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Civic Education - What's Going On?

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

An Introspective Look at Where We Are and Where We Should Be.

There's little doubt that citizenship education in the United States is not what it once was--and the civic outcomes including such items as declining volunteerism and charitable contributions, and even the lack of civility to others readily demonstrate that fact. Although, I would posit that hope is not lost. Rather, now is the time to double down on our efforts and investments in civic education.

What kind of citizen do we want?

To answer the question of what is the curriculum for civic education, we must first answer the question: "what kind of citizen do we want?"

Joel Westheimer, acclaimed youth civic scholar, identifies three different types of good citizen: the personally responsible citizen (who acts responsibly in his community, e.g. by donating blood), the participatory citizen (who is an active member of community organizations and/or improvement efforts) and the justice-oriented citizen (who critically assesses social, political, and economic structures to see beyond surface causes).

The kind of citizen we want -moreover need- is a citizen who is educated, informed, and active- a hybrid of what Westheimer has defined: a personally responsible, participatory, justice-oriented citizen. Of course, as idealistic as this may seem, I believe it is possible.

The Georgia Center for Civic Engagement’s sole focus is educating and equipping students to be informed and active citizens. We’ve long used the tagline “Democracy is NOT a spectator sport…” and that is very true, but as in all sports, to play the game, you have to understand the rules.

I was in the marching band in high school. I am quite familiar with the football stadium, the turf, the 50-yard line. I know what it feels like to have my feet on the field—it was a second home to me. I attended four years of games (that’s 40 Friday nights under the lights)…and to be quite honest, I still don’t completely understand how football works. I mean I get the big picture: one goal is ours the other belongs to the opposing team, but I’m talking about the intricacies of it. I knew when it was time to yell (when everyone else did) and when it was time to pay the fight song, but had little understanding other than that. Football is a spectator sport (and so is marching band!), but Democracy is NOT!

How do we educate in a way to create the civic outcomes that we desire?

I have adopted the formula of success that increased civic knowledge yields increased civic identity/dispositions which yields to increased civic engagement. This theory has been tested in a handful of studies and is still being tested, but the underlying sentiment makes complete logic.

Civic knowledge refers to what is known about the American political processes, governmental institutions, and processes along with the rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship as well as the skills to understand and participate in the process. The concept of civic identity builds on Torney-Purta and Lopez’s (2006, p. 5) definition as “the dispositions and motivations necessary to be engaged, not merely passive participants” as it entails the establishment of individual and collective senses of social agency, responsibility for society, and political-moral awareness (Yates & Youniss, 1998; Youniss, McLellan & Yates, 1997). It is in this blended formula of civic development that I think it is possible to embody all three types of citizen as identified by Westheimer. This is particularly so if you view youth civic development in terms of a continuum rather than in a singular epiphanic event. With this view, one is always becoming that ideal citizen and knowledge, identity, and engagement growth together.

There is a lack of standardization in how these concepts are articulated. Kahne and Westheimer (2003) share this social insight on the view of many about civic education: A strikingly large number of school-based programs embrace a vision of citizenship devoid of politics. This is particularly true of the community service and character education initiatives that have garnered so much recent attention. These programs aim to promote service and good character, but not democracy. They share an orientation toward developing individual character traits (honesty, integrity, self-discipline, hard work), volunteerism, and charity and away from teaching about social movements, social transformation, and systemic change (p. 36).

The concept of social responsibility and volunteerism is gaining in popularity and can be found on many campuses in the form of service-learning activities. Another school of thought would resonate with the words of Fleming (2011) on civic education, “a curriculum for democracy is a curriculum for civic participation” (p. 48). Of course, broadly defined, civic participation would include voting, running for public office, and other forms of ‘connection’ within their communities, not only with politics (Menezes, 2003; Putnam, 1996). Downs (2012) asserts that “‘civic literacy’ requires adequate knowledge of basic political and social institutions and affairs as a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of citizenship” (p. 344).

In a speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2011) remarked,

“when it is done well, civic education equips students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century – the ability to communicate effectively, to work collectively, to ask critical questions, and to appreciate diversity.”

The founding fathers wanted a responsible and educated citizenry who would not only give back in service to their communities, but one that would also accept the burden of participation, which is why they created a representational democracy (Education & Loflin, N.D). Therefore, for the purposes of my work, the term civic education is defined as shared by Gibson and Levine (2003) defining civic education as “the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare young people ‘to be competent and responsible citizens” (p. 10). More specifically, Youniss (2011) identifies the chief aim of civic education is “more than acquiring a set of facts, learning about rights and obligations, and becoming an informed voter,” but moreover it is “coming to know how to function in a democratic system and working to sustain it for oneself and for others” (p. 102).

What we’re doing about it…

To borrow from the football analogy from earlier, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and speculate on the could’ve, should’ve, would’ves. In my mind, the easiest spot to start the conversation is recognize where we are—and go from there. If you want quantitative data that sets a baseline there are countless places to look—including the last NAEP Civics test. If you want qualitative data to give a baseline, just look at the lack of civility in which many folks act on opposing sides of political thought.

The old adage of how to get out of a hole…just quit digging…is very appropriate here. In fact, one could argue that simply doing something would be an improvement.

The Georgia Center for Civic Engagement’s educational philosophy is deeply rooted in John Dewey’s principle of learning by doing. We believe (and our research supports) that students who engage directly with civic concepts though simulations and other experiential opportunities actually develop greater civic knowledge and civic identity than those students who only have traditional methods.

Our commitment is to lead the way in Civic Education in Georgia by regularly identifying strategic partners, deploying resources for both students and educators, and by providing opportunities for students to engage with the curriculum.


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