From Civics to the Civic Arts


Ask a group of students whether they are interested in their roles as citizens. Most likely, you will get a yawn. Ask whether they know much about civics. At best, you will get a glimmer of recognition and acknowledgment of having read the U.S. Constitution.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Civics 2006 report, only 24 percent of 4th graders, 22 percent of 8th graders and 27 percent of 12th graders demonstrated a proficient understanding of civics. These results are alarming. Our nation faces difficult challenges at home and abroad, and we are allowing our children to come of age unprepared to address the problems that soon will be theirs to solve. It is time we made the civic competence of the next generation a high priority in our schools.

To do that, we must reinvent how we teach civics. First, we must begin to think of civics more expansively. We must think not of civics, but of the civic arts. Knowing one’s rights and responsibilities as a citizen is important.

Prerequisite Skills
But the civic arts also encompass those skills that enable people to study and analyze public problems and then take intelligent action about them. These include the capacity to speak cogently and persuasively in public; to listen to others empathetically and carefully; to work effectively with teams of people as well as on one’s own; to stand alone, when necessary, for causes about which one holds a strong, considered view; and to think, plan and execute strategically toward the realization of one’s goals.

The skills that are central to the civic arts are not exclusive to them. They are essential to the mastery of most academic subjects. If we move to a more expansive view of the civic arts, we will need to embed opportunities to master the civic arts within the core academic subjects. Just as citizenship must be an aspect of how we function in all our various adult roles so, too, must the civic arts be an aspect of all that students study in school. To continue treating civics as a distinct, separate subject is to treat one of our central responsibilities as merely marginal.

Embedding the civic arts into the curriculum will be challenging. Mastery of the civic arts requires opportunities to act. Citizens must know how to take action on matters of community concern. To master the civic arts, students will need opportunities not merely to study the Constitution, but also to act as citizens. That means that service learning will need to become more central across the curriculum. We will need to find ways in our classes to help students understand the relevance of course material to issues outside our classrooms.

Finally, as part of the regular instructional program, we need to talk with young people about citizenship and the civic arts. By talking directly about these matters, we can help students understand that mastery of the civic arts is essential to becoming fully functioning adult members of this society. If the well-being of our democracy matters to us, teaching the young to respect, value and work hard to acquire civic competence is essential. That necessitates frank and forthright discussion.

Finding Relevance
Translating these ideas into practice will be enormously difficult. The curriculum is already crowded. The press to prepare for standardized tests is ever-present, and relating traditional curriculum to the realities of one’s community can test the imaginations of even the best teachers. Despite that, moving toward a more expansive, embedded and active conception of civic education makes sense for two urgent reasons.

As a historian, I am aware that people always feel the times in which they live are uniquely good, difficult or challenging. Even knowing that, it is reasonable to argue that the problems we now face are particularly urgent. Some discount the warnings, but scientists tell us the poles are melting. Some say it cannot happen, but the possibilities of terrorist attacks in forms and at unprecedented scales of destruction seem plausible. We may work against the prospect, but the possibility of a pandemic caused by bird flu or other viruses must be taken seriously.

The children we are teaching today will inherit these problems tomorrow. They need to know math, science, history, English, foreign languages and much more. They also must understand they have the right and responsibility to take the world’s problems, however those may be presented, as their own. Our times require a new commitment to making civic education central to all that we do.

In addition, moving toward a more expansive, embedded and active conception of civic education makes sense because it offers new possibilities to enliven schooling. Young people are often eager to engage in “the real world.” They find school boring when it seems artificial. The relevance of what they are being asked to learn too often escapes them.

By centering the curriculum in the civic arts, we open new possibilities for linking students’ lives in school to people and problems on the outside. Doing that is especially urgent in high school. By centering the curriculum in the civic arts, we can transform schooling from preparation for life to learning from life.

Surely that is something we owe not only our children, but also ourselves.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is director of the Bard Center for Education and Democracy at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and on leave as Charles Warren professor of the history of American education at Harvard University. E-mail: