Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Educating the Good Citizen

Kevin R. den Dulk


January 4, 2013

By Kevin R. den Dulk

Every few years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a division of the U.S. Department of Education, surveys the civic knowledge and dispositions of children in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades.  The most recent results, as described in the NAEP’s “Nation’s Report Card” of 2011, are not heartening.  Take the snapshot at grade 12, just before students reach legal adulthood and have the opportunity to cast their first vote.  Only a quarter of high school seniors reach NAEP’s level of “proficiency” in civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions (and NAEP’s definition of “proficient,” I might add, does not present a high bar).  Just over a third fail to reach even the most “basic” level of civic competency.  The same pattern holds at the 8th grade.  And those numbers haven’t budged for nearly a decade and a half. 

Leaders have responded predictably to the NAEP Report Card and other harbingers of flat lined citizenship.  On the one hand, civic educators ask for more resources, better curricular requirements and stronger state-level benchmarks and assessments.  On the other hand, legislatures and state boards of education are often indifferent, distracted or unsympathetic.  To date, only a handful of states seriously assess student progress in civic learning, and the number of states with even rudimentary monitoring of student achievement in social studies has actually declined since the early 2000s.  At the federal level, grant-making for civic education fell to the budget ax in 2011 (notably, at the same time NAEP announced its grades).  Among the programs that lost their funding: the Center for Civic Education, which supports popular and highly effective K-12 programs such as We the People and Project Citizen. 

Readers who generally see eye-to-eye with the Center for Public Justice ought to be discussing both the trends of youth civic learning and the responses of many leaders to those trends.  My impression, however, is that our public discussion doesn’t fully reflect the urgency of the problem.  Why do I think there is urgency?  Let me suggest a few reasons, with a little help from CPJ’s own guidelines.

First, educational plans flow from priorities—and those priorities reveal assumptions.  Much of the public discussion about vital educational needs today assumes that the goal of K-12 education is to prepare students to attend college and/or to compete in the global marketplace (see, e.g., President Obama’s justification for Race to the Top, his signature K-12 education program).  That’s why leaders generally don’t treat civic learning as equal in importance to science, math and reading.  But, to put the issue bluntly, this kind of prioritizing suggests that being a productive worker is significantly more important than being a good citizen.  I would suggest Christians should challenge that assumption.  A good place to start is CPJ’s own Guideline on Citizenship.

But even if we accept that civic education ought to be a high priority, we still need to identify its subject matter.  Here we confront a second concern: young people increasingly see the realm of the “civic” in narrow terms.  Some interesting research suggests that younger people today are not necessarily less civically engaged than in the past, but differently engaged.  Young people actively volunteer, for example, in ways that do some social good without governmental involvement.  To be clear, I’m the first to celebrate this kind of volunteerism within civil society (I also note that a colleague and I have found that faith-based schools do a better job than others at encouraging it).  But the data on voting, party identification, interest group membership and participation in local politics suggests that many of these same young volunteers don’t consider government as another viable—even necessary—site for collective action about the public good.  Again, Christians should be concerned about that diminished view about the role of government (see the Center’s Guideline on Government).     

A third reason civic education matters is the existence of a gap in youth participation.  It turns out that some indicators suggest that American youth have higher levels of civic competency  than their peers in many other Western democracies.  But the competency gap among youth within the U.S. is also much wider than other countries, especially when comparing young people based on family income or parental literacy levels.  Christians ought not accept such inequality (see the Center’s Guideline on Political Community).  While civic education can’t solve the problem of poverty or family literacy, it can help address political disaffection ] among those young people [M1] at economic or other disadvantage.

The obstacles to youth engagement are complex and stubborn.  But we know that civic education of the best sort—education that models engagement by combining knowledge with rich experiences—can go a long way toward overcoming those obstacles. And if good citizenship is a matter of public justice, government itself has a stake in fostering civic learning through funding and other means.

A final note: One elemental type of democratic experience is robust discussion about the key issues of the day.  For an illustration, check out “Shared Justice,” a place where young thinkers lead much-needed discussions about public life.

Kevin R. den Dulk is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”