Citizenship Education

Educating Citizens in the U.S.

Presented at the Citizen Education Forum of League of Women Voters of Columbia-Boone County, MO

April 11, 2017


Presented by:

Susan Adler, Professor Emerita

University of Missouri-Kansas City


What I would like to do today is, first, to present a very brief overview of citizenship education in the U.S. historically and currently.  More importantly, I will argue for my understanding of what good education for citizenship might look like.  Please note, first, that I use the term citizenship education and not civics.  Civics, as I understand the term to mean the study of government, is included in citizenship education, but I intend to argue that educating citizens is a broader calling than simply the teaching of civics.  Second, I will try to be very brief about a subject I could ramble on about in some detail; I will, of course, miss a lot of nuance and contradiction, but that should not obscure my main points.   And third, let me note, that even the definition of “citizenship,” and certainly, what it means to be a “good citizen,” are highly contested.  And so, of course, how to educate citizens is hotly debated.


First, a bit of history.  And here I am going to use a very basic definition of “citizenship,” that is, a citizen is a member of a state or nation with the right to participate in governance and decision-making.  Sovereignty rests with the people, not a king or emperor, for example.  Very early in U.S. history, schools became important partners in building the new nation; enabling native born and immigrants to learn what it meant to be a member of a democratic republic; please recall that this was a rather experimental form of governing at that time. Horace Mann, considered by many as the “father of public education” in the U.S., looked to public schooling as a way to socialize citizens to a shared set of political values.  “Socialize:” to fit in, become a member of the status quo. He probably spoke more about “civic virtue” and character, than about responsible decision-making.  And I’ll return to that notion of the extent to which citizenship education ought to be about socialization.


By the early 20th century, educating citizens continued as an important function of schools.  This was a time of massive immigration and schools were seen as a major player in enabling immigrants to learn the rights and responsibilities of citizens – again socializing.


Early in the 20th century, citizenship education came to be seen as the particular province of social studies (whether courses in history and the social sciences or as an integrated course).  In fact, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) today emphasizes this important role when they state that the primary purpose of social studies is informed decision-making for the public good.  Notice, the emphasis is not so much on socializing as informed decision-making.  NCSS advocates for the promotion of civic competences – knowledge, intellectual processes, and democratic dispositions – required to be an informed participant in public life.


However, in the 20th century, except for social studies, there seems to have been a shift in school goals and policy, or at least in what we emphasize.  Even in the very early days of public education, the goals of education certainly included economic ones.  We were raising children to be good workers as well as good citizens.  But by mid-twentieth century, and certainly by the 1980s, policy statements concerning education barely gave lip-service to goals of citizenship while global competitiveness took center-stage.  So citizenship has remained a theme in policy expectations of schools, or at least public schools.  But these days, it’s a minor theme.


But a more important concern should be what is actually taught under the label of educating citizens?  In fact, there is actually a good deal of debate about what it means to be an effective citizen.  Remember that citizenship grade you got in elementary school?   That probably did not signify that you were an informed decision-maker (an NCSS goal).  It meant you were well-behaved.  Like Horace Mann, many still argue that educating citizens means socializing them to the status quo. However, there are those who argue that educating citizens should it aim at transforming and even reconstructing society.  Many would say that there must be elements of both socialization and counter-socialization.   While this may send contradictory messages, I believe those very contradictions may be necessary to education in a democratic society.  Young people should learn to be members of society, to know, and generally abide by, the rules and the norms.  But in a democratic society, we also have the obligation to work toward justice and a common good.  And that can mean going counter to expectation and the status-quo.


What really happens in schools?  It’s difficult to generalize across 50 states and more than 15,000 school districts as to the intended curriculum (the formal plans at the district and school level), much less the enacted curriculum (what really goes on in classrooms).  However, we can get some insights from several studies that have been published in recent years.[i]  In general, by middle and certainly high school, most students report having studied the Constitution.  They report having learned about the branches of government and the Bill of Rights.  Many seem to have learned a common narrative emphasizing expansion of rights through the struggles of social movements and individuals.  Most students take U.S. history, which generally takes a very political perspective.


It is even more difficult to generalize about how citizenship education is taught.  And the “how” matters greatly. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools[ii] identified six “proven” practices:

–         Explicit teaching of US history and government which explores not only facts, but which deals with public issues and is engaging

–         Discussion of current events and controversial issues

–         Service learning when connected to reflection and discussion of issues

–         Extra-curricular activities which focus on civic behavior and knowledge

–         Student participation in student government

–         Simulations of democratic practices (e.g. model Congress)


Notice, many of these are not about social studies classes, or even about any particular courses. As most of these strategies suggest, ultimately, we must return to the early vision of schooling in America – it is the job of schools to help prepare young people to take their places as citizens in a democratic republic.  It is more than the job of one course or one program.


And here I would like to get to my main point.  Citizenship education is not merely about preparation for the future – teaching young people that they will one day vote, for example.  Children, like adults, are members of social groups, of communities.  They are citizens (members) of their schools, families, neighborhoods.  And it is through these institutions, including and importantly schools, that young people learn the norms of liberal democracy: respecting the law, accepting the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints, understanding the importance of speech you disagree with.  John Dewey argued that the school should develop a in each child “social consciousness.”  Schools teach children how to be members of communities.  “… {A}ll education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race .”[iii]


To live in a Constitutional system, no matter what our ideologies or partisanship, means a fundamental commitment to the rules of the system; including how to change the rules.  But it means more than that. It means the set of norms that have developed around our democracy.  The Founding Fathers spoke of “republican virtue” [iv] – a commitment to high standards of behavior and to morality as the “necessary spring” (George Washington) of popular government.  They knew this was a difficult demand to make of people.  At the close of the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government had been created.  He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”


It is our schools, including but not limited to social studies classrooms that must have a commitment to “keeping the republic.”  Schools, I am arguing, have the responsibility to make the case for democratic institutions and an open society. There is some evidence that there has been a decline in support for democracy in the West.  From The Atlantic March 2017: “When [participants in the study] were asked to rate on a scale of 1 – 10 how essential it was for them to live in a democracy, 75% of Americans born in the 1930s chose 10, but the proportion dropped with each succeeding decade, falling to only about 30% for those born in the 1980s (p. 62).”


So what might citizenship education look like if we took it seriously?  Let me return to the list of effective practices noted above.  Young people need to learn about government and history – in ways that are engaging and which introduce them to the discussion of public issues.  That means that teachers, as well as learners, need to develop competence in leading and participating in discussions.  And by “discussion” I mean the give and take of ideas.  I mean respectful listening.  I mean using evidence to support your argument and listening to the evidence of others.  Young people need to be involved and engaged in real decision-making.  They need to have the experience of developing ideas, but not always succeeding in convincing others.  Extra-curricular activities can matter.   And they need to be able to explore the complexities of social justice.  Not everyone interprets justice in the same way; it’s not an easy concept.  So let’s talk about it.


Cynicism, fear, ignorance, perhaps, about the norms and expectations of democratic institutions, are, I believe, our biggest threat today.  In our schools, as well as in our families and other social institutions, we have to teach our children that lying, bullying and demeaning others, no matter how appealing the ends might appear, can destroy us as a democratic society.  Schools need to offer something better and to help people, young people and their parents, understand why the traditional norms of democracy are better than the alternatives. As John Dewey wrote:  Democracy has to be born anew every generation and education is the midwife.” [v]



[i] See, for example,  Hahn, C.L. (1999). Challenges to civic education in the United States.  In J. Tourney-Purta, J. Schwille, J.A. Amadeo (eds), Civic Education Across Countries: 24 Natiotional Case Studies from IEA Civic Education Project, 583-608. Amsterdam, Eburon Press.

[ii] CIRCLE and Carnegie Corportation of New York (2003). The Civic Mission of Schools. Available online at:

[iii] Dewey, John, (1897) My Pedagogic Creed.

[iv] Rauch, Jonathon (2017). Containing Trump.  In The Atlantic,  319(2), pp61- 65.

[v] The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy (1916)

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