Citizenship Education

Many people often refer to civics education, citizenship education, and education for democracy interchangeably. Despite the common uses of these terms, I want to more carefully distinguish their differences. A course now available only in a small portion of American schools, some readers may recall taking civics during high school. The closest course that exists in some schools today is US Government. Civics courses were established in schools during the Progressive Era. At the time, civics textbooks spoke directly to students about how to be politically and civically active, whereas today’s US Government textbooks are more likely to objectively describe the details of how government works, such as its branches and its procedures for making laws. Political science, a companion discipline to civics, was also intended to increase civic and political participation in the early 1900s. It, too, has changed considerably, increasingly becoming an empirical discipline that measures civic and political life rather than a normative discipline that provides guidance on how to be better citizens.8

Over the years, the teaching of civics courses moved away from the Progressive Era approach and, by the 1950s, became more straightforward, concerned with teaching about citizens’ rights and responsibilities in relationship to government. It is this type of course that many American adults recall today. Characterized as “traditional civics education,” this project was largely conformist in nature, endorsing a Hobbesian view of inculcating obedient citizens into a state that provides stability and security. It was primarily apolitical in appearance in that it was aimed at incorporating new citizens into the existing structure, rather than teaching young Americans to question or change the order of power. It did so through a tedious focus on governmental laws and procedures accompanied by increasing patriotic sentiment prompted by World War II, McCarthyism, and the Vietnam War. At times, especially during war, traditional civics education upheld blind patriotism, which emphasized allegiance and silenced dissent.9

As civics education shifted in the 1980s, it began to focus more narrowly and formally on individual rights, with an extensive focus on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution as grantors and guarantors of those rights. Certainly, these founding documents and discussions of the rights they provide are educationally worthwhile endeavors that help students develop an American identity that revolves around shared values expressed in our rights. Problematically, however, an intense focus on the rights of individuals, especially understood as entitlements granted by established documents rather than ongoing citizen work or commitments, may make one indifferent to actual political life, unless it infringes on one’s own rights or desires. This kind of citizen may become primarily concerned with herself and what she believes she deserves, not with working with others to secure collective well-being. This shift in civics education occurred partially alongside and partially in response to the proliferation of rights talk in America, and it may have worked to further that focus. Such an approach to citizenship development lacks a sense of civic responsibility that is tied to care for others and leads to public action, the very type of responsibility that I have laid out in these pages as an important reciprocal component to rights, and which I have described as future-directed and concerned with upholding democracy.

The broader term “citizenship education” has more recently been used to go beyond the mid- to late-twentieth-century idea of civics education, with its narrow focus on rights and government structures. Instead, citizenship education denotes considering how best to live one’s public and private life in the context of others in one’s local, and increasingly global, community. Citizenship education encompasses learning about government, but goes beyond that to account for other places where community members interact, such as churches and public meeting spaces. In this way, it is concerned with understanding civil society and preparing children to participate in it.

The final term, “education for democracy” is the most all-encompassing and includes not only school-based learning about government and one’s role within it, but also learning, inside and outside school, the skills of communication and transaction so that individuals know how to recognize, value, and improve the conditions of associated living. Although my overarching concern is with educating for democracy, the platform I put forward in this book is more confined to citizenship education. Citizenship education takes place most overtly within schools, and most of my discussion of it has been so positioned. But citizenship education should not be understood as taking place only in schools. Quite to the contrary, it should extend beyond school walls, bringing the outside world of civil society into the classroom and bringing new learning to bear on the surrounding real world.

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