By Trygve Throntveit and Peter Levine

It is one of few statements upon which Americans left, right and center agree: the nation faces a civic crisis. Some days the scene appears truly grim. Polarization, rage and militancy vie with cynicism, disengagement and despair in the much-vaunted battle for America’s political soul—all while trampling grace, deliberation and cooperation underfoot.

K-12 schools certainly have a responsibility to address these issues, and one of us (Levine) has been involved in several efforts to reverse the decline of K-12 civic education—most recently through a curricular effort known as the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. This project convened a philosophically diverse group to provide guidance on what and how to teach in civics. There are also important roles for civic associations, local governments and news media platforms, among other entities.

What about higher education? Surely, civic learning should not end with high school. One of us (Throntveit) spearheads a multi-institutional team now piloting a practical approach to civic education in college, in the form of a Third-Way Civics curriculum for undergraduates. Funded by the Teagle Foundation and anchored at the Minnesota Humanities Center, Third-Way Civics responds not only to pundits’ predictions of a civic apocalypse but to what surveys reveal to be a growing (and far more hopeful) desire among students for a practically democratic education: one that positions them for economic success but also prepares them for lives of public purpose and productive citizenship.

First piloted at Ball State University Teachers College in Indiana and Southeastern University in Florida, Third-Way Civics has now been adopted at additional institutions in Minnesota, including Minnesota State University at Mankato, North Central University, Winona State University and the Minnesota North system of community college campuses in northeastern Minnesota, as well as the St. Paul–based Metropolitan State University’s College in Prisons program.

Why a Third Way?

In a society aspiring to self-government, the civic capacities of the people matter. So, what makes a good citizen?

There are as many answers to that question as participants in the debate. In a free and diverse republic, we would expect people to debate what and how to teach the next generation. Disagreement is a sign that people care about the nation and young people. Indeed, one important purpose of civic education is to draw students into the deep and perennial debates of our republic and to help them develop the knowledge, skills and virtues to continue that discussion.

It is important not to stereotype the positions in this debate. We have known left-wing proponents of assertive patriotism, conservatives whose skepticism about the federal government leads them to emphasize local civic participation, radicals who believe in a canon of foundational texts, libertarians who want to see young people develop practical skills for problem solving so that they can manage with less government and many other flavors.

That said, we do detect two significant camps that are often presented as rivals. One group sees knowledge of the structures and processes of government, familiarity with the basic chronicle of U.S. history and exposure to great works of Western political and social philosophy as the firmest foundations of good, “responsible” citizenship.

A different group worries about treating imperfect systems as natural and permanent and perpetuating exclusionary or oppressive narratives. They emphasize that democratic ideals of freedom and democracy can only be realized through deep criticism, historical redescription, mobilization against injustice and other skills and dispositions of good, “active” citizenship.