Graces Essay

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Pages: 3

The importance of civic education has been well-established. From the earliest political theorists, we see discussion of the importance of a well-informed citizenry for the health of a polity. While skeptical of the power of the people to self-govern, the framers of American democracy still argued that the ultimate power rested in the people, who would even have the right to overthrow government should it violate the “social contract” with those over whom it governed (as in the Declaration of Independence, where we see Jefferson’s thoughts so clearly influenced by Locke). Closer to modern times, much public opinion literature has engaged in discussions about Americans’ levels of political knowledge, and the consequences that flow from this (see, for just a very few prominent examples, Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes 1960; Converse 1964; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1991, 1996; Graber 1994; Jennings 1996; Nie, Verba and Petrocik 1979).

To our minds, civic education is about preparing our students to be citizens in the American democracy. This involves teaching them the rudiments of knowledge required for reading a newspaper (or political web site), watching the news on television, and understanding what is going on in the world. Civic education also concerns itself with attitudes; for example, teaching students to have a healthy skepticism for what goes on in government, but grounding this skepticism in a reality that does not hold unrealistic expectations for government or its officials (see Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 1995, 2002 for a useful discussion of unrealistic expectations). Finally, civic education also concerns behaviors, as we encourage students to make intelligent, informed decisions about the extent to which they will participate in the political system. In short, we see civic education as imparting to students the knowledge about how to make a difference in the political system and the belief that it sometimes is worthwhile to do so.

Much literature within the field of political socialization has concerned itself with how citizens come to learn the core values within any political system. This research has concentrated on the role of families (Jennings and Niemi 1968; Tedin 1974); peers (Tedin 1980); schools (Jennings 1993; Merelman 1980), generations (Delli Carpini and Sigelman 1986; Holsti and Rosenau 1980; Jennings 1987), and salient events (Arterton 1974). While the field of political socialization has largely lay dormant for the last couple of decades, in its heyday it did paint a reasonable picture of how political learning occurred. As a general rule, however, it paid little attention to the impact of formal education; what knowledge we do have that addresses the impact of education on political knowledge and attitudes is in need of updating (see, for a noteworthy exception, Niemi and Junn 1998).

This need for updating the literature arises from two simultaneous trends in education over the last forty years. One has been the