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Nature versus Nurture: The Importance of Civics Education

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

By Alicia Schatteman
October 28, 2014

Schatteman octCurrent generations are often criticized by older generations that they are not involved enough, do not volunteer enough, do not support organizations enough or are not running for political office. How do we, as a society, instill civic participation in our young people and what is the role of parents versus schools—nature versus nurture?

Historically, we have many examples of how citizens and residents participated directly. The idea of a citizen assembly goes back to ancient Greece, where large groups of citizens assembled to debate in “democratic chambers.” These large assemblies were not completely effective, however, and the Athenians developed a “boule,” a council comprised of randomly selected citizens over 30 years of age, from geographically defined districts. The members rotated throughout the citizenry and every citizen could be expected to serve at least once during his or her lifetime. This smaller group was a more manageable size where real debate could take place.

The New Public Service, coined by Denhardt and Denhardt in 2002 in a book by the same name is about connecting citizens with other citizens and their governments. It is about the individual becoming part of the government in the name of the larger public interest in the long term. Therefore, citizens must be well-informed about the issues affecting that community and share the community’s vision for where it wants to go. There is no self-interest. Civic participation is critical to democracy.

In more modern times, citizens can get involved in government by running for office or serving as a citizen volunteer on public committees or task forces. Citizens can also testify at a public meeting, sit in focus groups, participate in opinion polls, sign a petition or write a Letter to the editor. Less common are citizen panels, a group that includes maybe 1,000 to 2,000 participants who are surveyed several times per year. The citizen panels are low in dialogue with government officials and low on vote influence. They support the political process but do not have any legal authority on their own. An example is the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, which was created in 2006.

Using technology, Rutgers University-Newark created an online citizens’ assembly called CivicPanel. Although not a representative sample, participants engage in studies about government, public affairs and civic engagement. As an alternative to political poll data, James Fishkin, a political scientist from the University of Texas, proposed “Deliberation Day” that would take place before major national elections. The idea of Deliberation Day was put forth in a book of the same name by Fishkin and Yale professor, Bruce Ackerman. In essence, regular citizens would gather in small groups to discuss and debate the issues. This would encourage regular citizens to become better informed and more involved in the democratic process. Surowiecki, in his 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds, also supported the idea that average citizens can understand complex issues and come together to achieve a desirable outcome.

So, there are a variety of ways citizens can participate in government. But who is most likely to participate? Millennials, born roughly between 1981 and 2000, are very engaged by some measures. In fact, this generation has grown up with service hour requirements even starting in middle school but certainly in high school and college. The Millennial Impact Report offers more insight into how millennials participate. According to the latest data from the Corporation for National and Public Service (CNPS), 3.2 million college students dedicate 307.3 million hours of service to communities across the country, representing 27 percent of college students.

In recent years, there has been an increase in community service and service-learning programs on campus. College mission statements typically include a public service purpose. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching now classifies colleges and universities as being institutions of community engagement. In terms of effects of students’ involvement in civic engagement, studies provide evidence that service is associated with civic and cognitive gains. Benefits were also associated with career choice and employability after graduation.

Some groups are trying to improve knowledge of civics and civic engagement in the schools. Renowned actor Richard Dreyfuss created the nonprofit, non-partisan Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, which aims to revive the teaching of civics in American public education to empower future generations with skills needed to fulfill the vast potential of American citizenship. They are working to get or keep civics education in schools. Campus Compact is dedicated to this work on college campuses.

Participation in government is very limited by a few factors:

  • Socioeconomic status (education is the strongest predictor).
  • Age (those over 35 participate more).
  • Gender (women underrepresented in political office).
  • Race and ethnicity (whites over-represented).

Many of these are systemic and are being addressed on many levels. But what can we do today to help improve participation among our children and build those life-long skills?


  • Discuss with your children ways that you participate in society from volunteering, to voting, to running for elected office, to donating to civic organizations.
  • Take your child with you when you vote and explain the process and what it means.
  • Discuss community affairs with your children in a way that your child will understand. For example, if your community has a referendum vote coming up to build a new building or facility, discuss what a referendum vote is, why we do it, what are the arguments for and against the plan.
  • Teach your children who speaks for them in government from your mayor, to state and federal representatives. Have them write a letter to their representative and see if you get a response.
  • Volunteer as a family and discuss why that is important, how we rely on each other.
  • Use opposing political opinions or a variety of religious traditions as an opportunity to talk about the uniqueness of individuals and families but that we are all part of a community. Model tolerance and mutual respect.


  • Include civics education across the curriculum and across all grades.
  • Practice civic participation by encouraging discussions and participatory elections within the classrooms and schools.
  • Do not shy away from questioning opinions and entrenched beliefs, and instead see these as opportunities to engage in respectful debate.
  • Use field trips as an opportunity to expand world views beyond traditional learning.


  • Create opportunities to listen and respect the opinions of our youth, to give them purpose and an identity. In this way, we are strengthening our communities and the world.
  • Acknowledge underrepresented voices and find new and innovative ways to bring those voices to the table, using non-traditional methods like public hearings and instead turn to social media or collaborate with neighborhood groups. 

Author:  Alicia Schatteman is assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs, Department of Public Administration and the Center for NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University. She received her Ph.D. from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University, Newark. The author can be reached at www.nonprofitscholar

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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