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LETTERS TO MYSELF: Why civics education must return

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Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 9:15 am

With our school systems under financial stress and national testing standards focusing on English, mathematics and science, civics is increasingly taking a back seat to other subjects in our public and private schools. Our nation faces a “civics recession.” America’s students are in dire need of the education required to become effective, engaged citizens. Think most American students know enough to pass a basic citizenship exam? Think again. The reality may shock you.

In a recent op-ed piece, Citizenship First Executive Director Robert Pondiscio asks whether our children know how to be citizens. “We send kids to school not just to become employees and entrepreneurs, but citizens capable of wise and effective self-government in our democracy,” he writes. “This public dimension of schooling was a founding principle of American education. We have all but forgotten it in the current era of education overhaul.” 

He went on to say that while current school reform has rightly gotten students focused on college and career, “the ‘third c’ – citizenship – got lost. It’s time to bring it back. We need all three.”

After years of being focused on getting kids prepared in reading and math, schools have let history and civics take a back seat. A 2010 Pew Research poll showed that a large portion of Americans possess weak knowledge in how the legislative process works, and 44 percent of Americans can’t name one of the three branches of government. Is it time for civics to make a comeback in schools?

But what does teaching civics mean in the 21st century? Do schools emphasize history and government courses, or does “engaged citizen” now mean something more? It is imperative to reset the bar on learning the basics of government: how our country was founded, how our government functions, the bedrock principles of American rights and freedoms. Having high school students pass the U.S. Citizenship Test in order to graduate would be a good start.

Research overwhelmingly says the best learning environments are ones in which people have a sense of choice and voice. Some schools and organizations have stepped in to expand civics and history course offerings to engage modern learners. Programs like We the People’s Education for Democracy Podcasts offer fascinating talks from experts on historical moments and concepts, like Indiana University’s John J. Patrick delving into Lincoln’s legacy, his presidency, and the country’s circumstances during the Civil War.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor addressed the importance of teaching civics in school before Maine Social Studies teachers in October 2012. 

While beefing up civics and history courses is important to creating engaged citizens, students need more: They need practice using the very characteristics that create an informed, engaged, free-thinking citizen. The idea is that making school environments more democratic will show students how democracy actually works.

Some civics educators do themselves a disservice speaking of civics education as a program or as a component or as a course. Actually, it’s about is trying to identify the best possible operating system for high-functioning learning. And that optimal learning environment is not regimented and dictatorial. Research overwhelmingly says the best learning environments are ones in which people have a sense of choice and voice. Just like democracy.

Our Founding Fathers believed that only an educated citizenship could ensure the future of democracy. All Americans should understand something of the values on which the Republic was founded, the principles by which we are governed and the seminal events that define our history. Without such knowledge, we have little basis for judging candidates and issues. 

It’s time to re-imagine our future citizens and give them the tools necessary to become effective and engaged citizens. If any progress is going to be made in civic education teachers need more support. Teachers should be given free, easily accessible, and simple to implement tools that work side by side with what they are already teaching in their classrooms. Citizenship and civic duty are vital to a great democracy and they must be restored.

Dr. Daniel Parenteau is a freelance writer residing in Biddeford. He is a business analyst and strategic consultant. His column appears every other week and covers a wide variety of topical issues at issue in the region. Find his blog at


Welcome to the discussion.

1 comment:

  • John Hale posted at 2:41 pm on Thu, Feb 20, 2014.

    John Hale Posts: 1

    We at the Center for Civic EducationI share Dr. Parenteau's concerns about the insufficient quantity and quality of civic education for our nation's young people. Happily, there are some excellent curricular programs that address in inadequacies of civic education. We appreciate his mentioning of the We the People Education for Democracy podcasts. Archival episodes of the Education for Democracy podcastsare available on iTunes: Our website has a number of other free videos and classroom lessons at, including the daily "60 Second Civics" podcasts, which are also available at iTunes University.