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Civic Education
 
By
Eric Brahm


July 2006
 
Overview

Since the late 1960s, the conventional view among academics was that civic education (also called citizenship education or democracy education) had only marginal impact on students' democratic orientations.[1] There has been much renewed discussion recently about developing education programs to instill patriotic pride and critical democratic patriotism. Just 11 percent of U.S. high school students attained the level of proficient on the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam.[2] Despite significant increases in educational attainment in the US during the past 50 years, levels of political knowledge remain largely unchanged.[3] Even college graduates have the same level of political knowledge that high school graduates in 1950 did.

Despite the poor track record in the US, government support for civic education abroad has been a staple of its democracy aid budget since the mid-1980s. Often, this educational support has been part of election preparation efforts, but increasingly it is supporting more general education on democracy. The popularity of civic education programs reemerged with the end of the Cold War as many perceived that efforts to educate citizens in the communist bloc about democracy had played a role in the fall of communism.[4] More recently, funding for civic education has shifted from the former Soviet Bloc to Middle East.[5] The advocacy NGOs and civil society groups often behind civic education programs today need to be cautious about making citizens too skeptical of authority, thereby generating distrust. Although studies generally find little or negative connection between education and political learning,[6] civic education and participatory lessons can have a positive effect.[7] Other studies have been critical of democracy promotion groups for running poorly run programs that present an elite view that is wholly reliant on Western funding.[8]

Civic education programs contain four key elements.[9]

  • First, programs seek to develop civic knowledge, which itself requires understanding of the principles and practice of democracy. As such, representative democracy, the rule of law, human rights, citizenship, civil society, and the market economy are important subject areas.
  • Second, programs focus on building cognitive civic skills to enable participants to synthesize information on political and civic life and public issues.
  • Third, civic education attempts to engender participatory civic skills such as working with others, collaborative deliberation and decision making, and how to peacefully influence debate.
  • Finally, these programs work to instill civic dispositions such as support for human rights, equal rights, the importance of active political participation, and working to promote the common good.

Recent developments in civic education programs indicate some significant trends around the world.[10] First, there has been an explosion of original curriculum development. In addition, Socratic seminars, role playing/simulations, historical document analysis, and service learning have been popular democratic teaching methods. Second, teacher education programs at the university level have seen significant development. Third, existing curricula have been adapted to local circumstances.

As a number of countries experimented with democracy in the 1990s, recent research has found that traditional classroom-based civic education can significantly raise political knowledge, contrary to earlier findings in the developed world. Specifically, research on the impact of civic education programs has produced a number of findings.[11]

  • First, civic knowledge appears to help citizens understand their interests as individuals and as members of groups.
  • Second, program participants have more consistent views across issues and across time.
  • Third, knowledge, particularly related to political institutions and processes, allow individuals to better understand political events and integrate new information into their preexisting framework.
  • Fourth, general civic knowledge can alter views on specific public issues.
  • Fifth, citizens with greater civic knowledge are less likely to be mistrustful of, or alienated from, public life.
  • Sixth, greater civic knowledge generates greater support for democratic values.
  • Seventh, those with greater civic knowledge are more active participants in the political process.[12]

Although adult civic education programs have received far less attention, a study of three countries found that those who were exposed to civic education were much more involved in local politics.[13] Less hopefully, civic education has been found to have greater effects on individuals who already have higher levels of participation and cognitive resources, which may exacerbate disparities in society that these programs are intended to address.[14] In addition, although civic education appears to improve knowledge of the political system, it does not help increase tolerance and may hurt trust in institutions.[15]

That said, simple exposure to civic education per se is not enough. Short-term programs and those that focus on general principles often prove too abstract and detached from the daily lives of participants to have too much impact.[16] Furthermore, what matters are specific factors related to the quality of instruction and the use of active pedagogical methods employed by civics instructors.[17] Successful programs are those that have instructors that are attractive, likeable, and credible. In addition, active teaching methods and ‘open' classrooms where controversial issues are discussed frequently and a range of views presented in a neutral fashion are associated with more effective programs.[18] What is more, programs focusing on local problem solving and community action in conjunction with opportunities for interaction with local officials have resulted in higher levels of participation than did general information-based programs.[19] Some see promise in service learning, although program evaluations have yielded mixed results.[20] Curriculum also needs match the resources and culture of its intended national context.[21] Finally, evaluation programs are needed to monitor its suitability to local culture and whether they are achieving their intended purposes.[22]

Civic education programs are often undermined by democratic practice in new democracies. In many fledgling democracies, low participation, intolerance, political ignorance, and alienation are major systemic problems. Civic education efforts in Poland and the Dominican Republic, for example, were found to have limited impact on levels of political participation and knowledge and almost no consequence of respondents' values and skills.[23] The limited educational opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa has also restricted the availability of exposure to civic education. As a result, others are beginning to look at non-formal education opportunities. A study of rural Senegalese, for example, found that both non-formal and formal education increased the likelihood that people would embrace democratic, tolerant attitudes.[24] In Zambia, informal drama shows have been more significant in helping the masses become active citizens than formal education programs.[25]

 


[1] Finkel, Steven E. & Howard R. Ernst. Civic Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Alternative Paths to the Development of Political Knowledge and Democratic Values. Political Psychology, Jun2005, Vol. 26 Issue 3, 336.

[2] Waltzer, Kenneth and Elizabeth Heilman, When Going Right Is Going Wrong: Education for Critical Democratic Patriotism. Social Studies, Jul/Aug2005, Vol. 96 Issue 4, p156-162.

[3] Galston, W. (2001). Political knowledge, political engagement, and civic education. Annual Review of Political Science, 4, 217--234.

[4] Carothers, T. (1999). Aiding democracy abroad: The learning curve. Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

[5] Gregory E. Hamot, 2005, "From Comrade to Citizen," Democracy at Large vol 1 no 4 pp. 11-13. http://books.google.com/books?id=0mAEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT2&lpg=PT2&dq=Gregory+E.+Hamot,+2005,+%22From+Comrade+to+Citizen,%22+Democracy+at+Large&source=bl&ots=YDUdvnpS8X&sig=QhA41eLsgjwMwnLqnwM1CVsrNFQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yu8bUZGkGKG4yQHa9oGgDw&ved=0CEgQ6AEwAw

[6] M.K. Jennings and R.G. Niemi. 1974. The Political Character of Adolescence. Princeton: Princeton University Press; K. Langton and M.K. Jennings. 1968. Political Socialization and the High School Civicx Curriculum. American Political Science Review. 62, 852-867.; B.G. Massialas. 1977. Education and Political Development. Comparative Education Review. 21, 274-295.; R.M. Merelman. 1980. Democratic Politics and the Culture of American Education. American Political Science Review. 74, 319-332.; R.G. Niemi and M. Hepburn. 1995. The Rebirth of Political Socialization. Perspectives on Political Science. 1, 7-16.; R.G. Niemi and B.I. Sobieszek. 1977. Political Socialization. Annual review of Sociology. 3, 209-233.; J.J. Patrick and J.D. Hoge. 1991. Teaching Government, Civics, and Law. In J.P. Shavers, ed. Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning. New York: Macmillan. 427-436.; D.O. Sears. 1990. Whither Political Socialization Research? The Question of Persistence. In O. Ichilov, ed. Political Socialization, Citizenship Education, and Democracy. New York: Teachers College Press. 69-97.; A. Somit, J. Tannenbaum et. Al. 1958. The Effect of the Introductory Political Science Course on Student Orientations Toward Personal Political Participation. American Political Science Review. 52, 1129-1132.; J. Torney-Purta and J. Schwille. 1986. Civic Values Learned in School. Comparative Education Review, 30, 30-49.

[7] D. Denver and G. Hands. 1990. Does Studying Politics Make a Difference? The Political Knowledge, Attitudes and Perceptions of School Students. British Journal of Political Science. 20, 263-288.; L.H. Ehman. 1980. The American School in the Political Socialization Process. Review of Education Research. 50, 99-119.; E. Litt. 1963. Civic Education, Community Norms, and Political Indoctrination. Amerian Sociological Review. 28, 69-75.; J.J. Patrick. 1972. The Impact of an Experimental Course "American Political Behavior" on the Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes of Secondary School Students. Social Education. 36, 103-128; K. Prewitt, G. Von Der Muhll, and D. Court. 1970. School Experiences and Political Socialization: A Study of Tanzanian Secondary School Students. Comparative Political Studies. 3, 203-225.; J.V. Torney, A.N. Oppenheim, and R.F. Farnen. 1975. Civic Education in Ten Countries. New York: Wiley.

[8] See especially Thomas Carothers, Assisting Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve; and Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway, eds., Funding Virtue.

[9] John J. Patrick, "Teaching Democracy Globally, Internationally, and comparatively: The 21st Century Civic Mission of Schools" in Civic Learning in Teacher Education: International Perspectives on Education for Democracy in the Preparation of Teachers, Vol. 2, edited by John J. Patrick, Gregory E. Hamot, and Robert S. Leming (Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 2003) 21-44.

[10] Gregory E. Hamot, 2005, "From Comrade to Citizen," Democracy at Large vol 1 no 4 pp. 11-13. http://books.google.com/books?id=0mAEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT2&lpg=PT2&dq=Gregory+E.+Hamot,+2005,+%22From+Comrade+to+Citizen,%22+Democracy+at+Large&source=bl&ots=YDUdvnpS8X&sig=QhA41eLsgjwMwnLqnwM1CVsrNFQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yu8bUZGkGKG4yQHa9oGgDw&ved=0CEgQ6AEwAw

[11] Galston, W. (2001). Political knowledge, political engagement, and civic education. Annual Review of Political Science, 4, 217--234.

[12] M. Delli Carpini & S. Keeter. 1996. What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.; N.H. Nie, J. Junn, & K. Stehlik-Barry, 1996. Education and Democratic Citizenship in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[13] Finkel, S. E. (2003). Can democracy be taught? Adult civic education, civil society, and the development of democratic political culture. Journal of Democracy, 14.

[14] Finkel, S. E. (2003). Can democracy be taught? Adult civic education, civil society, and the development of democratic political culture. Journal of Democracy, 14: 145.

[15] USAID. 2002. APPROACHES TO CIVIC EDUCATION: LESSONS LEARNED, p. 12.

[16] Carothers, T. (1999). Aiding democracy abroad: The learning curve. Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace., p. 232.

[17] Finkel, Steven E. & Howard R. Ernst. Civic Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Alternative Paths to the Development of Political Knowledge and Democratic Values. Political Psychology, Jun2005, Vol. 26 Issue 3, p333-364.; Niemi, R.G. and Hepburn, M. 1995. The rebirth of political socialization Perspectives on Political Science, 7-16.

[18] Management Systems International, An Evaluation of the Program of Education for Participation Washington DC: Management Systems International, August 1989).; America's Development Foundation Final Report of the civic Education Project (Alexandria, VA: America's Development Foundation, undated).; Sally Yudelman and Lucy Conger The Paving Stones: An Evaluation of Latin American Civic Education Programs (Washington DC: National Endowment for Democracy, March 1997).

[19] Finkel, S. E. (2003). Can democracy be taught? Adult civic education, civil society, and the development of democratic political culture. Journal of Democracy, 14: 141.; Niemi, R.G. and Hepburn, M. 1995. The rebirth of political socialization Perspectives on Political Science, 7-16.

[20] Galston, W. (2001). Political knowledge, political engagement, and civic education. Annual Review of Political Science, 4, 217--234.

[21] Gregory E. Hamot, 2005, "From Comrade to Citizen," Democracy at Large vol 1 no 4 pp. 11-13. http://books.google.com/books?id=0mAEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT2&lpg=PT2&dq=Gregory+E.+Hamot,+2005,+%22From+Comrade+to+Citizen,%22+Democracy+at+Large&source=bl&ots=YDUdvnpS8X&sig=QhA41eLsgjwMwnLqnwM1CVsrNFQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yu8bUZGkGKG4yQHa9oGgDw&ved=0CEgQ6AEwAw

[22] Gregory E. Hamot, 2005, "From Comrade to Citizen," Democracy at Large vol 1 no 4 pp. 11-13. http://books.google.com/books?id=0mAEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PT2&lpg=PT2&dq=Gregory+E.+Hamot,+2005,+%22From+Comrade+to+Citizen,%22+Democracy+at+Large&source=bl&ots=YDUdvnpS8X&sig=QhA41eLsgjwMwnLqnwM1CVsrNFQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yu8bUZGkGKG4yQHa9oGgDw&ved=0CEgQ6AEwAw

[23] Christoper Sabatini, Gwendolyn Bevis, and Steven Finkel, The Impact of Civic Education Programs on Political Participation and Democratic Attitudes (Washington DC: Management Systems International, January 27, 1998).

[24] Kuenzi, Michelle, The role of nonformal education in promoting democratic attitudes: Findings from Senegal. Democratization, Apr2005, Vol. 12 Issue 2, p223-243.

[25] Bratton, M., P. Alderfer, Bowser, G., & Temba, J. (1999). The effects of civic education on political culture: Evidence from Zambia. World Development, 27, 807--824.

     
     

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Civic Education." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2006 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/civic-education>.

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