K-12 ‘Action Civics’ Trained Students Encamped on College Campuses. Here’s What Parents Need to Know.

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Jonathan Butcher | The Daily Signal

Parents asking why their college student’s graduation is canceled this year need only remember when their child was in high school.

K-12 schools have been training students to disrupt the systems around them for years through the teaching of “action civics,” which primes students to be activists even if it deprives them of understanding if, when, or why a demonstration would be necessary.

Rioting students’ encampments on college campuses today are disrupting schools around the country, putting classes on hold in some places and leading to the canceling of graduation ceremonies at the University of Southern California.

There have been signs this was coming. To wit: In August 2021, Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the Los Angeles teacher union, was asked what she thought about students’ low test scores as schools reopened their doors after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reflecting on the riots of summer 2020 after George Floyd’s murder and forecasting the violent activity taking place today on college campuses, Myart-Cruz said in an interview published in August 2021: “There is no such thing as learning loss. Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. … They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.”

Myart-Cruz’s comments are nearly three years old, which means many of the students who were taught how to engage in disruptive protests are in college today.

Los Angeles is one of the school districts that taught students how to protest for nearly a decade. LA school officials had been part of an effort to change K-12 civics instruction in California to become “action-oriented,” teaching students to “take collective action” and “be aware of their power to act and be predisposed to take action” (emphasis added).

The revamped civics instruction in LA was part of a larger movement in education called action civics, which instructs students on how to become activists and even rioters.

This teaching came despite years of test scores demonstrating that students didn’t understand the basic facts underlying our political system. Students post dismal scores on civics tests. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle have lamented the problem for decades, but educators on the left chose to reduce the emphasis on content and increase the attention paid to actions.

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President Barack Obama’s administration advocated action civics and released a report explaining that K-12 schools should “move beyond your ‘grandmother’s civics’” and learn more than “just rote memorization of names, dates, and processes.”

Educators nationwide now teach action civics, aided by private organizations that promote K-12 student walkouts and protests over “climate change,” gun laws, and more.

Which brings us to April 2024. Students and rioters are encamped across dozens of college campuses, grinding any educational activities to a halt. Columbia University in New York has moved all classes online. Classes have been cancelled at Northwestern and Boston’s Emerson College.

Some students have little understanding of either free expression or the causes they say they’re advocating or protesting. Setting up tents in an alley and blocking traffic, as done by students at Emerson, aren’t examples of free expression. Neither is physically intimidating Jewish students, also sadly a recurring event at these encampments.

A video clip of a Columbia University student who can’t explain why she traveled to New York University to protest should be required viewing, especially for parents of schoolchildren who have been told that action civics is the future because it enlists students in “hands-on democracy.”

Can the encamped students trained in action civics even explain what democracy is?

Instead of equipping the next generation to be rioters, state lawmakers should review academic standards for history, civics, and social studies and include instruction about crucial events in American history, along with information about the ideas underpinning our constitutional republic.

New standards in Louisiana and South Dakota are good places to start.

Classical schools, often public charter and private schools, also offer curricula that teach students to appreciate the ideas of rights and the rule of law that undergird civil society. Policymakers should empower parents with choices so that they can select schools that promote informed debates and a rigorous understanding of facts when the school assigned to their child does not.

Occupying a college administrative building or lawn while wearing a mask and threatening other students is not a civic—or civil—action.

Action civics helped college campuses reach this point. A return to teaching civic education that trains us to be civilized will help lead us out.


Jonathan Butcher is the Will Skillman fellow in education at The Heritage Foundation and the author of “Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth” (Post Hill Press/Bombardier Books, 2022).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views the Virginia Christian Alliance

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