||NACE was launched in 2000 with more than 80 group and individual charter members committed to advancing civic knowledge and engagement. NACE believes the time has come to band together to ensure that the next generation of citizens understands and values democracy and participates in the ongoing work of building democracy in America.|
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2000, the 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll found that Americans
rank "preparing people to become responsible citizens" as the number-one
purpose of the nation's schools. Over the thirty-two years of the
poll, the public has not wavered in its conviction that schools and educators
have a special responsibility to educate young people for citizenship.
For similar reasons, over one-fourth of all state constitutions state
that a system of public instruction is required because an informed and
capable citizenry is vital to the preservation of a free and democratic
And in addition to schools, many other institutions - from religious congregations
to scouting organizations to political parties - also profess commitments
to civic education.
Despite this consensus, there is some disagreement about exactly what makes a "responsible citizen":
Although there are interesting and even fruitful differences of emphasis among these models of citizenship, they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, a citizen in the twenty-first century should be comfortable acting in several different ways - upholding laws or protesting, voting or forming new organizations - as the situation demands. Citizens need an overlapping set of knowledge and intellectual skills for all of these tasks.2 They also need the participation skills that are necessary to monitor and influence civic life, such as the ability to work with others and express ideas.
- Some stress the importance of knowing and respecting our nation's social and political history, founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers, and the Constitution, and the visions of freedom that our country was founded upon.
- Some prize a willingness and ability to think critically, to deliberate with others, and when necessary to challenge authority and to make society more just.
- Some see "responsible citizens" as people who provide direct, voluntary care for others in need.
- Some emphasize the need to create public goods through collaborative work and are especially interested in the civic and democratic potential of employment and professional practices.
Statistics and everyday experience show that people who know a great deal about government, politics, and public affairs also tend to vote and to join organizations, while those with low levels of knowledge do not participate.
There is alarming evidence that students are not getting the knowledge and skills the need to participate in civic, community, and political life. (Please see our page on "What Young People Know" for details). This lack of knowledge is probably one reason that less than one-third of Americans aged 18-24 voted in 1996. When asked why they do not participate in the electoral process, the two major reasons given by young people are that "they do not think that their vote makes a difference (26%) and that they don't have enough information (25%).9
- The correlation between education (i.e., years spent in school) and political engagement is "the best documented finding in American political behavior research."3
- In the 26 countries where 90,000 14-year-olds were recently surveyed by the IEA, civic knowledge was a major predictor of intentions to vote.
- Several surveys have shown that adults who know a great deal about politics and public affairs are likely to vote, no matter how interested they are in politics. But those with little knowledge generally believe that they are powerless-and abstain from politics.4
- Adults with high levels of political knowledge make consistent choices and stick to them over time. They assess leaders on the basis of policies and ideologies as well as character. But those with low levels of knowledge tend to make inconsistent decisions and judge public officials only on the basis of perceived personality. Commenting on some poorly informed voters who were polled by the Washington Post in 1996, political scientist Michael Delli Carpini said, "It was as if their vote was random."5
- Knowledge is also a necessary precondition for deliberating about public affairs. Even watching other people discuss politics can be difficult unless one understands some basic facts and vocabulary. Samuel Popkin and Michael Dimock have argued that people who lack information cannot tell the difference between a serious exchange of views and a squabble, so they tune politics out completely. As Richard Niemi and Jane Junn write, "One can live one's whole life without knowing that the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces or, for that matter, without knowing the name of the president. But how many political discussions and how many news reports would be incomprehensible without this information?"6
- Adults with high levels of political knowledge are likely to be socially tolerant, trustful, and engaged in community affairs.7
- Finally, citizens need certain kinds of information, experience, and skills before they can work with others to solve local problems or create things of public value. Thus, for example, students who participate in extracurricular activities during high school are most likely to join organizations later in life.8
In 1999 the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) conducted a nationwide study of American youth. Fifty-five percent of respondents agreed with the statement, "schools do not do a very good job of giving young people the information they need to vote." The survey also found that young people lack meaningful understanding of the democratic process and of citizenship, with many students unable to give any real thought to one's role as citizen.
To make matters worse, civic knowledge is not evenly distributed. Those who most need the power that comes with political skills and information are least likely to receive an effective civic education. For instance, two out of three of the poorest Americans cannot describe the political parties' attitudes toward government spending, whereas most wealthy Americans know exactly how the Democrats differ from the Republicans.10 This information gap helps to explain the difference in voter participation between rich and poor, because it makes no sense to vote if you lack information about the issues.
In their preliminary report released in January 2001, the National Commission of the High School Senior Year states:
If we go along as we have been, about half our people, perhaps two-thirds, will flourish, well-educated, comfortable with ambiguity, and possessed of the self confidence that accompanies self-knowledge, they will be well-suited to participate in an increasingly global and multicultural world and to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship. The other one-third to one-half of our people are more likely to flounder. Poorly educated, worried about their place in a rapidly changing world, they may look on the complexities of an interdependent world as threatening and the demands of citizenship as a burden.
Such disengagement and lack of knowledge and skills is troubling for any democratic political system. Democratic values are not passed down through the genetic code; each generation of students is asked to recreate values and develop a vision for the future.
While many people are working to improve the quality of math, science and reading education, we believe that too little attention has been paid to civic education. A concerted effort is needed to place greater emphasis on civics requirements, in-school service learning, standards, curricula and teaching methods. Meanwhile, outside the classroom, private organizations, news media, political parties, and other institutions must rededicate themselves to creating the next generations of citizens.
-- Amber Wichowsky (with Peter Levine)
- Center for Civic Education, University of Texas at Austin, 1999.
- U.S. Department of Education, 2000?; William A. Galston, "Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education," Annual Review of Political Science (2001), 4, p. 218.
- See Norman H. Nie, Jane Junn, and Kenneth Stehlik-Barry, Education and Democratic Citizenship in America (Chicago, 1996), p. 31
- See Richard Morin, "Who's in Control? Many Don't Know or Care," Washington Post, January 29, 1996, pp. A1, A6. See also Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, What Americans Know About Politics and Why it Matters (New Haven, 1996), pp. 230-267; and League of Women Voters Press Release, August 26, 1996, "Survey Indicates Nonvoters Lack Information, Recognition of the Consequences of Elections" (poll conducted in March of 1996).
- Delli Carpini and Keeter, pp. 232-38; Popkin and Dimock, pp. 125-7; Delli Carpini quoted by Morin.
- Samuel L. Popkin and Michael Dimock, "Political Knowledge and Citizen Competence," in Stephen Elkin and Karol Soltan (eds.) Citizen Competence and Democratic Institutions (Penn State Press, 1999); Richard G. Niemi and Jane Junn, Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (New Haven 1998), p. 11.
- Delli Carpini and Keeter; Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Harvard, 1995).
- The evidence from several studies is summarized in Judith Torney-Purta, Carole L. Hahn, and Jo-Ann Amadeo, "Principles of Subject-Specific Instruction in Education for Citizenship," Subject-Specific Instructional Methods and Activities, vol. 8, pp. 400-3.
- National Association of Secretaries of State. "New Millennium Project-Part 1 American Youth Attitudes on Politics, Citizenship, Government and Voting." Survey on Youth Attitudes. The Tarrance Group. (Lexington, KY 1999).
- Delli Carpini and Keeter, pp. 214-5