The Death or Rebirth of Civics, Which Is It?

August 27, 2019
Kristina Janeway

Civics is the study of rights and duties of citizenship. OK, great definition, but what does it mean in the modern context when even the meaning of citizenship fluctuates from time to time? Many students, despite the educational standards, still do not have a firm grasp of what it means to be a citizen, let alone what the rights and duties of being a citizen are in the context of local, state, and national government. Does this lack of comprehension account for the lull in people choosing to vote? Does the failure to understand what the actual rights are account for the population’s unrest? Was the teaching of civics dead and is it now being reborn because of a renewed interest in the exercise of those rights and duties?

In eighth-grade history classrooms across the country, 13- and 14-year-olds are studying the Declaration of Independence, focusing on the grievances of the citizens of the English colonies against King George. They are studying the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, where the Founding Fathers listed out the rights and responsibilities of a citizen of the United States. However, in the historical context of that time period, “citizen” meant “white, wealthy, male landowner.” Through a variety of amendments, the definition of a citizen has changed to “a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government of a country and is entitled to the protection, as well as to the rights and privileges, of that country.” So as educators, where and how do we start in trying to make students understand the role of civics in their lives?

Start with having them create definitions of “citizen,” “citizenship,” “rights,” “responsibilities,” and “duties” that make sense to them in the context of their lives, then go back to Merriam-Webster’s definitions, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights to create definitions specific for this country.

Now, pose the question: Do our responsibilities as citizens stop with what we have been taught from the founding documents of this country? This simple yes-or-no question is at the heart of what is now an ethical debate of what it means to be a citizen.

Next, have the students brainstorm a list of ethical responsibilities of a citizen of this country. How is this list similar to or different from those original rights and responsibilities delineated in the founding documents? Why?

I realize these are touchy questions that will create heated classroom debates, but citizenship is deeply personal to each individual and inextricably tied to a person’s experiences as well as perspectives. It is not just a to-do list to be fulfilled for the government in order to have those rights and privileges. Or is it?

The Center for Civic Education website will come in handy at this point to help make the concept of civics come to life beyond a discussion in your classroom. This website is run by a non-profit, non-partisan organization and is designed to assist educators as they guide students through comprehension, internalization, and application of civics. Project Citizen, on this website, takes you and the students through a project-based learning exercise to make civics more meaningful and realistic.

So, has civics been dead, or has it been reborn? The answer is up to you, but civics does have the opportunity to be reborn through understanding with each generation that passes through the classrooms.

Kristina Janeway

Kristina Janeway is a Pre-AP, GT, and PSAT/Pre-AP English teacher in Lubbock, Texas. She has designed ELA to Social Studies curriculum for 15 years.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Tell us how we can improve this post? If you would like a response, please include an email address.

Leave a Reply