Civic Education for the 21st Century

Part 1: What won't improve the country and why.

Posted Jan 14, 2020

Most Americans are deeply disappointed in the Federal Government. Trust in the government is at historic lows, according to polls aggregated by the Pew Research Center.

Divisions among Democrats and Republicans have become so pronounced that most Americans believe that members of the other political party pose a serious threat to the United States, and 5 to 15 percent of Americans believe that the country would benefit from the death of members of the opposing political party (Kalmoe & Mason, 2018). The impeachment of President Trump and its associated hearings have inflamed partisans of both parties. 

One response to the country’s widespread dissatisfaction is to suggest that civic education ought to be improved.

 Tom DeCicco/Shutterstock
Traditional civics education.
Source: Tom DeCicco/Shutterstock

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his recently released report on the federal judiciary writes: "We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”    

The Chief Justice then outlined a number of federal court initiatives to improve civic education, including working with civics teachers and encouraging visits from students to courts.

We have spent the last 20 years studying and promoting civic and political development in young people. Like Justice Roberts, we hope for a society of knowledgeable, active citizens. 

But we have two important reservations concerning the claim that civics education is the answer for the ailments of American politics.

The first is that teenagers don’t learn much in traditional civics classes and their experiences in these classes don’t lead them to become active members in their communities. We reviewed the research on this topic in our book, Renewing Democracy in Young America

While we cannot let civic education fall to the wayside, evidence suggests that traditional civic education does not fulfill the promise imagined by Justice Roberts.   

Our second reservation is that the emphasis on civics education as a cure suggests that young people are most in need of assistance. Chief Justice Roberts’ civics initiatives focus almost exclusively on children and teenagers. 

However, young people inherited the problems of American democracy, they didn’t create them. In fact, we think that rather than changing young people through civics education, older Americans ought to emulate young people. 

Consider recent behavioral evidence regarding youth. For example, students from Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida sparked new gun control legislation in their state’s legislature and following that, in 2019, 23 states passed new laws restricting gun use. These measures include banning bump sticks, imposing waiting periods, reducing urban gun violence, and outlawing gun trafficking. Youth have also been at the forefront of rallying and lobbying for measures to combat human contributions to environmental degradation. While Greta Thunberg became the face of this phenomenon, as well as Time magazine’s person of the year, millions of youth around the world participated in public actions and focused on sustaining the environment in their science classroom projects.

 Laurel Egan/Shutterstock
Youth are politically active.
Source: Laurel Egan/Shutterstock

These actions have been accompanied by a new commitment to affecting policy by voting. At the start of this century, researchers pointed out how few young people either registered to vote or actually voted. Various efforts were then made to encourage the youth vote. Positive results are now evident. For instance, in the 2014 mid-term elections, 13.7 million youth voted. But in 2018, nearly double that number, 26.1 million youth turned out at the polls.

Data from the Pew Research Center gives insight into the political perspectives that may be propelling the above civic behavior of youth. For example, consider support for the statement that “Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” Of millennials surveyed, 79 percent agreed, compared with 47 percent of people born before 1944 (silent generation) and 56 percent of people born between 1945 and 1964 (boomer generation). In conjunction, 80 percent of millennials vs. 54 percent of silents or 61 percent of boomers agreed with the statement that “America’s openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation.”  

Other findings reported by Pew that provide insight into the millennial's political stance are equally revealing. While 63 percent of silents and 69 percent of boomers agree that humans contribute to global warming, 81 percent of millennials agree, putting them squarely on the side of science. Or, consider agreement that gays and lesbians can be legally married: 42 percent of silents and 56 percent of boomers agree vs. 73 percent of millennials, putting them in accord with the Supreme Court ruling. Or, consider support of the statement that “Diplomacy rather than war is the best way to ensure to peace.” Whereas 43 percent of silents and 52 percent of boomers agree, 77 percent of millennials agree, putting them on the side of traditional U.S. foreign policy.

These data show a connection between youth’s civic behavior and their political outlooks. But there is still a question of whether these outlooks spring from youthful optimism or what some might call naivete? Responses to two items suggest that youth’s views may be quite grounded insofar as they correspond closely to the outlooks of older generations. First, consider agreement to the question of whether the government can be trusted to do what is right. The result is 18 percent for silents, 14 percent for boomers, and 15 percent for millennials. Second, consider agreement to the statement that the economic system favors powerful interests. The result is 50 percent of silents, 60 percent of boomers, and 66 percent of millennials. These data show close agreement across generations and counter the view that youth are merely pollyannish regarding what government has done and can do.

These results not only demonstrate a coherent relation between youth’s behavior and political outlooks but also indicate how grounded in history and traditional political culture millennials appear to be. They believe in the findings of science regarding the environment. Their stance on guns agrees with the majority of Americans. Their openness to immigrants is grounded in a factual understanding of “who we are as a nation.” Their support of same-sex marriage concurs with our Supreme Court’s ruling. And their wariness of government puts them on the side of older generations who would like to see a fresh approach to inter-party politics. It seems fair to conclude that if America’s democracy is running off the rails, it is not youth who are responsible. In fact, they may be the solution. 

In our next post, we’ll describe the kind of civics education that works.


Kalmoe, N. P., & Mason, L. (2018). Lethal mass partisanship: Prevalence, correlates, and electoral contingencies. American Political Science Association Conference.