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Article Article January 25th, 2021
Legitimacy • Education • Justice

Civic Learning: A Way to Build Government Legitimacy

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.@niaannhill sheds light on civic learning, an approach to building #governmentlegitimacy not often discussed

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.@CPI_foundation survey identified several reasons the public does not trust government. How can civic education help build legitimacy?

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Civic education should help "produce young people who are well-informed, productively engaged in, and hopeful about democracy" @niaannhill

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Declining trust in government is a well-established fact, especially in the US these days. According to Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who trust the government in Washington always or most of the time has fallen from 77% in 1964 to 17% in 2019. Far too often, the conversation on how to solve this decline centers on transparency, leadership, and outreach. But what about the more basic question around how citizens learn to engage in the democratic system? What role should education play?

Scott Warren and Andrew Wilkes of Generation Citizen created a presentation that outlines a plan to elevate civics education standards in all 50 states by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This presentation highlights the proven fact that the general public does not trust the government. As the Centre for Public Impact has recently highlighted in their groundbreaking legitimacy survey, there are many reasons the general public does not trust the government. From institutional actors behaving unethically to a lack of accountability of elected officials, statistics show that Americans, understandably so, continue to lose their hope and confidence in the people that have been voted in to lead this nation. 

As a student that has studied complex challenges, I’ve seen how decreasing trust in government makes it harder for communities and governments to work together to drive change. Through my research, however, I’ve discovered that among the many approaches to building trust, one solution that is not discussed often is civic learning. 

Civic learning (also known as civic education or democracy education) is defined as: 

“The provision of information and learning experiences to equip and empower citizens to participate in democratic processes. [Civic] education can take very different forms, including classroom-based learning, informal training, experiential learning, and mass media campaigns. Civic education can be targeted at children or adults, in developed or developing countries, and at the local, national, or international level. As such, civic education is an approach that employs a range of different methods and is often used in combination with other participatory governance tools.” (YouthPower

As the definition of civic education is evolving, the concept should have an end goal of producing young people who are well-informed, productively engaged in, and hopeful about our democracy. 

Dr. Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor Harvard University and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, state that there are four dimensions of civic learning and expression that should be added to the definition, including:

  1. Civic knowledge, which is an understanding of government structure, government processes, relevant social studies knowledge and concepts, and American history and political thought in a global context; 

  2. Civic skills, which are competencies in the use of one’s voice, including basic writing, speaking, and listening skills and skills of research, investigation, and critical thinking; competencies in the use of practices of democratic coordination, political institutions, and media literacy; 

  3. Civic dispositions, which are attitudes important in a democracy, such as a sense of civic duty, sense of efficacy, concern for the welfare of others, and commitment to trustworthiness and bridge-building, and 

  4. Civic capacities, which is access to networks, opportunities to participate, and other forms of social capital that promote civic agency 

(Red & Blue Works, 2019)

Warren and Wilkes discuss how research has shown that there are many benefits of civics education. For instance, students who receive high-quality civics education are more likely to vote and discuss politics at home. They are also four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues and more confident in their ability to engage with their elected officials. 

Furthermore, by equipping students with the skills necessary to be 21st citizens, our nation will be strengthened in three main ways: 

  1. Through increasing accountability of our elected officials, since only informed and engaged citizens will ask tough questions of their leaders; 

  2. Through improving public discourse, since knowledgeable and interested citizens will engage in the public square and also demand more from the media; and 

  3. Through fulfilling our ideal of civic equality by giving every citizen, regardless of background, the tools to be full participants in our democracy 

(Warren and Wilkes, 2020) 

Civic learning, while central to the legitimacy of our government, requires cross-sectoral support. For example, the  National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education awarded $650,000 to iCivics, a nonprofit that has engaged students in meaningful civic learning, so they could “lead a coalition of experts in assessing the state of, and best practices in, the teaching of American history, civics, and government in K-12 education” (iCivics, 2019). 

Another example is the Civic Spring Project, a strategy led by Rajiv Vinnakota, President of the WW National Fellowship Foundation, that provided grants to youth civic engagement initiatives across the country. Six grantees were selected, which consisted of Ground Elizabeth (Elizabeth, NJ), Institute of Engagement (Houston, TX), Kinston Teens, Inc. (Kinston, NC), Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence (Lexington, KY), Youthprise (Minneapolis, MN), and Newark Youth One Stop and Career Center (Newark, NJ). They were each awarded grants of up to $100,000 to help support their mission of expanding civic engagement throughout the nation. 

These organizations understand the value of civic education to strengthen the nation and restore generational trust in the government. The more others can follow, the more we can ensure that civicengagement is a tool that can be used by our youth, who will one day be leaders of our country.

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Written by:

Nia Hill Master's candidate, Nonprofit Management, Columbia University School of Professional Studies
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