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A Blueprint for Creating Active and Engaged Civic-Minded Students

After decades in education, Bill Honig has turned his focus to using storytelling to improve civic learning in California—and America

Bill Honig has seen a lot of change in his lifetime—especially in schools.

From attending elementary school at the end of World War II to marching with his children to protest the Vietnam War to today’s intense debates over how to teach American history, Honig has witnessed how the country’s public schools serve as a forum for some of its most important debates.

“I’ve always been interested in the democratic ideals behind American education,” he tells The Elective. “Where did these ideas come from, why are they so important, and how do we teach them in a big and diverse country today?”

After working as a community organizer and lawyer, Honig began what he describes as a decades-long “romance with education,” teaching fifth grade in his native San Francisco. He was appointed to the California State Board of Education in 1975, served as California State Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1983–1993, and later chaired the California Instructional Quality Commission, which developed the California History/Social Studies Framework. In 1995, he cofounded Consortium on Reading Excellence as a way to address “California’s crisis in reading achievement and to the systemic instructional inequities that most impacted students of color.”

Honig has now turned his attention to civic renewal. He’s a founding board member of Californians for Civic Learning, a group advocating for a more hands-on, story-driven approach to teaching students about democracy. Honig believes that civic education, if it’s done well, can inspire and unite people from very different parts of the political spectrum.

“The whole reason for public education was to develop citizens,” Honig said. “You respect each individual student. You show that it’s possible to confront controversial issues without trying to divide people.”

Honig recently spoke with The Elective about the state of civic education, student activism, and how to cut through ideological polarization to build better outcomes.

Bill Honig headshot

Bill Honig

When you think about improving civic education, what kind of changes do you want to see in classrooms?

When we say “civic engagement,” we’re really talking about a broader concept. It’s understanding democracy and democratic habits, being able to talk to each other and listen. Participating in school elections is a good start. Researching your own community, its needs and challenges, and what you can do about them is an excellent way to get students interested in civics.

There’s a tendency to look at history and civics analytically and to examine it intellectually. That’s important, but that’s really a university orientation. For younger kids, it’s important to create an emotional attachment to some of these ideas and the way that public policy can connect to their own lives and stories.

Having hands-on projects and discussing controversial issues, things that feel real to your students, is so important. You learn democratic habits that way. Listening to people, using facts to support your point of view, and changing your mind if someone convinces you—all of these things should be built into an engaging civics curriculum. It’s not just a class on how a bill becomes a law in the 12th grade. It has to be much more active and relevant to everyday life.

Young people are often interested in activism as a way to make change in the world. How do you connect that to civic education to ensure they learn how to shape democratic institutions?

You want every child going through the school system to feel invested in democratic ideas; to understand what they are and feel a deep emotional connection to them. Each generation needs to preserve democracy, and students need to know that they carry that responsibility, too.

Part of developing a love of the country and attachment to America is showing where we haven’t lived up to our ideals. That has to be part of our civic and historic understanding. The Civil Rights Movement and fight against Jim Crow, the oppression of Native Americans, discrimination against immigrants—and you can go even further to talk about the fight for labor rights, about railroads against farmers, about trust-busting. There’s a lot of injustice, and you want to instill a passion for righting wrongs and fighting injustice.

You might have a different opinion about what’s wrong or unjust today, but you want students to be advocates for the things they care about. You want them to apply it all through their lives, and you want to show that those fights can be waged within our democratic system.

Black and white photo of Bill Honig, on left, speaking with three students in an office

The College Board Review

Bill Honig, in his role as superintendent of California schools, speaking with students from the Los Angeles Unified School District, in 1984.

We’re living through a very polarized era. It often feels like the most extreme voices are dominating conversation. How do you break through the noise to advocate for something different?

I think it can because it’s a concern that people share across a broad spectrum. I belong to a group called Californians for Civic Learning, and we have liberals, conservatives, people of very different points of view, all dedicated to preserving our democracy.

There is pushback from people in the middle against the more extreme voices. You see a whole bunch of different groups out there organizing conversations to find things they agree on. If you sit down with people, even the most vocal and vociferous, you usually find there are some bedrock agreements. That gets the conversation going.

You can’t just argue against these extreme points of view because you can’t beat something with nothing. You have to say what you’re for. We’re for tolerance, equality, respect for all people. These are concepts that don’t just come naturally; you have to really work on them.

Most parents are for these things. They want their kids to be taught tolerance and compassion and magnanimity, the pursuit of justice. So this makes sense to them.

There is a basic belief in this country’s ideals and democratic processes. This is the first mass, diverse country that has so far held together, and we hope it stays that way. But you can’t take it for granted. You’ve always got to protect the ideals that make the American experiment work.

You’re a big advocate of using biography as a teaching tool, of focusing on personalities and not just abstract concepts. Why?

The stories and narratives you teach in schools are so important. Kids relate to narratives. Biographies of people, seeing the breadth of experience that people go through and how they overcome the challenges in their lives. All of that is powerful. If you study Martin Luther King, it’s not just the intellectual understanding of what he did and what he fought for that moves and inspires. You come to respect him and feel an emotional response to his story, to his struggle. The same is true of Lincoln: what he stood for, what he went through, his personal background, his sacrifices. That’s a story; that’s a narrative.

When I was in high school, I read a book called Microbe Hunters. It was all about the individuals who identified different diseases and how they’re caused. Even if you’re not initially intrigued by the science, you get attached to those people and excited about what they did. You end up learning the science because there’s an emotional connection to the people and their stories.

I think these biographies and stories should be included all the way through the curriculum—they’re so powerful in keeping students engaged. You don’t just teach reading; you teach literature and biography as a way of exploring these big ideas. We’re teaching you to attach to really powerful ideals, and this is one of the ways to do it.

What lessons can a student learn from your story? What can they do to make a similar difference on issues that matter to them?

You need to really be interested in the world. Liberal arts have now gone out of style a little bit, but you need to read a lot and understand a lot about the world and people and how they act. The broader your perspective, the better your life is going to be.

I didn’t really decide what I wanted to do until I was 29 or 30, and I had to do it against the wishes of my family. I think marching to the beat of a different drummer is important, and you need to give yourself a chance to try out different things to find out what matters to you.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.