New View EDU Episode 17: The Opportunities and Obligations of Citizenship in K-12 Education

Available April 26

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What if each of us believed we had the power to make change happen in civic life—and felt we had the responsibility to try? That’s the premise behind Eric Liu’s Citizen University, and the starting point for this New View EDU discussion on power literacy, changemaking, and civic agency in schools. How did the study of “civics” become a boring, drill-and-kill topic? When and why did we stop treating civic literacy as a relevant, necessary skill for students to learn? And how can we reclaim a sense of civic responsibility, citizenship, and future agency in our school communities?

Eric LiuEric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, which works to build a culture of powerful and responsible citizenship in the United States. He also directs the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, and is the author of several acclaimed books. Eric joins hosts Tim Fish and Lisa Kay Solomon on this episode of New View EDU to discuss how the groundbreaking models of interdisciplinary education pioneered by Citizen University can serve as a model for more interesting, relevant, active, and inspiring K-12 civic education.

Eric starts with a simple equation: Power plus character equals citizenship. He explains that although many of us have a negative association with the idea of power, it isn’t inherently bad or evil. Power exists in each of us and in the constructs around us. To effectively create change and participate in our democracy, we have to understand how power works. Equally important, he says, is adding ethical ideals and behaviors that reflect our belonging to a larger society of human beings. Understanding both how power works, and how we are responsible for and to one another, is the foundation of civic literacy.

Eric goes on to explain the power of cultivating a sense of belonging and the importance of having faith in one another and in our institutions. He also urges parents and educators to help young people develop ideas and beliefs that are truly their own, not simply reflective of the attitudes of the people around them. By approaching one another and the ideas we hear with curiosity and a spirit of interrogation, Eric argues, we can not only build stronger communities, but a stronger and less polarized democracy for the future.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Lisa explore with Eric in this episode include:

  • How can we understand power, especially "people power"? What does “power literacy” look like?
  • When we think about traditional civic learning, we don’t tend to think about interdisciplinary content that weaves in art, culture, imagination, and community along with the content. Citizen University approaches civic learning from a much more interdisciplinary place. What does that look like, and how can schools apply it?
  • How can we think about “liberating” civics as a discipline? How can we make it a relevant, interesting, and living subject?
  • Polarization is a hot topic for school leaders right now. What can they do to help bridge divides in their school communities and foster healthy civic discourse and community spirit despite deep differences?

Episode Highlights

  • “And as I've said, in many contexts, power is like fire or physics. It just is. It’s there. And though it can be put to bad uses, that fact doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to think of what good uses it could be put to.” (3:22)
  • “You know, the purpose of schooling is not just to create good workers or good employees or people who can compete in the global economy as, as has become the dominant refrain of justification for schooling and especially public schooling. But fundamentally it is to create citizens, people capable of self-government. And that was certainly the case for universal compulsory public education.” (7:16)
  • “If you want to teach civics, you have to teach the arguments. You have to show young people the ways in which, from the beginning and to this day, we are perpetually contesting several sets of tensions, between liberty and equality, between a strong national government and local control, between federalism and anti-federalism, between the Pluribus part of our national motto and the Unum part of our national motto. Right? And these tensions are never meant to be resolved finally, one direction or the other…The tension that we are always in is the argument. And the point of American civic life isn't right now to have fewer arguments, it's to have less stupid ones.” (20:23)
  • “Education is not all critical thinking and SEL. You got to have some raw material about which you are thinking critically. And we have to have some common facts around which we can have emotional intelligence, right? And I think schools, public and private over the last two generations, have failed our country, have failed our democratic experiment, in providing that core knowledge.” (34:09)

Resource List

Full Transcript

About Our Guest

Eric Liu is the co-founder and CEO of Citizen University, which works to build a culture of powerful and responsible citizenship in the United States. He also directs the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity Program. He is the author of several acclaimed books, including The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker; The Gardens of Democracy (co-authored with Nick Hanauer); You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change Happen; and his most recent, Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy—a New York Times New & Notable Book. He has been selected as an Ashoka Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is featured on the PBS documentary American Creed and is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic. Liu served as a White House speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and as the President’s deputy domestic policy adviser. He was later appointed by President Obama to serve on the board of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He and his family live in Seattle.