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March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

The Question Each Citizen Must Ask

Good citizens ask, "What should we do?" and then take action. Here's how to teach for that goal.

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When universal public education was invented in the United States, visionary proponents like Horace Mann believed they were building the first large-scale democracy in the history of the world. They realized that citizens would have to be educated to play their parts in a system that depended on millions of wise and active participants. They made a courageous bet that children could be taught to make democracy work.
Today, civic education remains a core purpose of schools, as reflected not only in courses on civics or American government (required in 45 U.S. states), but also throughout the K–12 curriculum and in cocurricular activities ranging from student governments to service clubs.
The purposes of civic education, however, are contested. And before we can consider how to educate young people for citizenship, we need to clarify what we think citizenship entails and what knowledge, values, and skills citizens need.

What Should Civic Education Achieve?

There are various answers to this question. Some adults want students to learn about and appreciate the formal political system of the United States, especially the structure and underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution. Those topics provide most of the content measured by the National Assessment in Education Progress (NAEP) in civics. When NAEP announced that 24 percent of 8th graders scored proficient or better in civics in 2012, that meant that only 24 percent had a substantial knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and closely related topics.
Some proponents of civics want students to learn social science so they can become sophisticated analysts of current events like economic recessions and epidemics. Others want students to participate in voluntary groups and address local problems. Still others want youth to become critical consumers of political rhetoric and news—able to detect propaganda and misinformation—or are most interested in nurturing personal virtues like honesty and persistence. None of these outcomes is measured on the NAEP civics assessment or on most states' civics tests.
This issue of Educational Leadership asks, "What do students need to know and be able to do when they finish school?" If we think of students as citizens, we must ask what citizens need to know and do. I contend that a citizen anywhere in the world is someone who seriously asks, "What should we do?"
Note that the question is "What we should do?" because the point is not merely to think and talk, but to change the world. Also, we usually think better when we have experience taking action, when we've made real plans and seen our ideas play out in practice.
The question is "What should we do?"—not "What should be done?" The latter question is more common, but far too easy. For instance, it's easy to answer the question, What should be done to end HIV infection? (Everyone should cease having unprotected sex, scientists should find a cure, and health insurance should cover it for everyone.) But those things won't happen by themselves. Teachers should guide students instead to answer the citizen's question: What should you and I (and people we know) do about HIV?
I've phrased this question as, "What should we do?" because it's intrinsically about values and principles. Citizens aren't satisfied with asking, "What do we want to do?" They struggle to figure out what is right, quite apart from what they may prefer. Finally, the question is what we should do, which implies an understanding of the options before us, their probabilities of succeeding, and their costs and consequences.
When we teach young people to be citizens, we're teaching them to be lifelong askers of this question, and we can use that framework to determine what content should be a high priority in civic education. For instance, Americans who ask, "What should we do?" will benefit from understanding that the U.S. Constitution protects their rights to assembly, speech, and petition and gives them tools—such as access to the courts—to address social problems. Thus, they should understand the U.S. Constitution, but not necessarily in enormous detail and not for its own sake. And they're entitled to conclude that what we should do is change that Constitution.

What Should We Prioritize?

Keeping "What should we do?" in mind, let's get specific about the highest priorities for civic education today, considering the current weaknesses and opportunities of our political system.


Our system was built on the assumption that citizens would deliberate with one another about public matters. By talking and listening to people different from ourselves, we learn and enlarge our understanding. We check our values, strategies, and facts against those of other people, and we form ideas about topics we didn't even consider before. We build a degree of consensus that makes action possible.
Even the simplest political act—voting—requires deliberation; without it, the voter won't consider alternative ideas before using the power of the ballot. Citizens who know how to deliberate are also better at choosing representatives who are excellent at deliberating, who exercise what James Madison called "the mild voice of reason."
Evidence suggests, however, that the state of deliberation in the United States isn't good. The conversation in political settings like the U.S. Congress is widely viewed as polarized and dysfunctional. Online, people often balkanize into like-minded groups. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who say they have talked with neighbors about a community problem has fallen (Levine, 2013).
So schools should teach deliberation by assigning students to talk civilly about contested issues. Such conversations impart the disciplinary content of social studies and make students more interested in participating as citizens.
For instance, the Deliberating in a Democracy Program—a recent partnership among Street Law, Constitutional Rights Foundation, and Constitutional Rights Foundation–Chicago—involved high school students in well-prepared, moderated classroom discussions of controversial current events. One student participant observed,
I think it's applicable in today's society to be able to look at both sides because, even politically, we're so split and people can't see it from the other side. … But this process makes you have to think from the other side. … You'll be able to draw on this and use it in the real world.


Talking without ever acting is empty. You can say almost anything without affecting the world. Deliberation is most valuable when it's connected to work—when citizens, including students, bring their experience of taking action into their discussions and take ideas and values from deliberation back into their work. So students should be part of groups that talk about what they should do, then actually do what they've talked about, and then reflect on the experience.
Elementary and middle school teachers in Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, use the Children Discovering Justice curriculum, created by Boston-based nonprofit Discovering Justice, both to teach social studies content and to inspire their students to become engaged citizens. The 5th grade curriculum has a section devoted to working together to solve a community problem. Students do a neighborhood assessment, taking note of a community's potential areas for improvement. They establish a consensus of an area to address, investigate the history of the issue, establish an action plan, and address the problem—while keeping data on their progress and reflecting individually and collectively on the experience.

Civic Relationships

A stable democratic system depends on civic relationships. Such relationships are not friendships or financial partnerships—they are voluntary ties among peers motivated to improve the world together. Civic relationships reflect characteristic emotions: loyalty, trust, responsiveness, and hope. Overall, these attitudes are in decline. For instance, a lower proportion of Americans today say they trust other people than in the past. This decline is generational, with each new cohort showing less trust than their predecessors (Levine, 2013).
The good news is that working and talking with fellow citizens rebuilds and strengthens civic relationships (Levine, 2013). We can and should teach students to develop civic relationships, which are scarce but renewable sources of energy and power.
Deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships are the right priorities for civic education for at least three reasons. First, they are intrinsically valuable aspects of a good life. Only by interacting with peers in these ways do we enrich our own values and gain the satisfaction that comes from improving the world with others. Second, deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships are exactly the advanced interpersonal skills that employers seek and that lead to success in today's workplace.
And third, a body of research finds that deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships are crucial factors that explain why some communities flourish better than others. For instance, Sampson (2012) found that the neighborhood where people grow up has a huge impact on their life prospects and that an important neighborhood factor—apart from race and class—is "collective efficacy," which Sampson and his colleagues measured by asking questions about whether residents trust one another and whether they discuss and collaborate on current issues.
In a national study, several colleagues and I found that communities recovered much better from the recession of 2008 and 2009 if they had more "social cohesion" (meaning residents socialized, communicated, and collaborated with one another) and more nonprofit organizations per capita. We calculated that a state with a high level of social cohesion would recover about one fifth more of its lost jobs after the recession than would a state with similar economic circumstances but low cohesion (Kawashima-Ginsberg, Lim, & Levine, 2012).

How Can We Teach These Skills?

The argument that the way to create citizens is by teaching students to deliberate, collaborate, and build civic relationships leads to two implications. First, the civics curriculum (courses on civics and government, plus large portions of history and social studies) is very important. Courses should provide students opportunities to ask What should we do? and to develop sophisticated, ethical answers. That process can unfold in various ways. In a U.S. history course, students might put themselves in the position of colonial leaders and ask what they should've done in 1776. In an introduction to economics, students might consider what they should do now about unemployment.
The National Issues Forums Institutes has created a set of "historic issues" guides that structure student deliberations from the perspective of people in the past. For instance, the guide titled A New Land begins by describing the unstable situation in the United States in 1787, when the unity engendered by fighting Britain had faded, and the new nation was struggling with trade problems and many conflicts.
The guide notes that at this time, Americans everywhere were asking themselves, "How can our hard-won liberty be sustained?" And "What kind of government should we have?" It offers three rival strategies on what direction these citizens should take, one of which (creating a stronger national government) was the one actually chosen in 1787. The guide helps students see the past as a series of discussions about "What should we do?" that could have led to many decisions.
Two teachers in State College, Pennsylvania, who used these guides reported that their 5th grade students observed how similar conversations were happening in Egypt during the 2011 Arab Spring, with citizens poised to bring down their government, and even in their own town around a controversy about school construction (McGarry & Stoicovy, 2015).
Students should act together as well. They might perform service learning, of course, but there are other good ways to put deliberation into action within a given course or context—such as collaborating to create media products or working as an intern in a local government agency.
A nonprofit called the Mikva Challenge, for instance, supports Chicago public school students as they study issues and present recommendations to city officials. In 2015, various teams of Mikva student leaders made formal, research-based presentations to Chicago public school officials, judicial officials, the Chicago Department of Public Health, and the mayor (Sadiq, 2015).
Creating a diverse array of student-led cocurricular groups should also be a priority. Participating in such groups leads to academic success, health, and lasting habits of civic engagement. Forming and running voluntary groups helps students learn first-hand how to consider what they should do about an issue—and then act.

The Gift of Participation

The philosopher Hannah Arendt (1963/2006) wrote that the founders of the American republic, especially Thomas Jefferson, learned from their own experiences in public life that
no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom [which meant active participation], and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power (Arendt, p. 247).
By incorporating the skills outlined here into civics instruction, we can ensure that students have their own share in our public business.

Arendt, H. (1936/2006). On revolution. New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1936)

Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Lim, C., & Levine, P. (2012). "Civic health and unemployment II: The case builds." National Conference on Citizenship, Washington, DC.

Levine, P. (2013). We are the ones we have been waiting for: The promise of civic renewal in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

McGarry, L. S., & Stoicovy, D. M. (2015). Deliberation and democracy: How historical simulations equip students for civic participation. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 28(2).

Sadiq, M. (2015, August 25). Youth created recommendations get applause from decision makers [blog post]. Retrieved from Mikva Challenge Blog at www.mikvachallenge.org/blog/youth-led-recommendations-get-applause-from-decision-makers/

Sampson, R. J. (2012). Great American city: Chicago and the enduring neighborhood effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peter Levine is Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Service and associate dean for research in the Tisch College at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

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