Civics Education

Civics education is vital to our nation’s future, since, as scholars have noted, “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree”; youth who learn civic attitudes, skills and knowledge, reinforced by family and schools, are far more likely to be civically active all their lives. Civics education too often evokes images of musty courses asking students to memorize the number of representatives in the House of Representatives or how a bill becomes a law. Many organizations and individuals are realizing now that effective civics education is not just about memorizing knowledge, but also learning attitudes and skills. And various individuals are experimenting with curricula that makes civic education a lot more relevant and hands-on: for example, an inner-city school class learning about civics by trying to getting night lights for a local basketball court through testifying, writing letters, meeting with representatives, etc. Civics classes, when effective, teach civic knowledge together with actionable civic skills (like organizing a meeting, making a public speech or writing letters to the Editor, persuading others) and civic attitudes and habits that lead youth throughout their lives to use these skills and attitudes by being more engaged in their communities. Various groups have been active in trying to resuscitate civics education, for example:
  • The American Political Science Association's Task Force on Civic Education released Democracy At Risk (2004), recommending how we might revitalize the teaching of civics education. [Here is a list of civics resources available from APSA.]
  • George W. Bush's administration actively explored how to revive civics education and a description of these efforts and the form it might take. They initially proposed putting it in a State of the Union address but then removed it. [See“Revival in Civics Education Is Explored”, Dana Milbank, Washington Post, 5/12/02)


Interesting research on civics education:

Nathaniel Leland Schwartz did a thesis called “Civic Disengagement: The Demise of the High School Civics Class” (Harvard senior thesis, 2002) describing a shift in civics education that occurred between 1960 and 1980, where “American Government” courses started being offered in place of “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy” courses. American Government classes were much more about learning facts like “How a Bill Becomes Law” and were originally viewed as a useful supplement to the more skills-based “Civics” or “Problems of Democracy” classes. His thesis suggests that simply requiring more schools to offer the type of civics education they are currently offering will be insufficient, unless the content changes to focus equally on developing the skills of civic engagement. Nathaniel Schwartz is planning on developing a shorter summary of his thesis for a magazine.

David Campbell’s research shows interesting evidence of the staying powerful of the school climate on long-term civic involvement, as the students become adults.  Some further description of civics education can be found in Campbell’s paper in the Fall 2001 issue of Education Next, "Bowling Together."

Actor Richard Dreyfuss has taken up the cause of civic education; see "The Education of Richard Dreyfuss" (Boston Globe, 2/2/07) and "Actor Wants to Bring Back Civics" (ABC News, 12/3/06) for more information. Dreyfuss has also spoken on ABC's Real Time with Bill Maher and lectured on civics at Oxford University in England.

Other interesting papers on this or related topics can be found in the following books/articles:

William Galston, “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education,” (unpub. ms., in Political Science: The State of the Discipline, Ira Katznelson and Helen Milner, eds. [2002])

James Youniss, Jeffrey A. McLellan, and Miranda Yates, “What We Know about Engendering Civic Identity,” American Behavioral Scientist (March/April 1997): 620-631.

Ted Halstead, "A Politics for Gen-X," Atlantic Monthly (August 1999), [part 1 and part 2].

Wendy M. Rahn and John Transue, “Social Trust and Value Change: The Decline of Social Capital in American Youth, 1976-1995” Political Psychology, vol. 19 (September 1998): 545-565.

Laxmi Ramasubramanian and Asma Ali, "E-Planning with Youth: Creating Spaces of/for Engagement" (2004) describes the Chicago Placeworx project that aims to involve low-income youth in community planning, in cooperation with faculty and graduate students at the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago and staff/ students from the Yollocalli Youth Museum, a youth initiative of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen.


Links to useful organizations

CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at University of Maryland has a lot of useful information on civics education and other topics relating to youth civic engagement. They have also collaborated with the Carnegie Corporation on an interesting and useful publication called The Civic Mission of Schools. CIRCLE's work includes research on:

See also some interesting research on the impact of civic education and the components of civic education.

The American Political Science Association’s Standing Committee on Civic Education and Engagement has useful information.

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