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For the Students, By the Students: Redirecting Civic Education through the American Trustees Project
Unformatted Document Text:  provide instruction in citizenship. As Kahne and Westheimer (2003) argue, “young people need to be taught to make democracy work, to engage civically, socially and politically” (p. 34) and the schools are the public institution “best positioned to affect the vast majority of young people” (p. 14). Since the late 1960s, there has been an emphasis in the nation’s schools to teach citizenship by focusing on political information (particularly at the high school level, see Knight-Abowitz & Harnish, 2006; Chambliss, et al., 2007). As recently as the 1950s, students took courses in “civic problems” and learned practical civic skills (such as how to vote) in their high school classrooms. As the nation became more disenchanted with political life during the 1960s and 1970s, however, such grounded and practical instruction disappeared (author, 2007). Research shows that young people with higher levels of political knowledge report stronger democratic values, increased political participation, more informed interests, the acquisition and integration of more knowledge, internally consistent views, and higher levels of political trust, tolerance and involvement (Galston, 2003). For these reasons, it has been tempting for policymakers to increase the scope of educational standards, for social studies departments to expand the amount of material taught, and for the education system to instruct and assess mostly factual information (author, 2007). While few scholars would go so far as to critique the importance of teaching civic information, or attempting to create more knowledgeable young people, many note how current practices have important limitations. First, while “political knowledge” leads to the aforementioned civic blessings, scholars concede that “knowledge” remains something of a black box predictor. Little is known about what types of information lead to pro-civic attitudes and behaviors as well as what, exactly, affects knowledge (Galston, 2001, p. 226). Second, the type of information currently taught has been critiqued for being too sanitized (such that it does not prepare students for the bargaining, conflict and compromise central to governance, Hibbing & Theiss Morse, 1996, p. 57) and for failing to reflect the “continual struggles of democratic politics” (such that it “reduces, confines, diminishes and depletes” the meanings of citizenship in formal and taught curriculum, Knight-Abowitz & Harnish, 2006, p. 657). Third, political information, on its own, cannot “guarantee our humanity and will not sustain our democracy” (Kahne & Westheimer, 2003, p. 64). To this point, scholars argue that memorizing civic facts and figures, and scoring well on course exams, does not translate into the civic literacy that helps individuals scan the news, protect their (and their community) interests, and hold elected officials accountable for their actions. Fourth, this concentration on information has failed to create a more knowledgeable youth cohort. Despite an increased emphasis on information in public schools, and despite an increasingly educated citizenry (more Americans have college degrees than ever before in our nation’s history), young Americans know less about their government than did their parents or grandparents at their ages (Delli Carpini, 2000). Fifth, some political communication scholars suggest that the ideal of a knowledgeable citizenry may be overblown. Indeed, Zaller (2003) has argued that individuals may scan, rather than master, the news and Graber (2004; 2001) acknowledges that the human capacity for absorbing political information may be limited. Schudson (2000) has been so bold to suggest that “it is possible that the link between information and democracy is not as tight as we have made it out to be” (p. 11). Frustrated by the limitations of an information-centered curriculum, some educators have opted for another approach: engaging young people in experiential learning projects to motivate them to be better citizens. Experiential learning (also referred to as action learning, youth participation, and work www.annettestrauss.org | 2

Authors: Jarvis, Sharon. and Han, Soo-Hye.
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provide instruction in citizenship. As Kahne and Westheimer (2003) argue, “young people need to be
taught to make democracy work, to engage civically, socially and politically” (p. 34) and the schools
are the public institution “best positioned to affect the vast majority of young people” (p. 14).
Since the late 1960s, there has been an emphasis in the nation’s schools to teach citizenship by
focusing on political information (particularly at the high school level, see Knight-Abowitz & Harnish,
2006; Chambliss, et al., 2007). As recently as the 1950s, students took courses in “civic problems” and
learned practical civic skills (such as how to vote) in their high school classrooms. As the nation
became more disenchanted with political life during the 1960s and 1970s, however, such grounded and
practical instruction disappeared (author, 2007). Research shows that young people with higher levels
of political knowledge report stronger democratic values, increased political participation, more
informed interests, the acquisition and integration of more knowledge, internally consistent views, and
higher levels of political trust, tolerance and involvement (Galston, 2003). For these reasons, it has
been tempting for policymakers to increase the scope of educational standards, for social studies
departments to expand the amount of material taught, and for the education system to instruct and
assess mostly factual information (author, 2007).
While few scholars would go so far as to critique the importance of teaching civic information, or
attempting to create more knowledgeable young people, many note how current practices have
important limitations. First, while “political knowledge” leads to the aforementioned civic blessings,
scholars concede that “knowledge” remains something of a black box predictor. Little is known about
what types of information lead to pro-civic attitudes and behaviors as well as what, exactly, affects
knowledge (Galston, 2001, p. 226). Second, the type of information currently taught has been critiqued
for being too sanitized (such that it does not prepare students for the bargaining, conflict and
compromise central to governance, Hibbing & Theiss Morse, 1996, p. 57) and for failing to reflect the
“continual struggles of democratic politics” (such that it “reduces, confines, diminishes and depletes”
the meanings of citizenship in formal and taught curriculum, Knight-Abowitz & Harnish, 2006, p.
657). Third, political information, on its own, cannot “guarantee our humanity and will not sustain our
democracy” (Kahne & Westheimer, 2003, p. 64). To this point, scholars argue that memorizing civic
facts and figures, and scoring well on course exams, does not translate into the civic literacy that helps
individuals scan the news, protect their (and their community) interests, and hold elected officials
accountable for their actions.
Fourth, this concentration on information has failed to create a more knowledgeable youth cohort.
Despite an increased emphasis on information in public schools, and despite an increasingly educated
citizenry (more Americans have college degrees than ever before in our nation’s history), young
Americans know less about their government than did their parents or grandparents at their ages (Delli
Carpini, 2000). Fifth, some political communication scholars suggest that the ideal of a knowledgeable
citizenry may be overblown. Indeed, Zaller (2003) has argued that individuals may scan, rather than
master, the news and Graber (2004; 2001) acknowledges that the human capacity for absorbing
political information may be limited. Schudson (2000) has been so bold to suggest that “it is possible
that the link between information and democracy is not as tight as we have made it out to be” (p. 11).
Frustrated by the limitations of an information-centered curriculum, some educators have opted for
another approach: engaging young people in experiential learning projects to motivate them to be
better citizens. Experiential learning (also referred to as action learning, youth participation, and work
www.annettestrauss.org | 2


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