per major requirements) would then move on to take the State and Local government course and deepen their involvement to include civic engagement as well as informed voting.  Those that did not make that leap, or do so on their own time, would at least leave the first course with the skills needed to make informed decisions, register, and vote.

As with the civic engagement curriculum, the new lessons in informed voting did not replace the more-traditional material in the course.  I still taught the students lessons such as presidential vs parliamentary systems and winner-take-all vs proportional representation elections.  Alongside this, I integrated a curriculum in which I first taught students the basics of registering and voting, including a strong emphasis on low-turnout elections such as party primaries, local races, and school boards.  One local city commission member and one school board member each were featured as guest speakers.  I also noted the times of year in which these elections were often held—not on the ballot during the presidential or midterm elections here in Kansas, nor in many other states.  Finally, in a new twist on the old “one vote can make a difference” cliché, I noted that this one-vote phenomenon was far more likely to happen in low-turnout elections than in presidential elections or midterms.  Of course, I offered students extra credit for proving they were registered to vote. One surprise was that I had some international students from a country that is not a democracy (Saudi Arabia) in the course—and I had to make special arrangements for them not to be excluded from this opportunity.

The next step was to discuss the political ideologies of liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist.   In this, I was guided by the dated but still relevant findings of Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes in The American Voter (1960).  In their classic “Michigan model” studies, these authors found that most Americans surveyed were unable to make very many meaningful associations between the words “liberal” and “conservative,” and issue positions.  Those who were able to do this, the authors labeled “ideologues” and “near-ideologues.”  Far more Americans related to politics in terms of a group interest.  Also containing more respondents than the ideologues and near-ideologues combined were the “nature of the times voters,” who rewarded or pushed incumbents based on their perception of the direction of the country, typically the economy.  The last category—larger than the first two combined—consisted of voters whose decisions contained no issue content at all.  These voters may support a candidate based upon their physical attributes, family name, personal biography, or celebrity status, for example.  Later studies such as The Unchanging American Voter (Eric R.A.N. Smith 1989) found some changes in the composition of the electorate, but also upheld the underlying findings of The American Voter using newer data.

Given this, I reasoned that if I could teach my students to properly understand the terms liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist—including identifying which position each one would take on some controversial issues—my students would complete the class in the top two categories of the Michigan researchers’ analysis.  I set to work, creating a syllabus with a heavy emphasis on choosing exemplars of each ideology and showing videos in class in which they explain their beliefs in their own words.  First, I showed and discussed a common graphic for classes like this, a 2 X 2 matrix like the one below:

For a conservative in their own words, I chose Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” (1964).  Also known as “The Speech,” Reagan gave this address advocating limited government on behalf of Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.  I also showed the students Reagan’s First Inaugural Address.

For liberals, I chose Barack Obama’s “Speech at Osawatomie” (2011).  Obama expounds on a number of liberal beliefs in this talk, and it was delivered here in Kansas, where I teach.

When it came to libertarians, the choice seemed obvious.  I chose the iconic libertarian author Ayn Rand, whose interview with Mike Wallace in 1959 is available on YouTube.  For the final ideology, populist/communitarian, I chose a talk Pope Francis gave to the European Parliament in 2014.  I also had students take a Pew Charitable Trust quiz called “Where do you fit in the political typology,” to see where they fit among these ideological choices.

Overall, students responded well to the videos, appreciating the way the speakers explained their views in their own words, not mine and not those of a textbook author.  However, one idea I tried was less successful.  I embedded real-time quizzes into the course, stopping the videos and having students use their phones to respond to flash polls on how they were feeling about specific aspects of the talks, then showing the instant result of the polls on the overhead screen.  Students liked the idea itself, but there was strong pushback that I stopped and started the videos too often to give the flash polls, breaking their concentration.  In the future, I plan to give the flash polls at the end of the shorter speeches.  In the longer ones, I will break them up into longer sections, pausing only once or twice and no longer using the stop-and-start approach that many students disliked.  Students also suggested I edit down the number of insta-polls I have rather than having one every five minutes or so.

On exams, I embedded questions that gave examples of issue stances and asked which political ideology best-describes this collection of issue stances.  For example, I asked students which ideology best-describes someone who believes that abortion should be illegal under most circumstances, that teacher-led prayer should be legal in public school, that the country needs a strong military, and that there should be less government involvement in the economy.  In addition to this conservative stance, I asked similar questions which required to identify positions as liberal, libertarian, and populist/communitarian.

Course assessments indicate that over the course of the semester, students did indeed become better-able to identify the four ideologies from the above matrix.  Overall student feedback was positive, except for the aforementioned concern about the “stop and start” system I used to pause for insta-polls.  The changes I propose above should help resolve these concerns.

Since that time, I have not had the opportunity teach Introduction to Political Science again.  However, this semester I have begun teaching a new Teaching Civic Engagement course for Social Science Education majors seeking to be middle- and high-school teachers.  Unlike the other courses mentioned in this essay, Teaching Civic Engagement is online.  Modules include one challenging students to teach civics through active involvement (“Teaching Civics Like Basketball,” in Graham and Hand’s phrase), one in which students prepare a lesson plan to teach Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s “Barbarics” of politics, one in which students learn to teach liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist, and one in which students learn to introduce their own students to the difference between winner-take-all and proportional representation elections.  In addition, I challenge students to design three short lessons teaching the Spiral of Silence, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s classic finding that people will remain silent or even change their opinions rather than go against the majority of the group.  These lessons are particularly applicable in the high- and middle-school settings, with their notorious peer pressure.

The Teaching Civic Engagement Class is new, so it is too soon for assessments and teaching evaluations.  So far, the student assignments have been good, with many thoughtful and thorough ideas about how to teach civics with student involvement, manage conflict, and more.

Like many fads and fashions, the focus on civic engagement has matured since 2012.  Those of us seeking to do this in and beyond classrooms have hit numerous stumbling blocks.  Work such as that of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse serves as a powerful reality check, showing the dangers of ill-advised teaching of civic engagement, while high school teachers in the “real world” face administrative resistance to implementing these ideas.  A curriculum in which students are first taught to understand and respect different political ideologies and cast informed votes is an excellent alternative to foisting civic engagement lessons on students who may not be receptive, or in environments where civic engagement outside the classroom is prohibited or sharply restricted.  An old cliché holds that one must learn to walk before learning to run, and likewise, teaching students to be informed voters before those who choose to do so take the next step of civic engagement beyond voting, makes for an excellent, workable compromise that does not abandon the original goals of the initiative.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter