Amid a national push for civics education, many would-be civics reformers hope to make race a central focus. Some of the most prominent civics-reform nonprofits tout a “Lived Civics” framework, either as a helpful supplemental resource or as an explicit feature. Regardless of how it’s used, Lived Civics would teach students not good citizenship but its opposite.
According to “Let’s Go There,” a document widely cited by civics-reform nonprofits, the Lived Civics approach holds “that concepts such as race, ethnicity, identity and lived experience must be central anchors of civic education.” The document asserts that merely devoting part of the curriculum to lessons about race and racism is insufficient, even if those lessons borrow from the most popular proponents of “antiracism.” “Rather than a discrete unit, lesson, or series of activities that are layered on top of a traditional civics curriculum,” the authors explain, “a Lived Civics curriculum is based on the premise that race, identity and lived experiences are of central importance and are a critical lens through which the content of all civics course material is explored.”
The framework gives epistemological priority to certain people’s “lived experience.” According to the model, students’ views should be valued on the basis of their race. “Young people,” the authors assert, “especially young people of color, have political knowledge and expertise that must be acknowledged, respected, and examined in civics class.”
The authors don’t offer concrete examples of what this entails, but they give telling hints. They suggest, for example, that students’ experience will likely conflict with traditional civics lessons—and that such conflicting notions should be affirmed. These experiences might “directly contradict many of the civic lessons about liberal democracy,” but this “expertise should be validated and taken seriously.” While the authors fail to elaborate on what such validation would entail, proponents of “antiracism” have flirted with authoritarianism and condemned the principles of liberal democracy.
In the end, the model reverses the traditional roles of teacher and student. Teachers must use methods that “recognize ways that power and oppression operate in classrooms.” The paper approvingly quotes a student saying, “When it comes to talking about identity, the students become the teacher and the teachers become the students.”
The framework has gained traction. It appears as a publication of the Civics Engagement Research Group at University of California, Riverside. And far from being limited to academic obscurity, Lived Civics already influences school policy in some parts of the country. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation pushed for civics reform in Illinois, successfully transforming the way civics is taught across the state and establishing the Democracy Schools Initiative. According to the foundation, these Democracy Schools “build upon a ‘Lived Civics’ framework, which centers race, identity, and the lived experiences of young people as core elements of civic education efforts.” The Illinois Civics Hub lists more than 75 schools that have received the Democracy School designation, reiterating that these schools use the Lived Civics framework.
Many civics-reform organizations, while not yet adopting Lived Civics explicitly, seem to be moving in the same direction. The nonprofit iCivics, originally founded by Sandra Day O’Connor, boasts dozens of awards for its work in civics education. Yet a white paper issued in 2020 by iCivics and reform group Generation Citizen echoes the core tenets of the Lived Civics framework, concluding that “much more needs to be done to center students’ race, ethnicity, culture, and identity in the curriculum.” The paper later suggests that the mass demonstrations and riots of 2020 call for “greater license and urgency to push forward with an equity agenda.” Lobbying coalition CivXNow was founded by iCivics and bills itself as “the nation’s largest cross-partisan Coalition to fuel our constitutional democracy through K-12 civic education.” It includes more than 100 member groups and lists “Let’s Go There” as a resource on its website. CivXNow devotes much of its efforts to the Civics Secures Democracy Act, a major piece of federal civics legislation.
The biggest players in civics education today endorse a pedagogy that explicitly racializes the curriculum. Armed now with what they consider a moral imperative, these organizations are lobbying for legislation that would fund this agenda. Responsible citizens should hope that they fail.