Civic Education


Civic education refers to various processes of education in self-government. It rests on the assumption that qualities necessary for democratic discourses and common decision making do not emerge by themselves but need to be acquired through education. This does not necessarily refer to teaching and learning in the education system but more broadly to life-long learning in various societal institutions like churches, the work place, and neighborhood communities.

Civic education aims at giving citizens the tools, knowledge and, most importantly, the abilities for democratic engagement with each other. While for some acquiring knowledge in form of facts about democratic and governmental processes is the central goal of civic education, others stress acquiring the abilities for critical thinking, questioning what is presented as truth, and for a considered and empathetic interaction with others. Civic education promotes democratic ideals, aims at politicizing and empowering citizens.

Cases employing civic education are Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District and Massachusetts American Legion Auxiliary Girls State promoted and executed by organizations like the European Civic Education Foundation. Related Methods are We the People and Model United Nations.

Problems and Purpose

Initiatives for civic education draw attention to the fact that while it is evident that knowledge and abilities for democratic decision making is needed, this is not accounted for in most school curricula. While elitist approaches to democracy argue that common people are inept of taking democratic decisions or participating in an informed and civil discourse, promoters of civic education claim that these abilities can be learnt and that it needs a more fair distribution of educational resources to include the lower income strata of society.

The problem of lacking educational resources for participation are amplified by the way the media system functions. Since media in competition with each other and depend on revenue from advertisement their main goal is to entertain, not to inform and educate. Public broadcasting is increasingly undermined by private TV and radio stations. News and educational documentaries are diminished and what is left of it is replaced by “infotainment”: News and documentaries tend to be short, focus on images, and try to emotionalize. While the spread of new media is reason for hope as independent news sources and alternative media emerge, the internet nevertheless is a deeply commercialized space. The use of social media decreases the attention span of children (and adults).

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Critics of civic education warn to be aware of the source of civic education. As civic education is inherently normative and political, it needs to be questions who designs educational plans and who executes them.

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