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Civics Lost—No Apparent Priority in Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen G. Harding
September 6, 2016

Harding - IMG_1815 copyA majority of students don’t know, or appear to care, about their own country’s system of governance. When tested, high school and college graduates alike do very poorly in answering basic questions regarding American democratic principles, political processes or the power and functions of governmental institutions. Whether administered by the conservative educational Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) or the liberal arts defending American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), test results suggest that civic and political ignorance is alarmingly widespread even among the nation’s most educated. According to the ACTA report, “Crisis in Civic Education:”

“When surveys repeatedly show that college graduates do not understand the fundamental processes of our government and the historical forces that shaped it, the problem is much greater than a simple lack of factual knowledge. It is a dangerous sign of civic disempowerment.” 

Many cannot name the three branches of the federal government, the authors of the Federalist Papers or the significance of the Broadway play “Hamilton.” These individuals are civically disengaged.

Disengagement, Outdated Teaching Methods and Non-Specific Educational Requirements

It can be argued that civic disengagement is partially predicated on a lack of interest. This may be due as to how civics has historically been taught. Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, has stated the common method of lecture and the memorization of charts, facts, dates and pictures of past political heroes has left little focus on inquiry, discussion and debate. He further comments:

“This image of education in civics, government and history as dry, dull and irrelevant, indeed an indoctrination that whitewashed our past and much of our present, led in the 1960s to a reaction against the field. This resulted in the elimination of widespread requirements for civic education in our schools and a reduction of attention to political history in texts in favor of such topics as social history, the history of the labor movement, civil rights history and the like. While many of the new emphases were improvements, the reduction of attention to civics and government and political history was not.”

In the California State University system, students are to demonstrate an understanding of American history, the United States Constitution and California state and local government. As an alternative to testing, students may take course sequences in a variety of ethnic, gender or religious studies that meet this requirement. Students do not have to specifically take courses in government. This makes it unclear as to how students taking alternative course selections actually demonstrate knowledge of American governmental principles, structures and systems.

According to Harvard’s Fredrik Logevall and the Colorado School of Mine’s Kenneth Osgood, there is an additional problem:

 “American political history as a field of study has cratered. Fewer scholars build careers on studying the political process, in part because few universities make space for them. Fewer courses are available and fewer students are exposed to it. What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.” 

Our K-12 systems approach to civics is no better. As stated in a 2012 study by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning & Engagement at Tufts University:

Although 39 states require at least one course in American government or civics, only eight states administer statewide, standardized tests specifically in civics/American government.”

A demonstrated understanding of American governance is not universally required at either level.

Why is a Fundamental Understanding of Civics Important?

It should be argued that both citizens and institutions alike must continually espouse our commonalities amongst a growing environment of diversity. This requires a collective fundamental understanding of the nation’s unique system of governance. It is a re-visitation of what Seymour Martin Lipset calls “Americanism,” the knowledge of the interrelationships of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism republicanism, democracy and the laissez-faire notion toward business.

From kindergarten on, a specific foundational knowledge of the country’s democratic system requires a methodical educational approach that includes, lectures, textbooks, a review of current events and involvement in community activities. These combined efforts facilitate interest in political engagement. In their paper, “Civic Education and Knowledge of Government and Politics,” Diane Owen, Suzanne Soule and Rebecca Chalif state:

“Political participation requires some material and cognitive resources, and chief among these is political knowledge. Individuals who possess sufficient political knowledge are better able to understand their own interests and how to effectively participate in the political process.”

As stated by Henry Milner, in his text, Civic Literacy, the alternative is not good:

“Comparative studies confirm that a lasting drop in political participation in some nations reflects a corresponding decline in civic literacy. This ‘vicious circle,’ whereby citizens lack or have unequal opportunities to learn about politics, has been found to perpetuate economic inequality, including the decline of the welfare state.”

The breaking of this cycle is imperative. It requires the full attention of our educational systems. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor may say it best:

“The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.”


Author: Stephen G. Harding is a retired city manager and corporate vice president. He is an adjunct professor and a policy, management, and economic development adviser to local government. Over his 40-year career, he has served nearly 60 public, private, nonprofit and academic organizations. He teaches in the master of public policy & administration program at Northwestern University.

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3 Responses to Civics Lost—No Apparent Priority in Education

  1. Burden Lundgren Reply

    September 11, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    How right you are! When I taught Health Policy and Politics to masters and doctoral students, I had to begin on the “how a bill becomes a law” level. Political references were lost on them also. I had to explain what “left” and “right” mean.

    The Federalist Papers? I should be so lucky. I assigned the Constitution. One point though, most of my students came into the course with no interest in either policy or politics – in fact with pretty much of a distaste for both. With a better understanding, they became much more engaged. That was a happy ending for this course – but it should have happened in high school.

  2. Jim Butt Reply

    September 9, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    Perhaps this is obvious, but if the 2016 presidential campaign is an indication of anything, it should be an indication of how desperately we need more attention to civics in our schools and public discussion.

  3. Terry Newell Reply

    September 7, 2016 at 5:23 am

    Thanks for this article. To support your core thesis, I can say that in my work on teaching leadership for government executives, almost none of them have ever read any of the Federalist Papers, and most have not read the Constitution since high school. On the good side, however, they love the history of the founding period when I expose them to it.

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