Explainer: How Civic Education Prepares Students for Civic Participation

Home » Explainer: How Civic Education Prepares Students for Civic Participation

Think back to your middle school and high school social studies classes. What do you remember? Most of us can recall learning about past presidents, wars affecting our nation and countries around the globe, and perhaps, a few more details. Now, think about your education on our nation’s political process, civic engagement, democratic responsibilities, etc. Hard to recall? That’s because civic education is not taught in the same ways it was in the past. And as a result, children develop into young adults not knowing the importance of voting rights and how to participate in the political process.

When classes are offered to students, some important things in our history are even left out of the curriculum like the history of women being prohibited from voting. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of the first pioneers to fight for women’s right to vote in our country. She is one of the important historical figures that benefitted a large population in our country and in many schools her name is barely even mentioned. Some important subjects like this are overlooked in American history classes, especially in the role of politics as many women have ran for the role of the president since Stanton had fought for her fellow women. Many historical facts are focused on, yet some of the most important times in our history – or important people in our history – are rarely discussed or taught to our nation’s youth in their class curriculum..

Students’ K-12 education in civic matters affects their ability to be active participants in our democracy upon graduation. Dr. James Hedtke, Professor of History and Political Science at Cabrini University, says, “In secondary education, it should be mandatory that students first of all take U.S. history, and second of all, a civics course, and then third of all, be made aware of how to apply to vote.

A study done on the lack of civic education in school found the following: “The study ranked history standards in 49 states and the District of Columbia (Rhode Island has no mandatory history standards, only suggested guidelines) for ‘content and rigor’ and ‘clarity and specificity’ on a scale of A to F. Only South Carolina got straight A’s.” A few states ended up with grades of B’s and higher. However, 28 states ended up with D’s and F’s. This is a perfect example of how uneducated our youth is on civic education.

“When I went to school, we had all kinds of courses on civics and government,” says retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is pushing to revive civic education. “Today, at least half of the states don’t even require high school students to take civics; only three states require it in middle school.”

Hedtke believes that students’ education should not just build knowledge, it should include application of their civic studies. “There should be some field experience, and actually go out to a polling place and get to see what the machines are like and get to see what a polling place looks like so that you have some type of practical experience with voting,” Hedtke said. “We actually had a polling machine in high school, so that we were taught how to use the voting machine, plus we used it in high school elections. That way it’s not some big mystery when you go in because it is intimidating the first time that you go in.”

According to Mark Hansen from ABA Journal, “Many young Americans are not prepared to participate fully in our democracy now and when they become adults.” Hansen’s determination is based on a report from Silver Spring, Md.-based Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

The history of our country is very important to the minds of our youth because it helps to give them an understanding about how things have been handled in the past and how things are now compared to when our country was just starting to develop into what it is today. Many say that history needs to be taught to give these students some type of understanding of political situations in our nation.  Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement says, “Civics and problem- or discussion-oriented classes are less common today than they were in the 1950s, but political science, economics and social studies classes are more common.”

Politics are extremely important and many students find it vital that they understand politics in order to decide on those who they think should make the decisions for the well-being of our nation as a whole. ABA President Stephen N. Zack says America’s future as a democracy depends on the integrity of our legal institutions, our commitment to justice and our understanding of constitutional self-government. But he says that the future is now being threatened by a basic lack of understanding among Americans about what a democracy is and how it is supposed to work.

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 


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Radnor, Pa. 19087

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