The Role of Civic Education

A Forthcoming Education Policy Task Force Position Paper from the Communitarian Network

September 1998

Margaret Stimmann Branson, Associate Director
Center for Civic Education

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. What is civic education?

  3. What are the essential components of a good civic education?

  4. Where and how does civic education take place?

  5. What evidence is there of the need to improve civic education?

  6. What is the relationship between civic education and character education?

  7. Policy Recommendations

  8. Conclusion



The Role of Civic Education

I. Introduction

Societies have long had an interest in the ways in which their young are prepared for citizenship and in how they learn to take part in civic life. Today that interest might better be described as a concern-in fact as a growing concern, particularly in democratic societies. There is evidence aplenty that no country, including our own United States, has achieved the level of understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities among the totality of its citizens that is required for the maintenance and improvement of any constitutional democracy.

In the past decade we have witnessed dramatic demands for freedom on the part of peoples from Asia to Africa and from Central and Eastern Europe to Latin America. And as we have seen one totalitarian or authoritarian regime after another toppled and fledgling democratic governments replace them, we may have become too optimistic about the future of democracy. We also may have become too complacent, too sure of democracy's robustness or of its long term viability. History, however, teaches us that few countries have sustained democratic governments for prolonged periods, a lesson which we as Americans are sometimes inclined to forget. Americans, of course, should take pride and confidence from the fact that they live in the world's oldest constitutional democracy and that the philosophical foundations underlying their political institutions serve as a model for aspiring peoples around the world. The "shot heard 'round the world" two centuries ago at the opening of the American Revolution continues to resound today, and it should remind Americans that free institutions are among humanity's highest achievements and worthy of their full energies and earnest devotion to preserve.

Americans also should realize that civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as "habits of the heart," the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited. As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy. Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a "machine that would go of itself," but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another.

Civic education, therefore, is-or should be-a prime concern. There is no more important task than the development of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. Democracies are sustained by citizens who have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Absent a reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed. It is imperative, therefore, that educators, policymakers, and members of civil society make the case and ask for the support of civic education from all segments of society and from the widest range of institutions and governments.

It is relatively easy for a society to produce technically competent people. But the kind of society Americans want to live in and the kind of government they want to have requires effort and commitment on the part of its citizens. Americans want a society and a government

Making that kind of society, that kind of government a reality is the most important challenge Americans face and the most important work they could undertake.

II.What is civic education?

Civic Education in a democracy is education in self government. Democratic self government means that citizens are actively involved in their own governance; they do not just passively accept the dictums of others or acquiesce to the demands of others. As Aristotle put it in his Politics (c 340 BC), "If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost." In other words, the ideals of democracy are most completely realized when every member of the political community shares in its governance. Members of the political community are its citizens, hence citizenship in a democracy is membership in the body politic. Membership implies participation, but not participation for participation's sake. Citizen participation in a democratic society must be based on informed, critical reflection, and on the understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities that go with that membership.

Civic education in a democratic society most assuredly needs to be concerned with promoting understanding of the ideals of democracy and a reasoned commitment to the values and principles of democracy. That does not mean, however, that democracy should be presented as utopia. Democracy is not utopian, and citizens need to understand that lest they become cynical, apathetic, or simply withdraw from political life when their unrealistic expectations are not met. To be effective civic education must be realistic; it must address the central truths about political life. The American Political Science Association (APSA) recently formed a Task Force on Civic Education. Its statement of purpose calls for more realistic teaching about the nature of political life and a better understanding of "the complex elements of 'the art of the possible'." The APSA report faults existing civic education because all too often it

seems unable to counter the belief that, in politics, one either wins or loses, and to win means getting everything at once, now! The sense that politics can always bring another day, another chance to be heard, to persuade and perhaps to gain part of what one wants, is lost. Political education today seems unable to teach the lessons of our political history: Persistent civic engagement-the slow, patient building of first coalitions and then majorities-can generate social change. (Carter and Elshtain, 1997.)
A message of importance, therefore, is that politics need not, indeed must not, be a zero-sum game. The idea that "winner takes all" has no place in a democracy, because if losers lose all they will opt out of the democratic game. Sharing is essential in a democratic society-the sharing of power, of resources, and of responsibilities. In a democratic society the possibility of effecting social change is ever present, if citizens have the knowledge, the skills and the will to bring it about. That knowledge, those skills and the will or necessary traits of private and public character are the products of a good civic education.

III. What are essential components of a good civic education?

What are the essential components of civic education appropriate for a democratic society? That question was addressed recently in the course of the development of the National Standards for Civics and Government. (Center for Civic Education, 1994.) More than 3,000 individuals and groups participated in the development and/or review process. Those voluntary standards which have been well received and critically acclaimed, not only in the country of their origin but in many other nations as well, identify three essential components: civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions.

Civic Knowledge

Civic knowledge is concerned with the content or what citizens ought to know; the subject matter, if you will. In both the National Standards and the Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which currently is underway in schools across the United States, the knowledge component is embodied in the form of five significant and enduring questions. These are questions that have continued to engage not only political philosophers and politicians; they are questions that do-or should-engage every thoughtful citizen. The five questions are:

  1. What are civic life, politics, and government?

  2. What are the foundations of the American political system?

  3. How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?

  4. What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?

  5. What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?
The choice of question format as a means of organizing the knowledge component was deliberate. Democracy is a dialogue, a discussion, a deliberative process in which citizens engage. The use of questions is intended to indicate that the process is never-ending, is an on-going marketplace of ideas, a search for new and better ways to realize democracy's ideals.

It is important that everyone has an opportunity to consider the essential questions about government and civil society that continue to challenge thoughtful people. Addressing the first organizing question "What are civic life, politics, and government?" helps citizens make informed judgments about the nature of civic life, politics, and government, and why politics and government are necessary; the purposes of government; the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited government; the nature and purposes of constitutions, and alternative ways of organizing constitutional governments. Consideration of this question should promote greater understanding of the nature and importance of civil society or the complex network of freely formed, voluntary political, social, and economic associations which is an essential component of a constitutional democracy. A vital civil society not only prevents the abuse or excessive concentration of power by government; the organizations of civil society serve as public laboratories in which citizens learn democracy by doing it.

The second organizing question "What are the foundations of the American political system?" entails an understanding of the historical, philosophical, and economic foundations of the American political system; the distinctive characteristics of American society and political culture; and the values and principles basic to American constitutional democracy, such as individual rights and responsibilities, concern for the public good, the rule of law, justice, equality, diversity, truth, patriotism, federalism, and the separation of powers. This question promotes examination of the values and principles expressed in such fundamental documents as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and landmark Supreme Court decisions. Study of the nation's core documents now is mandated by several states including California, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky. The United States Commission on Immigration Reform in its 1997 Report to Congress (U.S. Commission on Immigration, 1997), strongly recommended attention to the nation's founding documents saying:

Civic instruction in public schools should be rooted in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution-particularly the Preamble, the Bill of Rights, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Emphasizing the ideals in these documents is in no way a distortion of U.S. history. Instruction in the history of the United States, as a unique engine of human liberty notwithstanding its faults, is an indispensable foundation for solid civics training for all Americans.
Knowledge of the ideals, values, and principles set forth in the nation's core documents serves an additional and useful purpose. Those ideals, values, and principles are criteria which citizens can use to judge the means and ends of government, as well as the means and ends of the myriad groups that are part of civil society.

The third organizing question "How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?" helps citizens understand and evaluate the limited government they have ordained and established and the complex dispersal and sharing of powers it entails. Citizens who understand the justification for this system of limited, dispersed, and shared power and its design are better able to hold their governments-local, state, and national-accountable and to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected. They also will develop a considered appreciation of the place of law in the American political system, as well as of the unparalleled opportunities for choice and citizen participation that the system makes possible.

The fourth organizing question "What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?" is important because the United States does not exist in isolation; it is a part of an increasingly interconnected world. To make judgments about the role of the United States in the world today and about what course American foreign policy should take, citizens need to understand the major elements of international relations and how world affairs affect their own lives, and the security and well being of their communities, state, and nation. Citizens also need to develop a better understanding of the roles of major international governmental and non governmental organizations, because of the increasingly significant role that they are playing in the political, social, and economic realms.

The final organizing question "What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?" is of particular importance. Citizenship in a constitutional democracy means that each citizen is a full and equal member of a self governing community and is endowed with fundamental rights and entrusted with responsibilities. Citizens should understand that through their involvement in political life and in civil society, they can help to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods, communities, and nation. If they want their voices to be heard, they must become active participants in the political process. Although elections, campaigns, and voting are central to democratic institutions, citizens should learn that beyond electoral politics many participatory opportunities are open to them. Finally, they should come to understand that the attainment of individual goals and public goals tend to go hand in hand with participation in political life and civil society. They are more likely to achieve personal goals for themselves and their families, as well as the goals they desire for their communities, state, and nation, if they are informed, effective, and responsible citizens.

Civic Skills: Intellectual and Participatory

The second essential component of civic education in a democratic society is civic skills. If citizens are to exercise their rights and discharge their responsibilities as members of self-governing communities, they not only need to acquire a body of knowledge such as that embodied in the five organizing questions just described; they also need to acquire relevant intellectual and participatory skills.

Intellectual skills in civics and government are inseparable from content. To be able to think critically about a political issue, for example, one must have an understanding of the issue, its history, its contemporary relevance, as well as command of a set of intellectual tools or considerations useful in dealing with such an issue.

The intellectual skills essential for informed, effective, and responsible citizenship sometimes are called critical thinking skills. The National Standards for Civics and Government and the Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) categorize these skills as identifying and describing; explaining and analyzing; and evaluating, taking, and defending positions on public issues. A good civic education enables one to identify or give the meaning or significance of things that are tangible such as the flag, national monuments, or civic and political events. It also enables one to give the meaning or significance of intangibles, such as ideas or concepts including patriotism, majority and minority rights, civil society, and constitutionalism.

The ability to identify emotional language and symbols is of particular importance for citizens. They need to be able to discern the true purposes for which emotive language and symbols are being employed.

Another intellectual skill which good civic education fosters is that of describing. The ability to describe functions and processes such as legislative checks and balances or judicial review is indicative of understanding. Discerning and describing trends, such as participation in civic life, immigration, or employment helps the citizen fit current events into a longer term pattern.

Good civic education seeks to develop competence in explaining and analyzing. If citizens can explain how something should work, for example the American federal system, the legal system, or the system of checks and balances, they will be more able to detect and help correct malfunctions. Citizens also need to be able to analyze such things as the components and consequences of ideas, social, political, or economic processes, and institutions. The ability to analyze enables one to distinguish between fact and opinion or between means and ends. It also helps the citizen to clarify responsibilities such as those between personal and public responsibilities or those between elected or appointed officials and citizens.

In a self-governing society citizens are decision-makers. They need, therefore, to develop and continue to improve their skills of evaluating, taking, and defending positions. These skills are essential if citizens are to assess issues on the public agenda, to make judgments about issues and to discuss their assessment with others in public or private.

In addition to the acquisition of knowledge and intellectual skills, education for citizenship in a democratic society must focus on skills that are required for informed, effective, and responsible participation in the political process and in civil society. Those skills can be categorized as interacting, monitoring, and influencing. Interacting pertains to the skills citizens need to communicate and to work cooperatively with others. To interact is to be responsive to one's fellow citizens. To interact is to question, to answer, and to deliberate with civility, as well as to build coalitions and to manage conflict in a fair, peaceful manner. Monitoring politics and government refers to the skills citizens need to track the handling of issues by the political process and by government. Monitoring also means the exercising of oversight or "watchdog" functions on the part of citizens. Finally, the participatory skill of influencing refers to the capacity to affect the processes of politics and governance, both the formal and the informal processes of governance in the community.

It is essential that the development of participatory skills begins in the earliest grades and that it continues throughout the course of schooling. The youngest pupils can learn to interact in small groups or committees, to pool information, exchange opinions or formulate plans of action commensurate with their maturity. They can learn to listen attentively, to question effectively, and to manage conflicts through mediation, compromise, or consensus-building. Older students can and should be expected to develop the skills of monitoring and influencing public policy. They should learn to research public issues using electronic resources, libraries, the telephone, personal contacts, and the media. Attendance at public meetings ranging from student councils to school boards, city councils, zoning commissions, and legislative hearings ought to be a required part of every high school student's experience. Observation of the courts and exposure to the workings of the judicial system also ought to be a required part of their civic education. Observation in and of itself is not sufficient, however. Students not only need to be prepared for such experiences, they need well planned, structured opportunities to reflect on their experiences under the guidance of knowledgeable and skillful mentors.

If citizens are to influence the course of political life and the public policies adopted, they need to expand their repertoire of participatory skills. Voting certainly is an important means of exerting influence; but it is not the only means. Citizens also need to learn to use such means as petitioning, speaking, or testifying before public bodies, joining ad-hoc advocacy groups, and forming coalitions. Like the skills of interacting and monitoring, the skill of influencing can and should be systematically developed.

Civic Dispositions: Essential Traits of Private and Public Character

The third essential component of civic education, civic dispositions, refers to the traits of private and public character essential to the maintenance and improvement of constitutional democracy.

Civic dispositions, like civic skills, develop slowly over time and as a result of what one learns and experiences in the home, school, community, and organizations of civil society. Those experiences should engender understanding that democracy requires the responsible self governance of each individual; one cannot exist without the other. Traits of private character such as moral responsibility, self discipline, and respect for the worth and human dignity of every individual are imperative. Traits of public character are no less consequential. Such traits as public spiritedness, civility, respect for the rule of law, critical mindedness, and willingness to listen, negotiate, and compromise are indispensable to democracy's success.

Civic dispositions that contribute to the political efficacy of the individual, the healthy functioning of the political system, a sense of dignity and worth, and the common good were identified in the National Standards for Civics and Government. In the interest of brevity, those dispositions or traits of private and public character might be described as:

The importance of civic dispositions, or the "habits of the heart," as Alexis de Toqueville called them, can scarcely be overemphasized. The traits of public and private character that undergird democracy are, in the long run, probably of more consequence than the knowledge or skills a citizen may command. Judge Learned Hand, in a speech made in New York in 1944, captured the centrality of civic dispositions in his now famous words:

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

IV. Where and how does civic education take place?

Many institutions help develop citizens' knowledge and skills and shape their civic character and commitments. Family, religious institutions, the media, and community groups exert important influences. Schools, however, bear a special and historic responsibility for the development of civic competency and civic responsibility. Schools fulfill that responsibility through both formal and informal education beginning in the earliest years and continuing through the entire educational process.

Formal Instruction

Formal instruction in civics and government should provide a basic and realistic understanding of civic life, politics, and government. It should familiarize students with the constitutions of the United States and the state in which they live, because these and other core documents are criteria which can be used to judge the means and ends of government.

Formal instruction should enable citizens to understand the workings of their own and other political systems, as well as the relationship of the politics and government of their own country to world affairs. Good civic education promotes an understanding of how and why one's own security, quality of life, and economic position is connected to that of neighboring countries, as well as to major regional, international, and transnational organizations.

Formal instruction should emphasize the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a constitutional democracy. The Declaration of Independence, which many consider to be an extended preamble to the United States Constitution, holds that governments are instituted to secure the rights of citizens. Those rights have been categorized in various ways but a useful and generally accepted categorization divides them in this manner:

Instruction about rights should make it clear that few rights can be considered absolute. Rights may reinforce or conflict with one another or with other values and interests and therefore require reasonable limitations. The rights of liberty and equality, for example, or the rights of the individual and the common good often conflict with one another. It is very important, therefore, that citizens develop a framework for clarifying ideas about rights and the relationships among rights and other values and interests. This framework then can provide a basis for making reasoned decisions about the proper scope and limits of rights.

Formal instruction in civics and government should be no less attentive to the responsibilities of citizens in a constitutional democracy. An understanding of the importance of individual rights must be accompanied by an examination of personal and civic responsibilities. For American democracy to flourish, citizens not only must be aware of their rights, they must also exercise them responsibly and they must fulfill those personal and civic responsibilities necessary to a self-governing, free, and just society. Those responsibilities include:

Instruction about responsibilities should make it clear that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. Responsibilities are the other half of the democratic equation. A sense of personal responsibility and civic obligation are in fact the social foundations on which individual rights and freedoms ultimately rest.

The Informal Curriculum

In addition to the formal curriculum, good civic education is attentive to the informal curriculum. The informal curriculum encompasses the governance of the school community and the relationships among those within it, as well as the "extra" or co-curricular activities that a school provides.

The importance of the governance of the school community and the quality of the relationships among those within it can scarcely be overemphasized. Classroom and schools should be managed by adults who govern in accord with democratic values and principles, and who display traits of character, private and public, that are worthy of emulation. Students also should be held accountable for behaving in accord with fair and reasonable standards and for respecting the rights and dignity of others, including their peers.

Research has consistently demonstrated the positive effects of co-curricular activities. Students who participate in them are more motivated to learn, more self confident, and exhibit greater leadership capabilities. Further, a major new survey, the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health (1997), has found that "connectedness with school" is a significant protective factor in the lives of young people. "School engagement is a critical protective factor against a variety of risky behaviors, influenced in good measure by perceived caring from teachers and high expectations for student performance."

Fortunately opportunities for co-curricular activities related to civic education have been expanding in the United States, and they need to be even more encouraged. Some activities have become regional or national events such as mock elections, mock trials, and History Day. Two nation-wide programs developed by the Center for Civic Education have now involved more than 26 million students. We the People... The Citizen and the Constitution engages students in mock legislative hearings on constitutional issues, and Project Citizen teaches middle school students how to identify, research, and devise solutions for local problems, as well as how to make realistic plans for gaining their acceptance as public policies. Both We the People... and Project Citizen not only bring students into direct contact with government at all levels and with organizations in civil society, these programs have had other positive civic consequences as well.

During the Spring of 1993, Professor Richard A. Brody of Stanford University conducted a study of 1,351 high school students from across the United States. The study was designed to determine the degree to which civics curricula in general and the We the People... program in particular affect students' political attitudes. The study focused on the concept of "political tolerance." "Political tolerance" refers to citizens' respect for the political rights and civil liberties of all people in the society, including those whose ideas they may find distasteful or abhorrent. It is a concept which encompasses many of the beliefs, values, and attitudes that are essential in a constitutional democracy.

Among the most important findings of the Brody study were these:

Community service is another area of the curriculum in which increasing numbers of students are participating. Community service is in keeping with long established American traditions. It was more than a century and a half ago that Alexis de Toqueville was moved to write that "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition in life, are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations... but others of a thousand different types-religious, moral, serious, futile, very general, and very limited, immensely large and very minute." (de Tocqueville, 1969.) He marveled at Americans penchant for voluntary service to their communities and to causes in which they believed. The experience of getting involved in local voluntary associations, de Toqueville said, generated a sense of individual responsibility for the public good and inclined them to become "orderly, temperate, moderate, and self-controlled citizens."

Present day scholars tend to agree with de Toqueville's observations about the importance of voluntarism and of a vibrant civil society. Seymour Martin Lipset contends that

These associations of what has come to be known as civil society create networks of communication among people with common positions and interests helping to sustain the moral order, political parties, and participation. American... are still the most participatory, the most disposed to belong to and be active in voluntary associations of any people in the world. (Lipset, 1996.)
Estimates of the number of adult Americans who perform voluntary services vary. A study conducted by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia (Guterbock, 1997) found that about 44 percent of all adults had volunteered time in the preceding year. An earlier World Values Survey puts the number of Americans who are active in and do unpaid work for voluntary associations at "fully three fifths" of the adult population. Only about one quarter of the adults in Britain, Italy, or Japan do unpaid voluntary work, while less than a third do so in France or Germany.

The record of American youth for community service is of particular interest and is, in general, encouraging. In a recent study involving more than 8,000 students in grades six through twelve, about half of those interviewed reported participation in some type of service activity. Among those who participated regularly, 12 percent gave more that 30 hours and 19 percent more than 10 hours. Almost all (91 percent) of the students who participated in the 1995-96 school year indicated that they expected to continue to serve. (U.S. Department of Education, 1997.)

Among the more significant findings of that study of student participation in community service activities are these:

Community service can be an important part of civic education, provided it is properly conceived as being more than just doing good deeds. Community service should be integrated into both the formal and informal curriculum of the school. Community service is not a substitute for formal instruction in civics and government, but it can enhance that instruction. Schools, therefore, need to do more than make students aware of opportunities to serve their schools and communities. Students need to be adequately prepared for experiential learning. They need to understand the institution or agency with which they'll be engaged and its larger social and political context. Students need to be supervised and provided with regular opportunities to reflect on their experiences. In the course of reflection students should be asked to consider questions such as: Is this something government should do? Is this something better attended by private individuals or groups in the civil society sector? How might the school or community problems you have seen be ameliorated? In what ways might you personally contribute to the amelioration of those problems? What knowledge have you personally gained as a result of your experiences? What additional knowledge do you need to acquire in order to be better informed? What intellectual or critical thinking skills have you developed through this service learning activity? How have your skills of interacting, and of monitoring and influencing public policy been improved? How has your understanding of the roles of the citizen in a democratic society changed?

V. What evidence is there of the need to improve civic education?

The idea that American schools have a distinctively civic mission has been recognized since the earliest days of the Republic. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and others realized that the establishment of well-constructed political institutions was not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation to maintain constitutional democracy. They knew that ultimately a free society must depend on its citizens-on their knowledge, skills, and civic virtues. They believed that the civic mission of the schools is to foster the qualities of mind and heart required for successful government within a constitutional democracy.

Americans still believe that schools have a civic mission and that education for good citizenship should be the schools' top priority. The 28th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll conducted in 1996 asked respondents what they considered to be the most important purpose of the nation's schools, apart from providing a basic education. "To prepare students to be responsible citizens" was considered "very important" by more people than any other goal. Nationally 86 percent of those with no children in school and those with children in public schools were in agreement; the percentage in agreement shot up to 88 percent for nonpublic school parents. When Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup conducted a follow-up poll of just teachers the results were the same. (Landon, 1996.) Eighty four percent of America's teachers said "to prepare students for responsible citizenship was "very important," while another 15 percent called it "quite important."

A survey which compared results from the United States with those of eleven other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also is revealing. (U.S. Department of Education, 1997.) When Americans were asked which qualities or aptitudes schools consider "essential" or "very important," 86 percent said "being a good citizen." Unfortunately, when Americans were asked if they had confidence that schools have a major effect on the development of good citizenship only 59 percent said that they did. How justified is that lack of confidence? A brief review of recent research affords some disconcerting evidence.

VI. What is the relationship between civic education and character education?

Interest in and concern about character education and education for citizenship are not new in America. The two have always gone hand in hand. Indeed, the basic reason for establishing and expanding public schooling was to foster those traits of public and private character necessary for our great experiment in self-government to succeed.

In the early days of our republic, schools were expected to induce pupils to act virtuously. Acting virtuously meant more specifically that one should act with due restraint over his or her impulses, due regard for the rights and opinions of others, and reasonable concern for the probable and the long-term consequences of one's actions.

Virtue in individuals then was seen as an important public matter. "Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private..." said John Adams. Jefferson agreed with him saying "Public virtue is the only foundation of Republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest... established in the minds of the people, or there can be no Republican government, no any real Liberty." It is interesting to note that Adams' warning is echoed in the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS, 1996) Position Statement "Fostering Civic Virtue: Character Education in the Social Studies." That bold and well-written position statement concludes with these words:

Social studies teachers have a responsibility and a duty to refocus their classrooms on the teaching of character and civic virtue. They should not be timid or hesitant about working toward these goals. The fate of the American experiment in self-government depends in no small part on the store of civic virtue that resides in the American people. The social studies profession of this nation has vital role to play in keeping this well-spring of civic virtue flowing.
Character, however, does not come pre-packaged. Character formation is a lengthy and complex process. And, as James Q. Wilson (Wilson, 1995), a life-long student of character, reminds us; "We do not know how character is formed in any scientifically rigorous sense." But there is an abundance of anecdotal data and research on which to draw. Those observations and that research tell us that the study of traditional school subjects such as government, civics, history and literature, when properly taught, provide the necessary conceptual framework for character education. Further, those traditional school subjects provide a context for considering the traits of public and private character which are important to the maintenance and improvement of a democratic way of life.

Research also tells us that the ethos or culture of the school and of the classroom exert powerful influences on what students learn about authority, responsibility, justice, civility and respect. Finally, we know that one dynamic by which individuals acquire desired traits of private and public character is through exposure to attractive models of behavior. Probably no one has explained that dynamic better than Robert Coles in The Moral Intelligence of Children, (Coles, 1997). Coles tells us that:

Character is ultimately who we are expressed in action, in how we live, in what we do - and so the children around us know, they absorb and take stock of what they observe, namely us-we adults living and doing things in a certain spirit, getting on with one another in our various ways. Our children add up, imitate, file away what they've observed and so very often later fall in line with the particular moral counsel we unwittingly or quite unself-consciously have offered them....
Because the United States is the world's oldest constitutional democracy, it sometimes is easy to forget that our American government is an experiment. It is an experiment that requires, as the authors of the Federalist Papers put it, a higher degree of virtue in its citizens than any other form of government. Traits of private character such as moral responsibility, self-discipline, and respect for individual worth and human dignity are essential to its well-being. American constitutional democracy cannot accomplish its purposes, however, unless its citizens also are inclined to participate thoughtfully in public affairs. Traits of public character such as public-spiritedness, civility, respect for law, critical-mindedness, and a willingness to negotiate and compromise are indispensable to the continued success of the great American experiment in self government.

How can civic education strengthen and complement the development of character? Primary responsibility for the cultivation of ethical behavior and the development of private character, including moral character, lies with families, religious institutions, work settings, and the other parts of civil society. Schools, however, can and should play a major role in the overall development of the character of students. Effective civic education programs should provide students with many opportunities for the development of desirable traits of public and private character. Learning activities such as the following tend to promote character traits needed to participate effectively. For example,

VII. Policy Recommendations

School Level

National, State, and Local Level

VIII. Conclusion

Just months after taking office in 1989, President George Bush took a historic step. Bush asked the nation's governors to gather to consider ways and means of improving education. His call for a "summit" meeting was historic, because it was only the third time in history that a president had convened the governors for a substantive meeting. (Jennings, 1998).

In the United States education has traditionally been the responsibility of each state. The nation's governors, ever mindful of states' rights, have resented and resisted federal intrusions into what they have considered their domain. At this "summit" meeting, however, the governors conceded that education had to be improved and that the states by themselves could not effect the improvements that commission after commission and study after study had said was essential. Nor were the governors deaf to the clamor for educational reform coming from parents, employers, and the media.

The chief executives of the 50 states, including Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas and chairman of the National Governors Association education committee, believed that an appropriate starting point was to get agreement on what it was that the nation's schools ought to achieve. In their judgment the focus of America's schools should be sharpened and a declaration of purposes or a statement of national goals set forth. The governors, however, wanted the national goals to be more than verbiage or pious hopes. Progress toward the goals was to be measured against high standards and by testing at national and state levels. The standards were to specify what all students should know and be able to do when they completed grades 4, 8, and 12. The plan was greeted with applause from many segments of society-parents, educators, employers, and legislators. Diane Ravitch, a long time proponent of reform, was jubilant. She was later to say that she believed "what may well be an historic development had taken place. "Unlike most other modern societies, this nation has never established specific standards as goals for student achievement; those nations that do have standards view them as invaluable means of ensuring both equity and excellence." (Ravitch, 1993).

In the hope of ensuring both equity and excellence, the National Governors Association and the United States Congress moved forward, paying particular attention to civic education. The text of the goals statement adopted by the National Governors Association in March, 1990 declared:

If the United States is to maintain a strong and responsible democracy and a prosperous and growing economy into the next century, it must be prepared to address and respond to major challenges at home and in the world. A well-educated population is the key to our future. Americans must be prepared to:....Participate knowledgeably in our democracy and our democratic institutions;...Function effectively in increasingly diverse communities and states and in a rapidly shrinking world....Today a new standard of an educated citizenry is required, one suitable for the next century....[All students] must understand and accept the responsibilities and obligations of citizenship.
In March, 1994 Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (Public Law 103-227). Two of the eight national goals the law established deal specifically with civic education.

The National Education Goals

Goal 3: Student Achievement and Citizenship

By the year 2000, all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our Nation's modern economy.

All students will be involved in activities that promote and demonstrate...good citizenship, community service, and personal responsibility.

Goal 6: Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning

By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship (emphasis added).

As this report and those of other concerned groups of Americans make clear, we as a people have not yet achieved the goals of equity and excellence in education that we have set for ourselves. We know and have recognized from our founding that education for citizenship is essential, if we are to maintain and improve our constitutional democracy; on that point there is general, if not universal, agreement. We also know that a new standard of an educated citizenry is needed, if we are to meet the challenges of the next century.


About the Author

Margaret S. Branson is Associate Director of the Center for Civic Education, based in California. Prior to assuming this responsibility, she was Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services of the Kern County Schools in California. Dr Branson has been Associate Professor of Education at Holy Names College and Director of Secondary Education at Mills College, Oakland, California.

Dr. Branson is the author of numerous textbooks and professional articles. She was one of the editorial directors and principal researchers and writers of the National Standards for Civics and Government. She is serving on the Management Team for the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in Civics, the International Education Association National Expert Panel on U.S. Civic Education, and the International Framework for Education for Democracy Development Committee.

The Task Force on Civic Education

Charles N. Quigley, Chair
Executive Director, Center for Civic Education

Richard Van Scotter, Junior Achievement, Inc.

Elizabeth H. DeBra, U.S. Department of Education

Ralph Ketcham, Syracuse University

Mary Elizabeth Chenault, United Nations Association-USA

Eugene H. Hunt, Virginia Commonwealth University

Christopher Cross, Council for Basic Education

Walter Enloe, Hamline University Graduate School

Claire Gaudiani, Connecticut College

Bella Rosenberg, American Federation of Teachers

Joseph Julian, Syracuse University

Frank Zsigo, Syracuse University

Sheri Frost, Syracuse University

Robert Chase, National Education Association

David Vogler, Wheaton College

Lee Arbetman, National Institute for Citizen Education in the Law

Nicholas Topougis, Ohio Center for Law Related Education

Lynda Rando, Arizona Bar Foundation for Law Related Education

Lois Weinberg, U.S. Department of Education

Steve Janger, Close Up Foundation

Susan A. Burk, The American Bar Association

Phyllis Darling, Nevada Center for Law Related Education

Albert Shanker, American Federation of Teachers (deceased)

Todd Clark, Constitutional Rights Foundation

Susan Blanchette, Dallas Council for the Social Studies

Carolyn Pereira, Constitutional Rights Foundation

David N. Dorn, American Federation of Teachers

John F. Jennings, Institute for Educational Leadership

Mabel McKinney-Browning, American Bar Association

Helen E. Coalter, We the People, VA

John J. Patrick, Indiana University

Carol Hatcher, Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office

Dorothy J. Skeel, Peabody Center for Economics and Social Studies Education (deceased)

Frank J. Morrill, Millbury Jr./Sr. High School

Judy Siegel, United States Information Agency

Zoltan Bedy, Syracuse University

Carole Hahn, Emory University

Roger L. Desrosiers, Millbury Public Schools

Annette Boyd Pitts, Florida Law Related Education Association

Ronald A. Banaszak, American Bar Association

Jim Wetzler, PA Department of Education

Ralph Nelsen, Columbia Education Center

Steve Ellenwood, Boston University

Judith Torney-Purta, University of Maryland, College Park

Jennifer Bloom, University of Minnesota

Pendleton C. Agnew, United States Information Agency

Tedd Levy, National Council for the Social Studies

Ken Nelson, National Education Goals Panel

Steven Fleischman, American Federation of Teachers

Timothy Buzzell, Drake University

William F. Harris, University of Pennsylvania

Sally Kux, United States Information Agency

Margaret S. Branson, Center for Civic Education

Matharose Laffey, National Council for the Social Studies


Available through the Center for Civic Education

This paper is a forthcoming Education Policy Task Force position paper from:

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