Tag Archives: civic education


I used to introduce my undergraduate Law and Public Policy class by administering a test–20 questions drawn from the citizenship test immigrants have to pass in order to become U.S. citizens.

I stopped because it was too depressing. Foreign students regularly passed the test; native-born students just as routinely failed it. So I’ve been intrigued by the recent effort to require American kids to pass the test in order to graduate from high school. Arizona was the first state to pass such a measure, and Sen. Kruse has advocated doing so in Indiana. 

Similar measures are under consideration in 15 states, according to Sam Stone, political director for the Civics Education Initiative, an Arizona-based non-profit group that is lobbying for the civics test across the country.

Stone told the newspaper that about 92 percent of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship pass the test on their first try, but as few as 5 percent of high school students passed the test.

“Those are really poor numbers,” he said. “No matter how much knowledge you have, if you don’t know how to use that knowledge within our system of government, it’s not much good,” he said. “Our government was designed to be run by informed, engaged citizens. We have an incredibly dangerous form of government for people who don’t know how it works.”

No kidding!

So what are the pros and cons of requiring the citizenship test? The biggest pro is pretty obvious: it shines an important light on this country’s abysmal neglect of civic education. At the very least, students will have to learn the material covered by the test. If the past few years of high-stakes testing have shown us anything, it is that we don’t teach anything that isn’t tested.

And that leads to the “con.” A quibble, really.

In this era of “reform,” schools teach to the test, and a number of the questions on this particular test have a very tenuous connection to how our government actually works. (Knowing the date the Declaration of Independence was signed is nice, but distinguishing between the Declaration and the Constitution and understanding the role of each is more central to informed citizenship.) I would hope that passage of the measure–which I support!–would include a provision for updating the test as research gives us more information about what sorts of knowledge correlate most closely to civic participation and literacy.

But by all means, let’s send the message to young Americans that we expect them to actually know something about the country they will ultimately control.





Ignoring Civics at DOE

The U.S. Department of Education has published draft priorities for discretionary grant programs for next year and has invited public comment.

The current draft includes 15 priorities–none of which is civic education.

To read the department’s priorities you can go here   and scroll down the page. On the upper-right-hand corner of the page you will see the words “Comment Now.” I hope everyone reading this will enter a comment. The deadline is July 24. Tell the Department of Education to include civic education as a priority.

National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) findings confirm that most of our students are not receiving a remotely adequate grounding in civics and government. Those findings are consistent with a massive amount of research documenting a widespread lack of knowledge about America’s political structure and government, and the omission of civic education from the draft priorities is inconceivable to me.

Basic civic knowledge operates like a common language–it allows us to communicate with each other. It is the foundation upon which so much else depends.

Please tell DOE that civics is essential, and that its omission is unacceptable!


Lots of Questions Worth Pondering

This weekend, our new Center for Civic Literacy hosted the first annual meeting of its National Advisory Committee–scholars and educators from around the country who are focused upon civic education. Our goal  was to emerge from the meeting with a more focused research agenda: a better grasp of what we do and don’t know and a clearer idea of the most urgent unanswered questions about America’s “civic deficit.”

It will take me several weeks to absorb everything I heard, but here–in no particular order–are some of the questions and observations that struck me as particularly weighty during our various sessions.

  • Can we say with any assurance that more and better information changes attitudes and behaviors? Educators certainly hope so, and marketing professionals who research advertising tell us that the more informed a consumer is, the more resistant she is to misleading framing in sales pitches, but we don’t know the extent to which information has this effect in more value-laden venues.
  • How do we inculcate what used to be (quaintly) called civic virtue? If–as one participant observed–American citizens have largely been transformed into consumers, where does that leave old-fashioned notions of civic duty?
  • How do we explain to the general public that civic literacy and civic skills are not simply concerned with affairs of government? Indeed, how do we achieve some measure of consensus about what such literacy and skills include? What is the content–the basic, minimal information– a citizen of 21st Century America needs in order to understand and navigate his environment?
  • How is the teaching of civic information and skills informed by the concept of civic identity?
  • Should teaching students how to evaluate the mountains of information and misinformation supplied by the Internet be considered a civic skill?

Perhaps the most penetrating question came from an eminent professor of Social Work, who asked “To what end are we engaging in civic education? What is the desired outcome? If we were wildly, improbably successful, how would the world change?”

How, indeed?

History, Cut to Fit

I have often used this blog to complain that Americans know very little about our country’s history and governing structures–not to mention science and economics. A couple of days ago, a friend shared an exchange that once again underscored the point.

One of my friend’s high-school classmates had responded to a Facebook post in which he had saluted Lilly Company’s support for Freedom Indiana, the group formed to fight the effort to constitutionalize Indiana’s existing ban on same-sex marriage. The classmate wrote:
 ”The Constitution is inscribed to articulate inalienable rights we already have by virtue of the Creator. It is not an instrument whereby we are given grant ourselves wishes, no matter how well-intentioned they may be; no matter how noble they may sound.”
Grammatical errors aside, this construction pretty much stands history on its head. As my friend responded:
“What you’re describing here is a theocracy. Because we live in a nation with people of many faiths and people with none, I’m glad we don’t govern ourselves that way. Also, the term “inalienable rights” is from the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. There is no mention of God, Creator, etc. in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights (except to say “the year of our Lord” near the signatures). Even if you want to talk “inalienable rights” with regard to HJR-6 in Indiana, two of those articulated in the Declaration of Independence are “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness.” I would suggest that by banning marriage for a subset of our fellow citizens, HJR-6 tramps on both of those “inalienable rights.”
My friend shared this exchange as confirmation that our concerns about widespread civic ignorance are valid. It certainly provides anecdotal confirmation of that concern. But it also raises some disquieting questions.
Would his high-school classmate see the world differently if he understood the history of America’s constituent documents? If he were familiar with Enlightenment philosophy, the writings of Hobbes and John Locke, the separationist beliefs of early religious figures like John Leland or Roger Williams? Or would he stubbornly “cherry pick” history and philosophy to make them conform to his own worldview? After all, it is enormously tempting to sift through biblical and constitutional texts to find support for our own prejudices, and right wing religious literalists aren’t the only people who do so.
Would we be able to communicate with each other more effectively if we shared a common understanding of the system we inherited–if we occupied the same reality? Or are we all so emotionally invested in our personal belief systems that we lack the openness required for genuine communication?
I have used my columns and blog to hammer at the importance of civic literacy, and I have warned of the dangers posed by our “civic deficit.” The establishment of a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI was based upon a belief that better civic education will provide us with a common language that will facilitate better communication, that better communication will lead to better policymaking, and that a common understanding of our roots will help ameliorate our toxic politics.
This exchange  between my civically savvy friend and his old high-school classmate reminded me that my premise could well be wrong. It may be that our very human desire to confirm our prejudices– and to deny inconvenient facts that are inconsistent with those prejudices–will always trump evidence contrary to our preferred realities.
Does education matter? Does it make a difference? We have to hope so.

Civic Identity, Civic Deficit: The Unanswered Questions

With Heather McCabe, J.D./PhD.            

The current concern over civic education and what might be called our “civic deficit” is founded upon a generally accepted belief that civic knowledge is an important foundation of democratic self-government. There is substantial research linking civic literacy—defined as knowledge of the constitutional and historic bases and current structure of American government–to civic participation and engagement, although definitions of both civic knowledge and civic engagement vary widely. Beyond those connections, however, we are left with a striking absence of empirical research on some very foundational questions: what do we mean by “civic literacy” and “civic knowledge”? Is there some essential, identifiable body of knowledge that civically literate people must know? Do people with and without such knowledge understand America differently, and if so, in what ways? How does informed participation differ from un- or misinformed engagement, and how do the outcomes differ? What evidence do we have to support the widespread belief that civic literacy matters, that there is some irreducible level of civic knowledge critical to the success of the democratic experiment?

There is no dearth of theory on the importance of informed citizenship. In their important book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters, Delli Carpini and Keeter cite Locke’s belief that it is the “obligation of all citizens to act in ways consistent with the public interest.” (p.29). Acting in the public interest requires understanding what the public interest is, and possession of sufficient information to make informed decisions about where it lies. In a letter written by James Madison to W.T.Barry, Madison emphasized the importance of civic knowledge, saying, “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps both.” For his part, Alexis de Toqueville believed that “each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills an develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy.” (Branson, 1998).

The emphasis placed on civic competence was one justification for the limited franchise that originally characterized U.S. government. The knowledgeable citizens Madison and de Tocqueville were describing were propertied white males, comparatively privileged and educated men who alone were deemed likely to possess the civic skills necessary to participation in self-governance. Michael Schudson argues that the concept of the “informed citizen” as we know it today did not really emerge until the end of the Progressive Era, with the rise of mass media and the ideal of universal public education. (Schudson, 1999) Prior to the 1890s, voters were handed their ballots by party functionaries, so-called “ticket peddlers,” who provided pre-printed slates of candidates. The voter did not mark the ballot; he simply placed the party’s “ticket” in the ballot box. Beginning in 1888, states began to adopt the “Australian” ballot, which was printed by the government and required a decision by the voter. As Schudson says,

“The Australian ballot shifted the center of political gravity from party to voter. Voting changed from a social and public duty to a private right, from a social obligation to party enforceable by social pressure to a civic obligation or abstract loyalty, enforceable only by private conscience. The new ballot asked voters to make a choice among alternatives rather than to perform an act of affiliation with a group.” (emphasis in original)

If the individual voter was to choose between alternatives, he (and it was still only “he”) needed to be informed, to understand what the alternatives represented and to have the skills needed to evaluate their consistency with American constitutional premises and the common good.

This belief in the importance of informed citizens—whether founded on Lockean philosophy or derived from the growing power vested in the voters—is now virtually universal. It has become an accepted axiom of political culture. While a few hardy souls dispute the nature and amount of knowledge needed for informed democratic participation (Levine, 2013), most political commentators accept the premise and profess their distress when faced with overwhelming evidence that large numbers of voters are woefully uninformed. As former Representative Lee Hamilton recently wrote,

The truth is, for our democracy to work, it needs not just an engaged citizenry, but an informed one. We’ve known this since the nation’s earliest days. The creators of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 thought the notion important enough to enshrine it in the state’s founding document: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, iffused generally among the body of the people,” they wrote, are “necessary for the preservation of rights and liberties.” (Center on Congress, 2003)

If democratic theory is correct, and a civically literate population is essential to liberal democratic self-governance, the concerns raised by available data are understandable and appropriate.  Research from a multitude of sources gives evidence of a widespread lack of constitutional competence and civic literacy in the United States. Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government (Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial Survey, 2007). Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2006). Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution (1998 National Constitution Center Survey). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies indicates that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.

These and many similar research findings clearly demonstrate that those surveyed are woefully ignorant of the subject matter on which they were being tested. What they do not show, however, is the materiality of that subject matter; that is, we have no empirical research that identifies a body of knowledge acquisition of which is essential to informed citizenship. We can certainly speculate: knowing the three branches of government and their respective duties, for example, certainly seems like the sort of civic information citizens need in order to cast an informed vote or otherwise participate in the political process. On the other hand, knowing the composition of the Supreme Court or the names of particular Justices, while desirable, is probably less critical. If we are going to engage in collective hand-wringing over the state of the democratic enterprise, it would seem prudent to identify those elements of civic knowledge that are demonstrably linked to informed citizenship.

It isn’t only the absence of empirical research on that question and many others that erects barriers to reasoned debate about our civic deficit. National efforts to improve civics education and civic literacy are also limited by the widespread belief that knowledge about our history and governing structures is of importance only in the political arena. There is less recognition of its theoretical and practical importance in other areas. In the age of the administrative state, anyone concerned with policy—from business enterprises regulated by the state, to medical researchers dependent upon government grants, to science teachers under pressure to teach religious doctrine in the classroom—quickly finds that knowledge of the nature and extent of the rules to which they are subject and the mechanisms that are available to them is a critical element of disciplinary competence. Increasingly, civic information and civic skills are required for effectiveness in arenas far removed from the political.

An example can be found in the field of social work.  Social workers frequently work with clients from vulnerable populations.  As a part of their work, social workers must advocate within institutions and systems (governmental agencies, regulated organizations) in order to assist their clients in obtaining needed services.  In addition, social justice is a guiding principle of social work (Swenson, 1998; Breton et al, 2003; NASW, 1999) and social workers are expected to advocate within the policy arena when existing policies are not meeting their clients’ needs.   If social workers need to address a policy, either at an individual client level or a system level, they must have the requisite civic knowledge to do so.  They must understand the difference between a legislative statute and an administrative policy.  Additionally, they need to be able to identify whether the policy is a federal, state, or local issue.  If social workers do not have the basic civic knowledge needed to parse out these details, they are unable to appropriately advocate on behalf of their clients.  The same need for civic understanding applies to any enterprise that interacts with government at any level, or is subject to government regulation. Civic competency is necessary for any person, industry or organization seeking to have an impact on the policy environment within which it operates.

Beyond the underappreciated practical importance of civic knowledge to professional practices and business operations of various kinds, beyond the more widely recognized concerns about connections between civic literacy and democratic stability, the sociological literature suggests that the existence of a common body of civic knowledge may play an even more vital role in promoting civic cohesion, due to its function in promoting social capital and its centrality to what has been called “civic religion.” Work done in these areas has considerable relevance to questions about the role of civic literacy in a diverse polity.

References in the United States to social capital can be traced back to 1916 (Putnam, 2000), but widespread interest in the concept did not arise until the mid 1980s with Bourdieu (1986).  The concept was popularized in sociology by James Coleman (1988); it was introduced into general political discourse by Robert Putnam, primarily with the publication of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). While there are numerous definitions of social capital, there is general agreement that social capital develops and rests upon norms of trust and reciprocity (both specific and generalized), which develop between people in social networks. Social capital can also build solidarity, which develops as a product of common group fate. Social capital has been defined as either “bridging” or “bonding,” depending upon the “thickness” of the connections involved. Social capital is understood to facilitate coordination, reduce transaction costs, and enhance the flow of information. Civic engagement has been demonstrated to build social capital. (MacGillivray & Walker, 2000).

The term “civil religion” was first coined in 1967 by Robert N. Bellah, in an article for Daedalus that remains the standard reference for the concept. While the proper content of a civic religion has been and remains the subject of heated debate, the purpose of such an overarching value structure is to provide citizens with a sense of common purpose and identity. (Despite the claims of some conservative Christians, Christianity does not provide that social glue; the United States is not and never has been an officially Christian country, although it has been culturally Protestant, and the dramatic increase in religious and cultural diversity over recent decades makes Christian doctrine even less suited to such a task.) The importance of a common value structure, and its relevance to civic literacy, has been explained by one scholar thusly:

The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to deity, and specifically rejects the use of any religious test for citizenship or public office. In order to be consistent with the Constitution, any civil religion must respect the nation’s commitment to individual autonomy in matters of belief, while still providing an overarching value structure to which most, if not all, citizens can subscribe. This is no small task in a nation founded upon the principle that government must be neutral among belief systems. This constitutionally-required state neutrality has long been a source of considerable political tension between citizens intent upon imposing their religious beliefs on their neighbors and those who reject efforts to enforce religious hegemony. Thus far, no proposed value system or theorized civil religion has been entirely able to resolve that conflict. To the extent that Americans do endorse an overarching ideology or civil religion, it is a belief system based upon the values of individual liberty and equal rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. (emphasis added) (Kennedy, 2011)

We do have ample research showing that greater civic knowledge leads to greater civic engagement. (Galston, 2001; Galston, 2004; Milner, 2002) Civic engagement generates social capital, which connects Americans to each other with bonds of trust and reciprocity. While we have little empirical research on the role of civil religion, it is also believed to forge bonds between citizens and to facilitate the collective civic enterprise. Given America’s growing diversity, such a civic value structure necessarily rests upon our common constitutional values. Civic literacy –knowledge of American history, constitutional premises and governing structures—is thus a necessary component of civil religion, and to the extent that it fosters civic engagement, a generator of social capital.


We have ample research about what Americans do and do not know. What we need is research into the causes and consequences of that civic deficit. At a minimum, we need sound empirical investigation into the following questions:

  • What are the essential elements of civic literacy? That is, what is the content of a minimal level of civic knowledge necessary to effective citizenship?
  • What aspects of civic knowledge are most predictive of civic engagement, defined as regular voting, and political activism (work on a campaign, attendance at public meetings, and other indicators of civic involvement)?
  • With respect to those who are civically and politically active, are there measurable, meaningful differences between those who are civically-literate and those who are not?
  • Why have former efforts to improve citizenship education failed to have a lasting effect? What can we do differently in the future to make and sustain improvements?
  • Are there measurable differences in levels of civic literacy between identifiable groups? For example, are scientists more or less civically literate than lawyers? Are members of certain religions more or less literate than others? Are people who harbor homophobic or anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim opinions less civically literate than those who are more accepting of diversity?
  • What are the connections between civic literacy and mass media? How has the dramatic “morphing” of media, and the accompanying changes in the ways in which Americans access information affected levels of civic knowledge?

There are many other research areas we might suggest. These examples only begin to scratch the surface of a pressing research agenda that needs to be “operationalized” and pursued. But the answers to these and similar questions are an essential precondition to thoughtful action to address our civic deficit, and finding the scholars to address them and the resources to support those scholars is an increasingly critical task.

There is widespread recognition that our government institutions are broken. We will not fix them with exhortations alone. Doctors rely on accurate diagnoses in order to prescribe the right medicines; similarly, academics and concerned citizens must base our recommendations on credible empirical evidence. We can’t fix our systems—biological or political—until we really understand what has gone wrong and why.



Works Cited

Annenberg Public Policy Center. (2007). Annenberg Public Policy Center Judicial

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Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In J. Richardson, (Ed.) Handbook of Theory

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Branson, M. (1998). The Role of Civic Education: A Position Paper. Calabasas, CA. The

Center for Civic Education.


Breton, M., Cox, E.O. & Taylor, S. (2003). Social Justice, Social Policy, and Social

Work. The Social Policy Journal, Vol.2, Issue 1.  


Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.  The American

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Delli Caprini, M.X. & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans Know About Politics and Why

It Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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Galston, W.A. (2004). Civic Education and Political Participation. PS: Political Science

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Kennedy, S.S. (2011). Civil Religion. [Web Blog]. Retrieved from



Levine, P. (2013, January 17). What Did You Voters Know and Understand in 2012?

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MacGillvray, A. & Walker, P. (2000). Local Social Capital: Making it Work on the

Ground. In T. Schuller, Social Capital: Critical Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.197-211.


Milner, H. (2002). Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work.

University Press of New England


National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2006). NAEP-Civics 2006: The Nation’s

Report Card. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2007476.


National Association of Social Workers (1999). Code of Ethics of the National

Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from          http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp.


National Constitution Center. (1998). National Constitution Center Teens’ Poll.

Retrieved from http://ratify.constitutioncenter.org/CitizenAction/CivicResearchResults/NCCTeens’Poll.shtml


Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 19-20.


Schudson, M. (1999). The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life. Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press.


Swenson, C.R. (1998). Clinical Social Work’s Contribution to a Social Justice

Perspective. A Journal of the National Association of Social Workers, Vol.43, Issue 6. 


The Center on Congress. (2003, November 15). Why We Need An Informed Citizenry.

Bloomington, IN.