Public Attitudes About Civic Education

By Diana Owen

Civic education in the United States seeks to impart the knowledge and skills necessary for people to take part in democracy.  While civic training can be acquired through a variety of agents, among them the family, social groups, labor organizations, religious institutions, the military, and the media, schools can offer effective mechanisms for preparing young people to be engaged citizens (Carnegie Corporation and CIRCLE, 2003; Crittenden and Levine, 2013). The American public strongly believes that civic education is an important element of the precollege curriculum (Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2004; Owen and Soule, 2012).

However, the question of what aspects of democratic citizenship should be emphasized in civic education remains contested (Shafir, 1998; Lagemann and Lewis, 2013).  Scholars have noted that citizenship training should convey specific types of knowledge, character, and competencies that are consistent with democratic principles.  But democracy is not simple, and as Galston argues, striking the right balance “between representation and direct democracy; between self-interest and public spirit; between rights and responsibilities; between liberty and equality; between reasoned deliberation and passionate mobilization; between secular and faith-bases of civic discourse and action; between unity and diversity; between civic loyalty and civic dissent” (2001: 1) can be a challenge.