The Next Wave of Civic Education

As democracy faces new challenges, both at home and abroad, the need to educate residents of our communities about their rights and responsibilities has returned to the front page of national concerns. “Civic Education is Having a Moment,” declared one recent article. Civic Learning Week, March 6-10, highlighted a host of examples, programs, curricula, formats, organizations, pieces of legislation, and methods of measurement relating to civic ed.

    • All of this attention is appropriate: civic ed is a national priority that has been overlooked and underfunded, with dire consequences for the state of democracy. But this is not just a matter of increasing overall support for it – there are also some big conceptual challenges facing civic ed including defining what is meant by citizenship* today, since that determines the kinds of knowledge and skills that need to be provided through civic ed.*As used here, “citizenship” is a concept describing the civic responsibility of an individual, without regard to whether they are a citizen in a legal sense.
  • Providing more opportunities for people to practice the skills and use the knowledge gained through civic ed.
  • Deciding on how to measure progress – both of individuals and communities – in gaining, using, and benefiting from civic ed.

Traditionally, civic education has been dominated by a limited vision of citizenship: good citizens were people who obeyed the law, read the newspaper to stay informed, helped their neighbors, and (above all) voted. But citizenship is now a moving target, for at least three reasons:

  1. There are rapid technological changes that effect what kinds of skills and awareness people need, as well as how they think about their roles in society;
  2. Looking more closely at how people are getting things done in their neighborhoods and communities, it is often found that people using skills and knowledge like community organizing or conflict resolution that haven’t traditionally been taught in schools;
  3. There is rampant dissatisfaction with the current state of public life and institutions, but no clear picture of what people are moving towards.

These big abstract challenges produce some very concrete problems and hard decisions for people trying to advance civic education. For example:

  • The ability to successfully research a fact presented on social media may be a much more important civic skill than being able to name the three branches of government;
  • The awareness that democracies change over time, yielding new rights and responsibilities for community residents, could be considered an extremely valuable civic disposition;
  • Conflict resolution skills may be more important for people today than knowing how to contact your member of Congress.

To advance civic ed in America, there needs to be more funding, more staffing, and more support. But also, clarification on what is hoped to be achieved. Success in civic ed will depend on the answer to the question: What kind of democracy is wanted?


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