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Democracy Demands Civic Education

by Kathy Pahel // Published May 15, 2012

Through at least 40 years of polling, the American public has claimed that the number-one purpose of the nation’s schools is “preparing people to become responsible citizens.” The best way to prepare ‘responsible citizens’ is to instill basic democratic values and ideals into the nation’s youth, which is most effectively achieved though civic education, that includes instruction about the specifics of our democratic processes and a general introduction to open-minded engagement with the challenges facing our nation. The American school system needs to increase its role in civic education, and help foster democratic values in its young people.

While school is stereotypically seen as a place to learn grammar and mathematics, it is also a place where moral education is taught to the youth who will one day control the fate of our democracy. Perhaps best stated over one-hundred and seventy years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his observations of American

Democracy, “I see the time drawing near when freedom, public peace, and social order itself will not be able to do without education.” Such a time is upon us, and we must dedicate a significant amount of educational time to instruct students in the area of citizenship.

Today, when people are polled about what they want out of their children’s schools, people continuously respond that the personal and social development of the children is just as important as vocational and academic development. As one such person believes, “what [students] deserve and must receive through schooling is an education conducive to the development of a sense of political efficacy, and, coupled with this, a program of concerted community enculturation in the ethic shouldering a responsible measure of civic virtue.” Civic education is a key factor in personal and social development, as well as essential to the democratic process.

Although our young people can become responsible adults through instruction outside of the classroom, it is still necessary to provide civic education within a school setting to reach the youth who do not have access to quality alternatives. As pointed out by Wolfgang Edelstein, a German social and educational scientist, “the only institution that can provide opportunities to cultivate democratic experience-not for elite groups, but for all children and youth- is the school.” 

Because all citizens become eligible voters by age eighteen, it is important they understand their role and responsibility as democratic citizens — knowledge they only have the resources to learn through education. Our emphasis at FairVote is ensuring that knowledge includes the mechanics of how to participate, but ensuring everyone is registered to vote, knows how to change their registration when they move, what offices are elected in their community, and other key aspects of our democracy. We also want them to see the rules of our democracy as an evolving process — one with a history of invention and reinvention that demands a critical eye about how our democracy is living up to core American ideas.

That’s why one of my major tasks during my FairVote internship is to develop and refine curriculum tools on voting and electoral reform, as well as to study and share best practices from other nations. Without a thorough understanding of the civic education learned at school, how could you expect anyone to perform their civic duties- you wouldn’t want a population full of untrained doctors, would you?