The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sets forth a conceptualization of civic education as a lifelong process that unfolds organically and subconsciously through explicit and implicit social conditioning.
In its broadest definition, “civic education” means all the processes that affect people’s beliefs, commitments, capabilities, and actions as members or prospective members of communities. Civic education need not be intentional or deliberate; institutions and communities transmit values and norms without meaning to. It may not be beneficial: sometimes people are civically educated in ways that disempower them or impart harmful values and goals. It is certainly not limited to schooling and the education of children and youth. Families, governments, religions, and mass media are just some of the institutions involved in civic education, understood as a lifelong process. (Crittenden & Levine, 2018)
In this way, civic education can be thought of as civic socialization; a lifelong process of learning that shapes the paradigms through which the individual citizen interacts with society. Within this framework, the philosophical goal of civics education might be thought of as the direction toward meaningful and well-informed participation in society. An approach to civics education that recognizes the situated and dynamic nature of social learning will be most successful in reaching and serving student learners who already experience an organic and unfolding civic education by learning to live in society.
Conceptualizing civics education as a learning process experienced by members of communities broadens the philosophical foundations of such education to include thinkers from diverse social backgrounds. Civic education in its purest philosophical form deals directly with participation in the transformation of the world through participation in democratic society and cannot be approached without pedagogy that acknowledges and incorporates the identities and experiences of marginalized students (Freire, 1970; Love, 2019). Caring for a democracy is an ongoing process of commitment as articulated by Roger Wilkins (1996), who believes students in the U.S should learn that “democracy is precious, democracy is perishable, democracy requires active attention and that democracy requires hard work.” Part of the function of civics education is to impart an understanding of the connection between a healthy democracy and a populace of educated and engaged citizens. The best civics education would enlighten the learner as an engaged participant in a system they understand and seek to improve.
The connection between education and democracy is affirmed by many leading scholars throughout history, dating back to Ancient Greece and the birth of democracy. Greek education was considered a formative lifelong process whereby students, albeit only male students, learned to be an asset to their community and democracy (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). Education and political life were intertwined and inextricable, as the purpose of education was to create a better public community (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). Within that public community, politics and philosophy coexisted with considerable tension; Aristotle identified the life of politics and the life of philosophy as two separate lives (Lane, 2018). Again, the conflict between individual consciousness and social belonging is discussed in context of how an individual should deliberately conduct themselves within a political society. Socrates himself embodied both the philosophical and the political throughout his life and eventually met his death for thinking both philosophically and politically (Lane, 2018).
Greek philosophers emphasized that a populace must be well educated for a democracy to function and that individual development is linked with civic development; as citizens develop individual senses of virtue, their participation in the political field becomes more virtuous (Lane, 2018). Plato in particular believed that education should produce the desire to become the perfect citizens, directly connecting a person’s education with their potential as a citizen (Plato, Laws, 641b7–10 as cited in Crittenden & Levine, 2018). Within the original Athenian democracies, politics extended past the concentration of social policies for the city and into a pragmatic curriculum for the civic, moral, and intellectual education of the citizens (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; Lane, 2018). This idea that democratic society itself acts as a curriculum for civic education remains relevant today. Civic education can be conceptualized as a social curriculum for learning intellectual and moral norms so that one may participate in society as a citizen.
The concept of citizenship is philosophical in itself and connects to ideas of civic virtue and democracy. Historical conceptions of democracy and citizenship continued with the work of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a Swiss Enlightenment philosopher. Rousseau conceptualized civic education as learning how to function well in the immediate society; in a way, it was a means of learning the terms and conditions of the social contract all members of society enter into as a condition of social life (Rousseau, 1762b). He recognized that life in society and civics education are inseparable when people must conform their human natures to the roles of citizens in a community. He also recognizes the tension that arises with the educational purpose to create men and citizens simultaneously (Rousseau, 1762a). Crittenden and Levine (2018) identify the distinction that unifies those opposite, or contrary, ends into one educational scheme. This point that a man, [person], “cannot be made a man and a citizen at the same time,” but can “be a [person] and a citizen at the same time” enables an understanding of civics education that must engage students separately in critical independent thinking and civic social responsibility (Crittenden and Levine, 2018, 1.3). In some sense, to balance within one person the roles of both individual and citizen is a matter of deliberating personal choices that best allow one to function within social rules and norms.
Rousseau’s ideas are somewhat mirrored in the thoughts of English philosopher John Locke, who thought men, [people], should conduct themselves in a manner that is of service to their country while developing freedom and responsibility in their personal lives (Locke, 1889). In this way, education served as a means of teaching citizens how to best serve their country by developing themselves as individuals with sound minds for participation in democracy. It’s very plausible Locke would agree with Rousseau on the conclusion that the best citizens of democracy are oriented not towards the question of “what is best for me” but the question of “what is best for all;” according to Rousseau (1762b), encouraging citizens to actively ask and answer this question is the purpose of civics education (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). Considering Rousseau’s (1762a) idea of education as that which enables an individual to develop both as a person and a citizen, the final learning outcome of that education must be an individual who feels personal fulfillment and responsibility in their role as a citizen.
We are socialized according to the world around us and the logic of that world’s social structures. All human communities and democracies are ordered around certain schemas and paradigms, and participants in those communities are conditioned cognitively and socially as they grow accustomed to dominant ways of thinking and being (Hemphill, 1999). In this way, existence in society is a form of civic education in itself. John Stuart Mill (1859) argued that participation in democratic society is a means of civic education when civic education is conceptualized as learning how to participate as a citizen in society. Mill discussed his theories in the essay On Liberty, and concluded that the political education of free people involves learning to shift focus from selfishness to unity (Mill, 1859). Philosophically, Mill believed that people should behave based on goals of unity, not isolation.
The shift from a limited focus on the self and the immediate family to a broader focus on the whole of society as a participatory community is key to Mill’s conception of civic education, as with other philosophers and ideologies. Mill affirms the connection between civic education and effective government by asserting that the quality of the government depends on the qualities of the citizens that compose it (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). The relationship between the quality of government and the quality of citizens mirrors the earlier conceptions of civic education by Plato, Rousseau, and Locke. Mill’s ideas affirm the conceptualization of civics education as learning how to exist as a participatory member of society. These philosophical conceptions of civics education define the practice in ways that generally center on the question of intentionally developing healthy democratic communities of engaged citizens.
The distinction between public and private interests is further explored by philosopher Hannah Arendt, who acknowledges the potential conflicts of a citizenship founded on the tension between public rights and private interests (Arendt, 1977). Arendt (1977) challenges the general assumption that obligations are public while rights are private, asserting that there are indeed rights granted to citizens in the public realm. This aligns with Rousseau’s (1762b) idea of the social contract, which requires the citizen to commit to public responsibilities in order to benefit from public rights. Orienting the individual consciousness towards the collective is not a simple feat, especially in a society like the U.S. that conditions towards individuality. When private interests don’t align with public or communal interests, the individual may experience conflict in personal deliberation. Acknowledging this as a natural process of membership in a community is part of comprehensive civics education that recognizes the tensions between the individual and the collective.
Indigenous Ways of Knowing
Though many foundational thoughts on society and civics were originally expressed in an exclusionary way, limiting conceptions of citizenship to white men, the notions conveyed can and should apply to all members of social communities. With this philosophy of democracy, the requisite for good citizenship becomes consciousness of oneself as part of a whole. That conceptualization of society as community, and citizenship as membership, is the foundation of many Indigenous knowledges and Afrocentric ideologies, such as the African culture of Ubuntu that inspired restorative justice practices and the Indigneous knowledges that center on the connections between the part and the whole (Brayboy & Maughan, 2009; Murithi, 2009). This connection between Western philosophies of democracy and African and Indigenous conceptualizations of community is important to center when conceptualizing effective civics education for a multicultural society.
Indigenous conceptions of civic education address issues of direct and structural violence in society. Indigenous ways of knowing and learning connect the wisdom of nature to the workings of society as means of imbuing learners with holistic understandings of the world around them. In Indigenous cultures, civic education continues to be thought of as an educational process to promote “harmony among people and harmony with nature” (Mburu, 2012, p. 175). This conception aligns with the universal conception of civic education as teaching the prioritization of that which is good for all humanity, not what is good for the individual (Mburu, 2012). Afrocentric ideologies concerning civic education and citizenship also center on the idea of unity and community as a moral priority (Murithi, 2009). The relationship between the individual and the society as a whole is consistently at the core of civic education, and the question of how individuals may best comport themselves within the social community forms the concept of civic virtue. Ideas of virtue and morality vary across cultures and ideologies, but ideas of citizenship always pertain to the connections between people and community.
Democratic and Pragmatic Education
The goal of civics education to engage students as lifelong participatory citizens can be achieved through practices of democratic education, which centers on participatory democracy as a teaching method and a learning goal. The history of democratic education dates back to the 1600s with no central figure or nation attributed to the ideal. However, John Dewey’s publication of Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education in 1916 was a landmark introduction to democratic education in the United States. In this book, Dewey explains the importance of schools as sites where democratic action can begin within students’ own communities (Dewey, 1916). Theodore Sizer, a leader of educational reform in the U.S., affirms the inherent power of schools to educate students on social norms and values. When considering the moral undertones of civic education, Sizer’s (1984) advice that the most effective way to teach values is to teach in a context that models the values being taught is highly relevant to the moral and social learning of civics education. This connection between schools and society is an accepted social fact of the institution of education, which can either serve to reinforce or transform the status quo that it exists within.
According to the logic of Dewey’s understanding that “education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living,” education is life itself, and civics education is social life itself (Dewey, 1897). Life and education happen simultaneously through lived experiences both in and out of the classroom. Dewey’s scholarship is the foundation of experiential education, which should be practiced in civics education as in any form of education (Dewey, 1938). Experiential learning is anchored in pragmatism, the philosophy that the best education happens through practical applications and experiential learning (Dewey, 1938). Learning that happens in the classroom should not be separated from the learning happening in life. This is especially true in the field of civics education, which should directly address societal structures and issues in ways that engage learners by uniting theory with practice.
Certain scholars have conceptualized civics education as similar to democratic education, as both are meant to instruct students on the value of active citizenship and democratic deliberation (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; Curren, 2007). This guiding purpose is applicable to all societies that seek to be led by a populace of informed and invested citizens. Democratic education and civics education must be taught with pragmatism, through experience and real-world applications, for students to effectively put their learning into practice outside of the classroom. In this way, it is surmised that quality democratic education can effectively change social and institutional structures that get in the way of inclusive participatory democracy (Knoester, 2012). Those social and institutional structures are at the core of civics education, and a processual and dynamic view of society and democracy is necessary for civics education that maintains quality and relevancy.
Civics education should serve all citizens of society and reflect the values of democracy in theory and practice. Effective civics education will evolve along with people and their society by consistently reflecting the current state of social life. High quality civic learning will serve all students and validate narratives and philosophies that reflect diverse perspectives on history and citizenship. Philosophical conceptions of civics education across different cultures and time periods have all valued the connection between the individual and the community. The philosophy of modern civics education should expose students to the potential conflicts and tensions of citizenship as well as to the potential harmony and democracy of effective civic engagement. Civics education in theory should equip young citizens with notions of personalized investment in their community and confidence in their own capacity for responsible civic engagement. Across philosophical notions of civics education, one shared underlying intention is to connect the personal life to the social world and to develop a sense of membership to community.
Arendt, H. (1977). “Public Rights and Private Interests: In Response to Charles Frankel.” Small Comforts for Hard Times: Humanists on Public Policy, edited by Michael Mooney and Florian Stuber, New York Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, pp. 103-108.
Brayboy, B.M.J. & Maughan, E. (2009). Indigenous knowledges and the story of the bean. Harvard Educational Review, 79(1), 1-21.
Crittenden, J. and Levine, P. (2018). “Civic Education,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Curren, R. (2007). Philosophy of education: An anthology. Malden: Blackwell.
Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. School Journal, vol. 54, 77-80.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. Harvard University, MA: Macmillan.
Dewey, J. (1938). Education and experience. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Hemphill, D.F. (1999). “The Blues and the Scientific Method: Codified Cultural Schemas and Understanding Adult Cognition from a Multicultural Perspective,” Adult Education Research Conference. https://newprairiepress.org/aerc/1999/papers/17
Knoester, M. (2012). Democratic education in practice: Inside the mission hill school. Teachers College Press.
Lane, M., (2018) “Ancient Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Locke, J., (1889). “Instructions for the conduct of a young Gentleman, as to religion and government,” in J. Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, with Introduction and Notes by the Rev. R. H. Quick, M.A. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 192
Love, B. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mburu, W. (2012). “Indigenous conceptions of civic education”. Contemporary Issues in African Sciences and Science Education. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
Mill, J.S. (1859). On liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green.
Murithi, T. (2009). An African perspective on peace education: Ubuntu lessons in reconciliation. International Review of Education, 55, 221-233.
Plato, “The Laws,” The Complete Works of Plato, T.J. Saunders (trans.), John Cooper (ed.), Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997.
Rousseau, J., (1762a). Emile or On Education, Allan Bloom (trans.), New York: Basic Books.
Rousseau, J., (1762b). The Social Contract, Maurice Cranston (trans.), New York: Viking Penguin.
Sizer, T. (1984). Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Wilkins, R. (1996). “Are We Taking Care of Our Democracy?” University of Maryland, March 7.