Civics education is a crucial component of democracy. The connection between civics and society was a formative part of the U.S. constitutional democracy. Forms of textbooks and other civic education materials have been used in American schools since at least 1790, soon after institutions of education were established (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; McDevitt & Caton-Rosser, 2009). However, the history of civics education in the U.S. is intertwined with the United States’ educational system and society, both of which embody traditions of nationalism and cultural exclusion. Civics education in the 21st century faces distinct and complex challenges, many of which have root in the inequitable structures through which civics education is implemented (Jamieson, 2013). A critical look at why and how civics education has been developed and implemented in this country holds important lessons about how such education can be improved so that its benefits serve all students.
The Founding Fathers of the United States agreed that their vision of democracy required participants to be appropriately educated as citizens and all advocated for greater attention to civic education (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; Jamieson, 2013; Marquette & Mineshima, 2002). Thomas Jefferson dissented from the opinion that the purpose of civics education was to develop a national identity and asserted that education was the means for protecting individual rights and maintaining the power and rights of citizens (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). James Madison similarly believed that some civic education was essential for instilling a degree of virtue and civic engagement that would hold the government accountable to its citizens (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). However, their definition of who could be considered a full citizen was limited to white property-owning men, and that legacy of exclusion still holds power today (Love, 2019). Civic education that excludes certain identities and perspectives forms the foundation for a society and democracy that excludes diverse voices and votes in the democratic process.
Public and affordable civics education came to the United States in the 1830s when Horace Mann led the Common Schools Movement. Common schools aimed to educate all students “in common,” regardless of traits that would have otherwise excluded them from receiving an education, such as social status, gender, or religion (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). When Mann’s public schools were first formed, civics and morality were a central focus of education with the simple goal to create good citizens and good persons. This goal was mainly pursued through “teaching the basic mechanics of government and imbuing students with loyalty to America and her ideals” (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). The historic intention of civics education to develop students’ nationalist loyalty to American cultural ideals informs modern forms of U.S. civics education just as do the historic moral concepts of civic virtue. The substance of the morality education implemented involved “conformity to specific rules describing conduct inside and outside of school” and was heavily based on Protestant values at the expense of other value systems (Crittenden & Levine, 2018).
These forms of civic learning rely on the insertion of culture into education that prevents students from bringing their own culture and curiosity to the learning process (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Pewewardy, 1993). In contrast to that traditionally employed model, in the late 1800s influential educator John Dewey philosophized that civics education could be thought of as pragmatic democratic education that would encourage student citizens to find personal interest in learning and ultimately “share in the interests of others” so that “divisions of race, class, and ethnicity would be worn down and transcended” (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; Dewey, 1897). This form of civics education is what keeps a democracy strong and just. The focus of learning within Dewey’s framework is centered on the students’ interests and experiences, and the application of theory is emphasized as a necessary component of any effective education (Dewey, 1904). Though Dewey’s work illuminated the essence of quality education that holds meaning for learners, mainstream models of civics education did not apply Dewey’s theories or philosophies in any sort of systemic or widespread way. Within educational structures defined by “cultures of domination [that] rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience,” any civics education practiced will serve to reinforce systems of domination (hooks, 2001, p. 93; Freire, 1970). Conditions of fear uphold structures of domination by constructing differences as threats and prevent movement towards Dewey’s vision of civics education that transcends differences and enables connections with others (hooks, 2001).
Within cultures of domination and inequitable social context, civics education can further subjugate students with non-dominant cultural identities through uncritical presentations of Eurocentric and nationalist curricula (Anzaldúa, 1987; Love, 2019). Sociocultural subjugation and exclusion can lead to the perception of different tiers of citizenship, specifically the continuum between “full citizenship” and “second-class citizenship” conceptualized by Rosaldo (1994). Within this framework, full citizenship is a state inhabited by citizens in “favorable material circumstances” who are able to “speak about well-being, thriving, dignity, and respect” when consulted about the idea of citizenship. Second-class citizenship is a state inhabited by citizens who lack the “material conditions that give people reasonable life chances” and speak about “feeling unsafe, violated, humiliated, and invisible” when consulted about the idea of citizenship (Rosaldo, 1994, p. 402). The state of second-class citizenship is informed by social structures of power, domination, and oppression that create and maintain an inequitable social order. The conditions of education are closely linked with social conditions within which students develop senses of self-esteem, agency, and citizenship, thus perpetuation of an inequitable social status quo within civics education prevents many students from becoming full citizens and educated participatory members of U.S. democracy (Hemphill & Blakely, 2015; Jamieson, 2013; Love, 2019). Civics education should serve as a site to interrogate and understand civic society, not to conform to it uncritically.