Jun 26, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The Importance of Civic Education

Schoolhouse Rock: I'm just a bill

In many ways the difficulties of American education system, compounded by scapegoating of educators and resistance to changing dated standards present a rather bleak future for the future of the US.  Sadly regardless of the sea of rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle and constant concern about how the kids of today will support the elderly of tomorrow, politicians seem almost universally uninterested in investing in education.  Yet contrary to our oft lamented failings in math and science, I feel there is no subject young Americans are done more of a disservice on than the loss of civic education.

There’s little question that in recent decades US support of civic education has plummeted, through the 1970s education in civics was the standard for high school students.  Just two decades later few if any Americans received education in the workings of their nation or broader concepts of civic responsibility.  What strikes as particularly unfortunate is that the decay of civic education is likely tied to the impact of civically active Americans in periods of discontent and dissent from the status quo.

Notably civic education as it is currently understood in the US was initially brought into existence in effort to “Americanize” the waves of new US immigrants prevalent throughout 20th century history.  Yet a return to a civically educated populace seems nowhere on the menu despite the current national panic over immigration.  As we study democracy and systems of governance, it never ceases to amaze just how often political thinkers focus upon the importance of civil society.  In many ways this focus on civil society is well deserved, since public awareness and activity play a critical role in any functioning democracy.  Reluctance to vote, disgust in our political system and broad ignorance of the political subjects we are bombarded with serves a purpose as well; unfortunately it is very difficult to recognize that purpose as anything democratic.

Despite our failings there is no shortage of civic activity in the United States, however comforting it may be to look back on “better days” public engagement and activity over social issues continues to thrive even if not regularly publicized.  Neglecting to impart understanding of civics on the young seems just one more effort at undermining future change, or progress in our nation.  After all one of the most positive things democracy has to offer is the idea that if the populace is displeased with the current state of affairs, there is an intended and legal way to bring about change.



  • Great post, Imara. If students don’t learn the basic concepts of citizenship in a democracy (including the fundamental concept of popular sovereignty) and how our system of government works, it’s hard to see how they will be responsible democratic citizens as adults. Political knowledge in the US is very low. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t erode our institutions.

  • Thanks Barak, at times it can be hard to know whether or not any given issue is as bad as people make it out to be but I suspect that the decay of civic education is a pretty legitimate problem with potentially dire consequences for the future. Not only is political knowledge very low but its also become thoroughly acceptable to be ignorant of and uninterested in the political process.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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