School Improvement in Maryland

WHAT IS CIVIC EDUCATION?

Civic Education in a democracy is education in self government. Democratic self government means that citizens are actively involved in their own governance; they do not just passively accept the dictums of others or acquiesce to the demands of others. As Aristotle put it in his Politics (c 340 BC), "If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost." In other words, the ideals of democracy are most completely realized when every member of the political community shares in its governance. Members of the political community are its citizens, hence citizenship in a democracy is membership in the body politic. Membership implies participation, but not participation for participation's sake. Citizen participation in a democratic society must be based on informed, critical reflection, and on the understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities that go with that membership.

Civic education in a democratic society most assuredly needs to be concerned with promoting understanding of the ideals of democracy and a reasoned commitment to the values and principles of democracy. That does not mean, however, that democracy should be presented as utopia. Democracy is not utopian, and citizens need to understand that lest they become cynical, apathetic, or simply withdraw from political life when their unrealistic expectations are not met. To be effective civic education must be realistic; it must address the central truths about political life. The American Political Science Association (APSA) recently formed a Task Force on Civic Education. Its statement of purpose calls for more realistic teaching about the nature of political life and a better understanding of "the complex elements of 'the art of the possible'." The APSA report faults existing civic education because all too often it

seems unable to counter the belief that, in politics, one either wins or loses, and to win means getting everything at once, now! The sense that politics can always bring another day, another chance to be heard, to persuade and perhaps to gain part of what one wants, is lost. Political education today seems unable to teach the lessons of our political history: Persistent civic engagement-the slow, patient building of first coalitions and then majorities-can generate social change. (Carter and Elshtain, 1997.)

A message of importance, therefore, is that politics need not, indeed must not, be a zero-sum game. The idea that "winner takes all" has no place in a democracy, because if losers lose all they will opt out of the democratic game. Sharing is essential in a democratic society-the sharing of power, of resources, and of responsibilities. In a democratic society the possibility of effecting social change is ever present, if citizens have the knowledge, the skills and the will to bring it about. That knowledge, those skills and the will or necessary traits of private and public character are the products of a good civic education.