Civic Learning

“At the dawn of the twenty-first century, America faces many challenges, both at home and abroad. Too often, however, our democracy, the very system that should be able to address those challenges, seems to fall short. A divided citizenry, Washington gridlock, an often superficial media, and the overwhelming influence of money in politics often
prevent government from serving the common good.

While there is no single solution that alone can revitalize our democracy, there is one
common-sense step our nation can take to strengthen it. Too often overlooked by
politicians, educators, and civic engagement advocates, investing in civic learning strengthens American democracy.

Self-government requires far more than voting in elections every four years. It requires
citizens who are informed and thoughtful, participate in their communities, are involved in the political process, and possess moral and civic virtues. Generations of leaders, from America’s founders to the inventors of public education to elected leaders in the twentieth century, have understood that these qualities are not automatically transmitted to the next generation—they must be passed down through schools. Ultimately, schools are the guardians of democracy.

Improved civic learning can address many of our democratic shortfalls. It increases the democratic accountability of elected officials, since only informed and engaged
citizens will ask tough questions of their leaders. It improves public discourse, since knowledgeable and interested citizens will demand more from the media. It fulfills our ideal of civic equality by giving every citizen, regardless of background, the tools to be a full participant.

Despite these obvious benefits, a majority of America’s schools either neglect civic
learning or teach it in a minimal or superficial way (too often as an elective). The
consequences of this neglect are staggering, but unsurprising. On a recent national
assessment in civics, two-thirds of all American students scored below proficient. On the same test, less than one-third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and fewer than one in five high school seniors were able to explain how citizen participation benefits democracy. Despite the highest levels of voter turnout in over forty years, the 2008 presidential election witnessed nearly one hundred million Americans who were eligible to vote but did not.

A large body of research demonstrates the tangible benefits of civic learning. First and foremost, civic learning promotes civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions—research makes clear that students who received high-quality civic learning are more likely than their counterparts to understand public issues, view political engagement as a means of addressing communal challenges, and participate in civic activities. Civic learning has similarly been shown to promote civic equality. Poor, minority, urban, or rural students who do receive high-quality civic learning perform considerably higher than their
counterparts, demonstrating the possibility of civic learning to fulfill the ideal of civic equality.

Research also demonstrates non-civic benefits of civic learning. Civic learning has been shown to instill young people with the “twenty-first century competencies” that
employers value
in the new economy. Schools that implement high-quality civic learning are more likely to have a better school climate and are more likely to have lower
dropout rates
.”

Taken from the “Guardian of Democracy Report