Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

Earlier this summer, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman announced she was taking a break from Twitter. This, despite the fact she has more than 900,000 followers and has regularly used the social media platform to track breaking news, get tips, and engage directly and almost instantly with her readers. It was exciting and alluring—fast, vibrant, cool. But she was stepping away, she said, because Twitter has devolved into an “anger video game.”

Mark that as another victory for the trolls, the fake-newsers, and the endlessly aggrieved. #CivilityIsForLosers.

Twitter is just the latest of many technologies that promised to break down old hierarchies, democratize information, and bring people closer together. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Yik Yak, Digg, MySpace—all promised new, more-vibrant, virtual communities. Instead, they have pushed us further apart, and our civic life is riven by snark, bile, and bullying.

A promising new tool for building civil society

My embarrassing confession: I was once a civic-minded techno-optimist. Nearly 20 years ago, at the height of the tech boom, I was a graduate student and policy advisor to the governor, shuttling between my office in the Capitol complex and my student cubicle in the University of Texas Tower, while many of my peers were starting online companies. Some were hoping to get rich, but others set up companies to foster charitable giving, community engagement, or online voter registration. It seemed like everyone was bent on changing the world with these astounding new tools.

A couple of years earlier, Harvard professor Robert Putnam published his seminal and controversial book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he argues that America’s civic institutions have been in free-fall since the 1960s. His evocative exemplar was that millions of Americans were in bowling leagues in the Fifties but now bowled alone. Instead of gathering in bowling alleys or rotary clubs, or even around the family dinner table, Americans were becoming increasingly isolated.

His despair about the decline of civic life didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t know anyone who had a bowling shirt, but I knew lots of people working to make a difference. So, I wondered, did Putnam’s lament matter? Surely, all this new technology and all these energetic young people I saw scurrying about were going to replace that stodgy old order with something much better. Who needs bowling when you have Friendster?

I wrote a dissertation that later become a book about these exuberant Gen-Xers: Civic Life in the Information Age. I argued that civic life did not have to be rooted in old institutions that mandated regular meetings and tired hierarchies. I thought that youthful energy and technology would replace that sleepy social capital with a new version. I called it “just in time social capital.”

As it does today, media coverage back then tsk-tsked the fact that young people didn’t turn out to vote—“slackers!” But the young people I profiled were using technology to connect in new, more agile ways. No dyspeptic breakfast buffets in a hotel conference room to plan that charity golf tournament. These magical online tools (email!) enabled people to get together “just in time”—to clean up a park or respond to a hurricane—then move on to the next problem. Like Haberman and her early infatuation with Twitter, I saw only exciting upsides. It didn't turn out that way. Instead, we’ve gone from Bowling Alone to Angry Birds, and on to Pizzagate and Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville.

Technology today: breaking rather than binding

Technology has not invigorated civic life; it has ravaged it. My Gen-Xers are now middle-aged, and have been supplanted by a generation even more entranced by technology. Today’s social platforms—Twitter, Facebook, and all those comments sections spiked with death threats—have replaced discourse with dispute, reason with rage. The promise I wrote about 20 years ago is broken. Instead, these new tools keep us on screens, and away from our communities and even our friends. That voluntary sequestration has stoked anger, fortified tribalism, and mobilized online mobs.

We are now a nation of suspicious minds. Only one-third of Americans say they have “very great” or even a “good deal” of trust and confidence in the political wisdom of their fellow citizens. Only 18 percent of them trust the government to “do the right thing.” This mistrust breeds inaction: Only about 29 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 presidential primaries. And that makes sense; underlying this suspicion and inertia is widespread civic ignorance—only 43 percent of Americans can name a single Supreme Court Justice, and 37 percent cannot name even one of the five rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

All this dysfunction has led to an alarming surge of political animosity. The irony is that in animus lies opportunity, because anger can spur action. The problem is that anger can start things, but rarely gets things done.

Teaching civics for a civil society

My radical proposition: You want civility, teach civics. The challenge—and the hope—is that we can leverage this political anger into something productive for our democracy by rebuilding civic knowledge, skills, and agency. A good civic education builds all three—it equips young people with an understanding of democracy, the skills to effectively put that knowledge to work in their local communities to solve problems, and the confidence that their efforts will make a difference.

Civic education has been neglected in K-12 for a generation, but last September, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, iCivics, and other organizations called for its revival, pushing a campaign to assure access to quality civic education in every school. At the September 2017 Democracy Now Summit, 20 organizations publicly committed to increasing civic knowledge, service, and voting participation in young Americans. As a part of that event, we at the College Board committed to creating a “civic certificate” for students who complete the civics project requirement in the redesigned Advanced Placement US Government and Politics course. That action followed the 2016 redesign of the SAT Suite of Assessments, where the Reading section of every test asks students to read and analyze a passage from US founding documents (such as the US Constitution) or a conversation they inspired (such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail or the Seneca Falls convention).

We believe the ideas at the heart of America’s founding are as vital today as they were more than 200 years ago; it is our task as educators to make them vivid once more. The College Board is therefore also partnering with groups including Generation Citizen and to help educators and students design projects relevant to their lives and their communities. We are also working with the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution to bring the best constitutional thinking on both the right and left to teachers and students for free.

Of course, civics is not just for kids. A broader civic engagement campaign could get the rest of us to step away from our screens, reconnect with our common story, and bolster civility. Organizations such as Better Angels and Difficult Conversations bring individuals together for civil conversations about complicated issues. National service organizations such as the Service Year Alliance, which wants to increase the number of students doing a year of service from 65,000 to 100,000, and bring diverse young people together to work on tough community problems.

Civics, like civility, can sound like a quaint artifact in this age of “anger video games,” but don’t try telling that to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton. We may be the country that invented Twitter snark and Facebook misinformation, but we’re also the country that turned the story of an 18th-century US Treasury Secretary into the most popular rap-musical in a generation. The country whose greatest basketball player spends his free time creating vibrant new schools. The country where Supreme Court justices inspire memes. Civics has always been a deep-rooted part of our culture. It’s time to get it back into our classrooms.