Refocusing Civic Education: Developing the Skills Young People Need to Engage in Democracy

Published date01 January 2023
AuthorD. Sunshine Hillygus,John B. Holbein
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterThe Complex Demands of Civic Reasoning and Discourse
ANNALS, AAPSS, 705, January 2023 73
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231177798
Developing the
Skills Young
People Need to
Engage in
Schools have traditionally taken a “just-the-facts-
ma’am” approach to civic education, focusing on gov-
ernmental structures and political systems. We argue
that preparing young people to engage with democracy
requires far more than rote memorization of facts and
figures. Schools should be laboratories of democracy,
where young people’s civic intentions are converted
into civic behaviors. We argue that to realize that trans-
formation, educators must impart real-world knowl-
edge, practical skills, and nurturing abilities that are not
captured by standardized tests of academic achieve-
ment: namely, the interpersonal and intrapersonal
abilities conducive to civic mindedness. We discuss
what these oft-labeled “noncognitive” skills are and
how they are measured, review the evidence that shows
how they foster democratic participation, articulate a
vision for how civics can help develop students’ non-
cognitive skills, and lay out a research agenda for schol-
ars seeking to teach young people the skills requisite to
actively participate in democracy.
Keywords: civic education; noncognitive skills; politi-
cal socialization; civic engagement; demo-
cratic participation; youth voter turnout
core mission of the American public educa-
tion system is to create an engaged citi-
zenry that participates in democracy. Thinkers
D. Sunshine Hillygus is a professor of political science
and public policy at Duke University. Her research
encompasses American political behavior, campaigns
and elections, survey methods, and public opinion. She
is coauthor of the books Making Young Voters, The
Persuadable Voter, and The Hard Count. She directs
the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology.
John B. Holbein is an associate professor of public pol-
icy, politics, and education at the Frank Batten School
of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of
Virginia. His research covers topics such as political
participation, democratic accountability, political rep-
resentation, discrimination, and education policy. He is
coauthor of the book Making Young Voters.
NOTE: This article draws from and extends our work
in Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes
into Civic Action (Cambridge University Press 2020).
from Plato to the present have argued for this central role of the education sys-
tem. The founding fathers agreed that the future of the republic would depend
on the knowledge and participation of the electorate. Thomas Jefferson, for
example, reasoned that the new country must “educate and inform the whole
mass of the people” because “wherever the people are well informed they can be
trusted with their own government.”1,2 In the mid-nineteenth century, the key
education reformer Mann (1846) likewise argued that “since the achievement of
American independence, the universal and ever-repeated argument in favor of
free schools has been that the general intelligence which they are capable of dif-
fusing . . . is indispensable to the continuance of a republican government.
More recently, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told The
Washington Post that “the only reason we have public school education in
America is because in the early days of the country, our leaders thought we had
to teach our young generation about citizenship. . . . [T]hat obligation never
ends. If we don’t take every generation of young people and make sure they
understand that they are an essential part of [our] government, we won’t survive”
(Heffner 2012). Today, scholars, activists, and policymakers continue to look to
civic education as the path for increasing political participation in American
democracy (Holbein and Hillygus 2020, ch. 5).3
Despite these lofty goals, empirical evidence finds that although standard civ-
ics curricula can sometimes increase political knowledge—especially among the
disadvantaged (e.g., Campbell and Niemi 2016; Green et al. 2011; Neundorf,
Niemi, and Smets 2016; Niemi and Junn 1998)—it does not produce citizens who
are actually engaged in forms of collective governance (e.g., Holbein and Hillygus
2020; Persson and Oscarsson 2010; Weinschenk and Dawes 2022). In this article,
we argue that a key reason for this shortfall is the failure of civics curricula to
teach young people the appropriate skills required to engage in forms of
The structure and content of civic education in the U.S. has traditionally
focused on developing political knowledge and other so-called “cognitive” skills,
most often using a traditional transmission model of instruction, where teachers
transmit information to students through lectures and assigned readings. This
approach focuses on teaching facts about government, political institutions, and
democratic principles. Civic education has typically followed a model that prior-
itized fact-based learning and memorizing historical political structures. This
focus on historical structures is surfaced in systematic evaluations of the civic
education system (e.g., Patterson 2007), in surveys of education stakeholders
(e.g., Torney-Purta, Schwille, and Amadeo 1999), and in in-depth interviews with
civics teachers (e.g., Holbein and Hillygus 2020). Civics usually spends little time
focusing on how people can participate as citizens. In the limited civics courses
that most students take, they learn to memorize facts and figures about historical
political leaders, the structure of the three branches of government, and notable
dates in the formation of America’s republic. The information is presented, in
large part, via teacher-dominated lectures that involve very little hands-on stu-
dent engagement.4

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT