Ornamental Separator

Seeking a more perfect union

A plan to promote civic engagement

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
— Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

Civics is defined as the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., calls participation in civic life “essential to sustaining our democratic form of government.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America after visiting the United States for 10 months in 1831 and 1832, noted that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” These included “religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute.”

Such engagement provided a foothold for the exchange of ideas through civil debate. But without practicing that engagement, the foothold can become unsteady. Tom Nichols, professor emeritus at the Naval War College, an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and the author of Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy, argues that Americans may be expecting too much from democracy without actually participating in it.

The Nation’s Report Card, which grades student achievement in a variety of subjects, offers a grim picture of declining scores in history and civics — 79% of American eighth graders scored basic or below on the 2022 civics exam, which means they did not demonstrate the mastery of the subject matter needed to reach the proficient level. And 84% were basic or below in history. Educational maps do not show a clear path for students to learn about their nation’s beginnings and the responsibilities of citizenship.

An analysis of the 2022 scores by iCivics offers some good news. The analysis found that students perform significantly better when teachers consistently use primary sources in social studies instruction.

“We need to build students’ and teachers’ comfort and competence with history first, and we know primary sources and authentic engagement are the best ways to do that — things at which we happen to be experts here at Colonial Williamsburg,” said Mia Nagawiecki, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president of Education Strategy and Civic Engagement. “Data from the American Historical Association show a correlation between an interest in history and civic engagement. Those who report an interest in history are more likely to vote and participate in civic life.

“We also excel at sparking an interest in history and reigniting that interest over and over again. We can harness the power of this place and bring it to many more people — online and in person,” she said.

Colonial Williamsburg, Nagawiecki said, is uniquely positioned to create educational experiences that share the significance of American history to, in turn, inspire civic engagement.

In concert with its emphasis on preservation and education, Colonial Williamsburg’s fundraising campaign is focusing on ways in which the Foundation can use its position as a trusted institution to foster conversations about democracy, America’s foundational documents and civic engagement.

A study called the Belonging Barometer, co-produced by the American Immigration Council, measured citizens’ sense of inclusion in society. It found that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans do not feel that they belong in their local community. And that sense of community is a big factor in whether citizens engage civically.

The definition of “community” has shifted with the increase in online engagement — and that presents an opportunity.

A study by the Brennan Center for Justice says that members of Generation Z, born after 1996, do not get the credit they deserve for civic engagement. They simply engage in society in more digital ways — using online tools to communicate and organize.

“We know Gen Z spends upwards of eight hours of their free time per day on their smart phones,” Nagawiecki said. “They use digital spaces to try to understand the world, to engage with a community — or not — to make all kinds of decisions large and small about their lives. We need to meet them where they are.”

Strong civic engagement rests on three pillars: civic knowledge, skills and dispositions. Civic knowledge centers on the core principles and practices of democratic citizenship. Critical thinking and thoughtful interactions represent the skills necessary for meaningful civic engagement. And disposition is, quite simply, the act of participating.

The re-introduction of history.org, a dormant domain that once was the Foundation’s flagship website, will be designed to root history and civics content in one place — a shift from its original purpose. The site will be built for American teachers and students through a collective effort in partnership with other trusted U.S. history and civics organizations. It will include the totality of American history.

Colonial Williamsburg will establish partnerships with organizations such as iCivics, which was founded by retired Supreme Court Justice — and former Colonial Williamsburg trustee — Sandra Day O’Connor. As Justice O’Connor once said, “Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.” The new history.org will facilitate that. When the first phase of the redesigned website rolls out for the 2024–25 school year, it will provide primary source and multimedia materials that explore the questions debated at America’s founding — many of which persist today.

The Foundation is working with iCivics — which already offers a library of tools to encourage lifelong participation in civic life — to develop an American Revolution game based in 1774 Williamsburg. It features children who really lived in Williamsburg and who offer different perspectives of life at that time. Players collect those perspectives to understand the diversity of opinion among Virginians in the years leading up to armed revolution. The free game is scheduled to roll out in the spring. A second game is also planned.

iCivics data show students play such games more than once. “And they play them at home,” Nagawiecki said, “which means they actually think they’re fun.”

Another partnership, with Baker & Hill, a graphic design company, is producing short animated films for second graders that also offer a glimpse into daily life in 18th-century Williamsburg, this time through everyday objects brought to life. For example, a video follows an animated ball to show how different children played in the 18th century and to show that play builds relationships and community. Nagawiecki said these videos offer civics lessons in a way that appeals to children and makes abstract concepts easier to understand.

The goals of creating these compelling experiences with American history and then sharing them across the country and inspiring community engagement are lofty ones, Nagawiecki said.

“We have what it takes to do it,” she said. “We’ve got a whole city. And art museums. And a library. And expertise in all the right areas. And a legacy of innovation and leadership. I really believe Colonial Williamsburg is the only institution that can do this.” 

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