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The Business Case for Civics Education

It’s no secret that polemics and partisanship have run amok in recent years. The factions within the government have trouble collaborating, creating bottlenecks that keep things from getting done. People fight online via social media. People clash in the streets in protests. People argue on-air on cable news panels. Sometimes it seems as if people have forgotten how to disagree without fighting. Are there any pockets of public spaces that haven’t been examined for potential to foster understanding and civility?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has an answer: the workplace. Two years ago, the Foundation published a white paper on the eroding civility of discourse, the general lack of understanding about civics, and the connection between the two. And while the paper was published in 2019, the findings don’t seem dated by all that has happened. They seem all the truer.

Employers are uniquely positioned to help ensure that the next generation of Americans are equipped to play a productive role in civic life, writes U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation President Carolyn Cawley in the introduction to “The Business Case for Civics Education.” Business leaders can bring a powerful voice to this discussion by sharing knowledge and prioritizing civic education of all forms in communities across the nation. This report is the first step in our efforts to make the business case for civics.

Through a combination of surveys and interviews with company leaders, the Foundation—in concert with Harvard Business School—examined the civility and civic sensibility of the workplace today. The motivation was to investigate the role that businesses can play in healing a divided country. The goal was to figure out how and demonstrate why it makes good business sense.

When it comes to talking about divisiveness in our country, business isn’t really a part of the discussions, either as a source of supporter or an avenue to improvement. “And that seemed like both a missed opportunity for interested organizations like ours,” Cawley recalls.

An interesting note of optimism stands out among the data immediately. In its annual Civility in America survey, Weber Shandwick found that 68 percent of Americans felt there was a civility problem in the nation. But some 89 percent of the respondents called their places of employment very or somewhat civil, even a refuge. And perhaps they need to be; this is the one place where all races, religions, and ages congregate and need to get along for a common goal.

“I think this is a really interesting point. The workplace might be one of the last places where people come together from all views and backgrounds and identities because, in almost all the other places in our lives, people have tended to pigeonhole into communities that look like them, think like them,” said Cawley. “And those places are not going to work smoothly and productively if you have cancel-culture and other polarizing elements creeping into the workplace.”

But it’s not just a matter of what workplaces shouldn’t be. It’s what they could be. Companies could be leaders in helping employees better understand—and value—what it means to be engaged as a civic-minded citizen.

The health of civics education is “quite bleak,” Cawley said in the introduction to the paper. Research by Educating for American Democracy found that the federal government spends an average of $50 per student on STEM curriculum, compared to five cents per student on civic education. The findings led the foundation to launch a public relations campaign aimed at convincing corporations that supporting civics education was not only their civic responsibility but in their own best interest.

In many workplaces, it’s already being done. Paid days off to vote, or to fulfill jury duty. Some companies encourage time off for community service or volunteering at the polls. There could be employee resource groups or town-hall-style meetings, Cawley suggests, to provide information and context behind the basics of civic engagement and why it matters. “Communicate how important it is to be an engaged citizen, that it’s our obligation as citizens to make this whole thing work,” she said. “It’s not telling people what to think, or how to vote, but to be involved — that we aren’t going to be successful as a country if you don’t understand how this all works.”

And how does civic education play a role in rebuilding that trust, engagement, and strengthening our democracy? Civic educational programs can help reduce polarization, increase community volunteerism, and foster civil conversations around diverging viewpoints. Allstate, for one, developed an employee program called The Better Arguments Project, which with the Aspen Institute, helps people develop the tools to have better, more civil arguments. Sounds a lot like helping its employees bolster the critical skills of emotional intelligence.

With the support and buy-in of the private sector, the foundation believes, the country stands a better chance at healing the tenor of disagreements, distrust, and misinformation that are undermining the wellness of the country.

“We need to be much more self-aware and collaborative,” says Cawley. “We have democracy and capitalism, and civics is where the two meet. It’s a three-legged stool. They have to work together.”

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