James Youniss Ph.D. & Dan Hart Ed.D.

Youth in America

Civics Education for the 21st Century

What kind of civics education do we need in 2019?

Posted Jan 07, 2019

Five years ago, civics education was largely ignored in public discussion.  No more! In 2019 there is dramatically increasing interest in civics education. School leaders now attend to it as never before. The Gallup organization reported that in 2018, 74 percent of school superintendents were concerned for preparing engaged citizens, a dramatic increase from the 50 percent found in the same survey a year and three years earlier. In recent months, a lawsuit on behalf of a high school student advanced the novel argument that civics education is a constitutional right. Politicians and researchers have written and spoken on behalf of their preferred solutions to the civics education problem. 

As advocates for civics education (see our book Renewing Democracy in Young America), we’re grateful for the heightened attention on the topic.

But before we “fix” the problems with civics education, we need to know what they are. 

The civic education we want for young people cannot focus wholly on the transmission of factsA recent article in The Atlantic pointed out that only one-third of native-born Americans can pass the test of American facts that immigrants must pass to become citizens.

USCIS Department of Homeland Security.
Civics test app for those studying for the citizenship test.
Source: USCIS Department of Homeland Security.

The article suggests that Americans know so little because civics coursework in American high schools has been reduced over the past 50 years. 

In fact, civics knowledge scores have been slowly increasing in American teenagers for the last 20 years according to the nationwide test of civics administered by the U.S. government. Yes, most young people would benefit from knowing more about their communities and government than they know now—but this is true for most American adults as well. If there is a crisis in civics education, it is not that students have suddenly stopped learning what they once did.

The perception of a crisis in civic education arises in part from the widely-shared dismay in how political institutions operate. Americans dislike the grandstanding, shallowness, and ineffectiveness of the President and Congress and imagine that the next generation of politicians could be improved by better education. Other commentators, concerned by low voting rates among young people, believe that civic participation can be substantially increased through more thorough civic education. 

Neither the polarization of politics nor the low level of voting in young people will be cured by teaching only more facts about history or politics. In fact, as we discuss in our book, the evidence suggests that there is very little evidence to indicate that civics education as typically taught in classrooms around the world has any effect on the political participation of the people who receive it. 

Stoneman Douglas students visit Government House, 27 July 2018  US Embassy from New Zealand
Source: Stoneman Douglas students visit Government House, 27 July 2018 US Embassy from New Zealand

What kind of civic education do students need? In a previous blog post, we argued that students need desegregated schools. Here we suggest that one focus of a renewed civics would be to assert the importance of student government.

Youth would learn first hand that political opponents are peers worthy of respect despite the different viewpoints they believe in. Students would also learn to wield power fairly if only because the slate elected this semester might be out of office looking in next semester, even though their cause is still valid. It is one thing to read about abstract principles, but it is more valuable to grasp them in practice with issues that count. In future blogs, we shall offer more suggestions for a civics education that can contribute to the renewal of democracy in the United States.