Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at "For Democracy's Future" Forum at the White House

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Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at "For Democracy's Future" Forum at the White House

January 10, 2012

This is a great day and an important moment for education leaders who want to take civic learning to greater heights and expand its impact. And it is an important day for all of us who care about nurturing a vibrant democracy.

As we're nearing the end of our conference, I'll try to keep my remarks relatively brief. But I hope this meeting will be the start of something big for the civic learning movement, which has failed to receive the attention it richly deserves.

My hope is that this meeting will serve as a call to action--to make civic learning and democratic engagement a staple of every American's education, from elementary school to college and to careers. The publications of A Crucible Moment and the Guardian Of Democracy reports, the formation of the American Commonwealth Partnership, and the release of our own roadmap today for advancing civic learning and democratic engagement, are an auspicious beginning.

Unfortunately, we know that civic learning and democratic engagement are not staples of every American's education today. In too many schools and on too many college campuses, civic learning and democratic engagement are add-ons, rather than an essential part of the core academic mission.

Too many elementary and secondary schools are pushing civics and service-learning to the sidelines, mistakenly treating education for citizenship as a distraction from preparing students for college-level mathematics, English, Science, and other core subjects.

And most institutions of higher education now offer civic learning as an elective, not as a critical component of preparing students to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy.

This shunting to the sidelines of civic education, service learning, political participation, and community service is counterproductive. Preparing all students for informed, engaged participation in civic and democratic life is not just essential--it is entirely consistent with the goals of increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps.

It is consistent with preparing students for 21st century careers. And it is consistent with President Obama's goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. As Tony Wagner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, there is a "happy convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant."

Now, it is sometimes said that civic learning is old school education. In an era of texts and tweets, and the instant democracy of the Web, civic education can seem antiquated.

And it is absolutely the case that much needs to be done to reinvigorate and elevate the quality of civic learning in America. Yet even the most casual glimpse around the globe today shows that civic learning and democracy very much matter in 2012.

From the uprisings in the Arab Spring to the tragic shootings a year ago in Tucson at a Congress on the Corner event, Americans have been reminded again that freedom matters—and that democracy is its embodiment.

The advent of a knowledge-based, global economy opens up unprecedented opportunities, but it creates unprecedented global challenges as well. What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas anymore—or anywhere else in America.

The United States can no longer meet global challenges like developing sustainable sources of energy, reducing poverty and disease, or curbing air pollution and global warming, without collaborating with other countries. And the U.S. cannot meet those global challenges, both here in our local communities or abroad, without dramatically improving the quality and breadth of civic learning and democratic engagement.

These new global and communal challenges will require U.S. students to develop better critical thinking skills and cross-cultural understanding. Fortunately, high-quality civic learning equips students with the very skills they need to succeed in the 21st century—the ability to communicate effectively, to work collectively, to ask critical questions, and to thrive in diverse workplaces.

It's also worth remembering, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor says, that civic knowledge is not inherited "through the gene pool." It is not passed on in mother's milk. It is learned—at school, and at the dinner table. Schools matter.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the landmark law which created our nation's land-grant universities, and subsequently our nation's Historic Black Colleges and Universities.

Since our founding, America's leaders have recognized that one of the most important purposes of educating the nation's citizens is to protect and strengthen democracy.

Many Americans are aware that the founders stressed the importance of civic learning and participation in K-12 education. But fewer people realize that civic learning has played a longstanding leading role in higher education as well.

That is one reason why I am so encouraged by the new report that our Department commissioned from an independent, blue-ribbon task force of educators, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future.

It presents a smart and thorough analysis of civic learning and democratic engagement in higher education. And I absolutely share the task force's sense of urgency about the need to bolster civic learning and engagement on our nation's campuses and in our communities.

One of the most troubling findings of the task force report is that the longer students stay in college, the wider the gap becomes between "their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of college and their assessment of whether the institution is providing opportunities for growth in this area."

Surveys find that only about one in four college seniors report that their understanding of the problems facing their community and their knowledge of people from different races and cultures were much stronger at the end of college than at its start.

These findings make plain that our institutions of higher education—and their elementary and secondary school partners—need to expand and transform their approach to civic learning and democratic engagement.

This is not a time for tinkering, for incremental change around the margins. At no school or college should students graduate with less civic literacy and engagement than when they arrived. More and better is the challenge before us--and that is why your leadership is critical if we are to take this work to another level.

As the task force report also makes clear, the quality of civic learning is not a new concern. Our founders believed that informed citizens were a bulwark against tyranny and vital to a functioning democracy.

Recall that Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Benjamin Franklin also believed college should not be reserved for the elite, but should instead cultivate "an inclination joined with the ability to serve mankind, one's country, friends, and family." And President Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act in the midst of the Civil War, declared that education was the "most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in."

This deep-seated commitment to civic learning and engagement peaked in higher education after World War II, when millions of G.I.'s headed to colleges and universities on the G.I. Bill.

In 1947, President Truman's Commission on Higher Education released a landmark report that called for states to create a system of community colleges to help accommodate the vast number of returning veterans enrolling in higher education.

It is telling that the commission did not present its recommendations simply as an economic imperative. In fact, it argued that "the first and foremost charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process."

Today, 65 years later, I am absolutely convinced that this is the moment to advance civic learning and democratic engagement, once again. The time is ripe for reform because the state of civic knowledge and engagement among Americans is poor--even as the interest in civic learning and engagement among students, teachers, and faculty is growing.

A new generation of innovative, entrepreneurial organizations is promoting civic learning and engagement at many schools and college campuses. Some are government-led initiatives like AmeriCorps and our Department's Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

But there are so many outstanding public, non-profit, and private initiatives, like the Campus Compact, Ashoka U, the Interfaith Youth Core, Justice O'Connor's iCivics online initiative--and many other service-learning programs, social entrepreneurship, and civil discourse programs that have blossomed in the last two decades.

Unlike traditional civic education, civic learning and democratic engagement 2.0 is more ambitious and participatory than in the past. To paraphrase Justice O'Connor, the new generation of civic education initiatives move beyond your "grandmother's civics" to what has been labeled "action civics."

The goals of traditional civic education--to increase civic knowledge, voter participation, and volunteerism--are all still fundamental. But the new generation of civic learning puts students at the center. It includes both learning and practice—not just rote memorization of names, dates, and processes. And more and more, civic educators are harnessing the power of technology and social networking to engage students across place and time.

How do I know that the new generation of civic learning can be both engaging and exacting? I was lucky enough to have the opportunity both to promote and witness the impact of high-quality civic learning firsthand when I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

I see that Brian Brady from the Mikva Challenge in Chicago is here today. So is my friend, Marc Shulman, and a number of students from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. That was one of my favorite high schools.

They have produced hundreds of civic learners who have done some amazing projects in their communities. Brian helped those students to organize and run an advisory council for me. And their insights on how policy decisions impacted students' lives were profound and invaluable to me and my team.

The Mikva Challenge has also done an incredible job of recruiting and training high school seniors and juniors to serve as election judges in Chicago. Now, anyone who knows Chicago politics, knows that is not an easy job!

But literally, even before they can vote, high school juniors in Chicago are now signing up to be election judges. The Mikva Challenge recruits and trains 2,500 high school students in Chicago for each election cycle. And those students account for nearly 20 percent of election judges in Chicago. Could Brian, Marc, and the students here today stand to be recognized?

Finally, I want to encourage everyone here today to read the Road Map and Call to Action that our Department is releasing today to advance civic learning and engagement in democracy.

It outlines our agency's role in civic learning. And it lists nine steps we will take as we strive to serve as a constructive catalyst for change.

I want to especially thank Undersecretary Martha Kanter, Assistant Secretary Eduardo Ochoa, Phil Martin, and Taylor Stanek for their leadership in putting together today's Call to Action.

They intuitively understand the profound and enduring value of civic learning, and they have been tireless advocates for civic learning and engagement efforts. I know they are grateful to the Steering Committee, which has been instrumental in preparing today's program and bringing all of us together. I won't take the time now to run through the nine steps in our Call to Action in detail. But it's important to recognize that our Department is already doing a lot to support civic learning and democratic engagement--and that we have a special opportunity now to enhance those efforts.

The Federal Work-Study program currently mandates that institutions of higher education use at least seven percent of the total amount of funds awarded to provide community service jobs for students.

In the 2009-10 award year, $222 million was used to fund community service jobs—and that sum doesn't include a much larger pot of non-federal matching funds.

To cite another example, our Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is working with the White House and the Corporation for National and Community Service to oversee the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.

Several hundred colleges and universities have signed onto the President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. To date, more than 270 colleges and universities have committed to a year of interfaith and community service programming on their campuses.

College students participating in the Challenge select one service priority for their interfaith initiative, in areas such as poverty and education, health services, and support programs for veterans and military families.

Our team is convinced that there is much more that we can do to further enhance civic learning and democratic engagement.

We can convene, catalyze, and recognize K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions that are committed to high-quality civic learning.

We can encourage states, schools and postsecondary institutions to conduct civic audits and publish their plans and outcomes for educating students for informed engagement in civic life.

We can identify additional civic indicators.

We can spotlight promising practices--and encourage further research to learn what works. We can leverage federal investments and public-private partnerships.

We can--and we will--encourage public service careers, especially to help in the outreach, recruitment, and hiring of more than 1.6 million great teachers that our nation will need over the next decade. And we will continue to support civic learning as part of a well-rounded K-12 curriculum.

I also ask you to challenge us with how we can be most helpful. And, while we are passionate and committed, we are absolutely clear that we cannot begin to do this work alone. To succeed, this great effort to advance civic learning and engagement in democracy needs visionary leaders.

It needs higher education faculty and deans, and teachers and principals from our K-12 schools.

It needs creative non-profits, foundations, dedicated entrepreneurs, business leaders, jurists, artists, actors, and lawmakers.

And it needs federal, state, and local leaders to promote high-quality civic learning and establish innovative public-private partnerships.

That is why I am so inspired by the quality of commitments from the education community announced earlier today. It is why I am so encouraged to see the extraordinary coalition that has joined hands in the American Commonwealth Partnership to promote high-quality civic learning and new forms of engagement and scholarship.

With your courage and your commitment, I believe we will begin to restore civic learning and democratic engagement to its rightful place in our nation's schools and colleges.

Thank you—and thanks to everyone for their participation in today's meeting. Together, let's get to work.