The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite was a catalyst for change in American education. Among other things, it dramatically demonstrated the United States’ competitive disadvantage, which drove an existential panic and a push to prioritize science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. Today, Russia is trying to revive that sense of insecurity, most recently by making questionable claims during the pandemic about a vaccine called “Sputnik V”. This time, however, the claims of scientific superiority are just disinformation — further evidence that the battleground has shifted to information operations aimed at exacerbating Americans’ declining confidence in their democracy and its institutions. Meeting this cognitive security challenge requires public resilience that is built through civic education.
In other words, STEM education should continue to be strongly supported, but doing so at the expense of civic education is a very bad idea for national security.
Recently, the Department of Education invested a historic $578 million of its FY 2020 discretionary funds in STEM education. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos underscored the many benefits of STEM, specifically noting that the Trump administration’s “strategic focus” will greatly prepare America’s students for “in-demand, high-paying careers.” Similarly-focused initiatives over several administrations correctly placed a high premium on STEM education. The only problem is that these initiatives generally came at the direct expense of civic education.
Though the disciplines are difficult to compare head-to-head, the overall funding gap between the two is astoundingly large. From FY 2010-2016 the federal government spent $2.95 billion annually on STEM education, and that number appears consistent with spending levels today. On the other hand, civic education received a paltry $4 million last year. According to one 2019 estimate, that translated into a $54 federal investment per enrolled school child in STEM education, compared to $0.05 per school child in civics. This does not even take into account similar funding imbalances at the state level and the significant amount of STEM support coming from private companies and philanthropies.
In decades following the Sputnik launch, the desire to maintain superiority in STEM-related fields continued to be a priority as the world grew more connected and complex, resulting in less class time and overall resources available for civic education. Other factors have likely further contributed to this dynamic. For instance, STEM metrics and outcomes can be easily and uniformly tracked across different countries. These relative comparisons solidify and intensify the competition between nations. Moreover, civic education is sometimes seen as a subjective, politically-sensitive area of study. It is also hard for the general public to conceptualize, internalize, and actively prioritize the importance of a good civic education, which means they don’t actively push for it. In comparison, STEM fields appear straightforward and non-controversial.
However, today’s crises are creating a “Sputnik moment for civic education.” Over the past few decades there has been declining support for democracy and democratic institutions. According to recent Gallup poll data, only 40 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust in the Supreme Court, 39 percent have a great deal of trust in the Presidency, and 13 percent have a great deal of trust in Congress. And even though the Supreme Court is the most trusted of the three branches of government, the latest Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey shows that more than half of Americans (57 percent) think that the Court “gets too mixed up in politics.” More concerningly, a 2019 Scott Rasmussen survey shows that 43 percent of voters nationwide at least somewhat agree with the following statement: “The Constitution made sense in the 18th century, but it is irrelevant in the 21st century.” Countless additional surveys further document the public’s erosion of trust in American democracy.
These trends of distrust are greatly exacerbated by foreign adversaries — particularly Russia — who use information operations to further deepen societal divisions and weaken our democracy. Not only do these activities rob us of an informed and engaged citizenry upon which democracy depends, but they also make it impossible for our leaders to generate or sustain widespread public support for actions that we may need to take in our national interest. We need civic education to remind Americans what democracy is about, how it functions, why it is important and why it is worth fighting for. Americans also need to internalize the essential role they play in holding institutions accountable: individuals must learn how to become more effective agents of change so that we can continue the work to become a more perfect union.
Investing in civic education is also a tremendous return on investment for the federal government. While STEM is very important, only a limited number of students ultimately choose to pursue careers in STEM, whereas a strong civic education is important for all citizens. Having said that, civics initiatives do not (and should not) inherently squeeze out STEM priorities. Civics has its own inherent value, but it also works in support of developing a more purposeful STEM education. Not only can civic education provide a necessary foundation that inspires students to pursue technical careers in the national security community, but it can also provide students with critical thinking tools and frameworks that will enable them to be civically-conscious individuals leading science or tech-related organizations in the private sector. When it comes to maintaining our competitive advantages in STEM and ensuring the highest levels of security, it is not just important that we have the best and the brightest in the U.S. innovating and creating new technologies: these individuals also need to understand their responsibility in helping American democracy prosper. The full potential of STEM can only be realized with an equally strong acknowledgement that civic education is also a national security imperative.
The promising news is that the importance of civic education is one of the rare issues on which Americans across the political spectrum agree. For instance, a recent national poll conducted by Dr. Frank Luntz showed that an overwhelming majority of respondents (57 percent), representing a variety of political and general ideological beliefs, identified civic education as the most important tool for rebuilding a stronger American identity. Congress also seems to understand the imperative, as evidenced by the bipartisan “Educating for Democracy Act of 2020” introduced in both the House and Senate. Moreover, two high profile bipartisan commissions in 2020, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service and the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, included expansions and investments in civic education as key recommendations in their final reports. Neither commission had investigating civic education in its remit. Their tasks were different, their “calls to action” premised on different challenges facing the nation, and their recommendations and end goals operated on different timelines. Yet both commissions came to the conclusion that civic education is a vehicle that must be used to ensure the United States is best-positioned to thrive in the future.
Organizations like iCivics and the American Bar Association, and coalitions like CivXNow, have developed creative ways to reach students and communities across the country even when resources are extremely limited in this space. But recognizing civic education as a national security imperative should lead to a national commitment, including significant government resources, dedicated to reinvigorating civics across the country. Continuing to deprioritize civic education for subjects that yield more obvious near-term advantages will have dire consequences for the safety and overall strength of our democracy.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Donald C. Knechtel/Released)