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Civics Secures Democracy Act Proposes Grants To Support Civics Education


Two United States senators came to the phone yesterday. We'd called them to discuss their proposal to commit $1 billion of federal money to civics education.

Can I get each of you just to introduce yourself?

CHRIS COONS: I'm Senator Chris Coons from Delaware.

JOHN CORNYN: And I'm Senator John Cornyn from Texas.

COONS: Should we say that introduction again and also say our party, which I forgot to?

CORNYN: That might be a good idea.

INSKEEP: Ooh, go for it.

COONS: I'm Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.

CORNYN: And I'm John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.

INSKEEP: Glad they did it again because the party labels are important here. Senators Cornyn and Coons say they are working on a bipartisan measure. They're doing so in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, among other events. They're proposing grants to support access to civics and history education. Senator Cornyn made his case by quoting historic documents. One was from the Texas Revolution against Mexico, which talked of the importance of education. Another document was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

CORNYN: Ours is a government of the people, by the people or for the people, as Lincoln said. But we can't govern ourselves if we don't have knowledge of our foundational principles or our history.

COONS: If we don't train young people in civics and how to participate, then we can't be that surprised when our political discourse breaks down.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, we're talking about two related but different things here. One is the history of the country, but the other is just how the government works - basic civics. Senators, when you talk with constituents, do you sometimes get the impression that a lot of them really don't understand how the government works, how you can be helpful to them and how you can't be?

CORNYN: Occasionally, Steve, I wonder whether some members of Congress know how government works.


CORNYN: And, you know - and frequently what I'll do is - and I bet Chris has done the same thing - is I'll say, you remember that old cartoon called "Schoolhouse Rock!"? I'm just a bill on Capitol Hill? If we are the government, we need to know how it works so we can influence it.

INSKEEP: How much has civics teaching declined in recent decades?

COONS: A lot, Steve. There was a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal by six former secretaries of education from both parties that stated that we now invest a thousand times more in STEM education in our schools than we do in civics and history education. Civics education has fallen off in part because of disagreements over what should be taught. But I don't think we can avoid the necessity, the urgency, of helping a younger generation learn the basics of how our government works and why compromise is essential.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm glad you mentioned those disagreements because if you start talking about history, Senator Cornyn mentioned Texas' independence from Mexico. That's a story about which you can have many different perspectives. You could have more perspectives about the Confederacy and the Civil War. Under this proposal, what is the government supposed to do when somebody asks for a grant to study the Confederacy in a certain way, say?

CORNYN: Well, I think, you know, part of living in a free society and part of critical thinking is to have those conversations. We're not perfect, and certainly our history reflects that. And there's a lot in our history to be ashamed of, but hopefully to learn from, too.

COONS: An important provision in our bill prevents the federal secretary of education from establishing uniform civics or history curriculum for the country. That's a job left to the states.

INSKEEP: Should we accept going in, if this bill becomes law, that some of this money is going to go to some study or project or program that a lot of people hate?

CORNYN: Well, that certainly isn't our intention, but I certainly believe that some of it will go to points of view that I don't agree with and I won't agree with. But that's - I think that's OK, too.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there are some forces in society that work against anything you might try in the public school system, and the first is just the speed of information at the moment. We're all trained for instant answers, and you two are working in a democratic system that, by design, is very slow and no fight is ever really over.

COONS: (Laughter) Steve, I'm not sure exactly if that's just a question or an observation.


INSKEEP: Well, it's a reality. And I'm wondering if it's going to be very difficult for you to fight against that.

CORNYN: You know, this idea that we're going to live our lives without finding somebody or something we disagree with is just a fantasy. And we need to disabuse young people at an early point in their lives that they're going to encounter people different from themselves, with different experiences and different points of view, but that's what it means to grow up and to mature and become more wise and to learn to live together and to try to build consensus, rather than just have separate lanes so that we all sort of operate or travel in.

INSKEEP: I'd like to ask on your reflections about whether you think the public is better informed than it was four, five years ago. We've been through this period of partisan division and passionate battles that in some ways has almost seemed like a basic civic education. You know, we've worked through impeachments. We've done all kinds of different things. But we also had, for several years, a president who just constantly misstated how government worked and spread disinformation about his election defeat, for example. Are we better or worse educated than we were a few years ago?

CORNYN: I think frequently what people are asked to do is to pick a side. You know, what's your narrative? You know, somebody once told me in Washington, D.C., the person that has the best narrative wins. And that's not about critical thinking. That's not about respecting different points of view and trying to find common ground.

COONS: Steve, we've certainly had more people participate in politics in the last couple of years. We had more people coming out marching and protesting than I've seen at any point in my adult life. We had more people vote in the 2020 presidential election. But a lot of it has been very contentious. And so in some ways, although we are participating more, we are more sharply divided than we've been at any point in my life. And the point of democracy is to both participate and make progress.

INSKEEP: Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, thanks to you both.

CORNYN: Thanks, Steve.

COONS: Thank you, Steve.


JACK SHELDON: (Singing) I'm just a bill. Yes, I'm only... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 14, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline mentioned the Educating For Democracy Act, a House bill. It should have referred to the Civics Secures Democracy Act, a Senate measure.