Teaching the Responsibilities of Citizenship
Education for citizenship in a constitutional democracy has been a long-standing goal of schools in the United States. To achieve this goal, students must learn their civil rights and responsibilities in a free society. This ERIC Digest discusses (1) the importance of teaching about the responsibilities of citizenship, (2) deficiencies in learning about responsible citizenship, (3) how to improve learning about responsible citizenship at home, (4) how to improve learning about responsible citizenship at school, and (5) where to obtain information and materials about how to teach responsible citizenship.
Why Should we Teach the Responsibilities of Citizenship?
Civil rights and liberties, claims based on law, are enforceable through the judicial system (e.g., the individual's right to freely express public policy preferences, to vote in a public election, or to have a trial by jury). By contrast, responsibilities of citizenship are obligations to contribute to the common good by performing duties to benefit the community (e.g., the individual's responsibility to become informed about public policies, to vote in public elections, or to serve willingly as a juror).
The preservation of civil rights and liberties is linked to performance of responsibilities. For example, the right of political participation means little when most citizens fail to exercise it. Furthermore, the right to free expression of political ideas is diminished when individuals do not gain knowledge about government. Responsibilities of citizenship--such as voluntary service to the community, participation in the political system, acquisition of knowledge about civic life, and public commitment to the values of constitutional democracy (e.g., liberty, justice, and the rule of law)--are essential to the health of a free society.
What are the Deficiencies of Young Americans in Learning About Responsible Citizenship?
Surveys of civic knowledge, attitudes, and actions reveal serious deficiencies in the citizenship education of young Americans. Reports on civic learning by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, indicate that the majority of 12th graders have a rudimentary knowledge of government and citizenship in the United States. However, half of the students in grade 12 fail to demonstrate knowledge needed for responsible participation in the political system. Further, in 1988, only six percent of the high school seniors achieved the highest level of civic proficiency as defined in the NAEP test. A very disturbing finding was that high school students did "significantly less well" in civics in the most recent assessment (1988) than their 1982 counterparts (National Assessment of Educational Progress 1990, 13).
Surveys of attitudes show a weak orientation by adolescents toward voluntary service for the community (Hart 1988). Most students acknowledge the importance of voting and campaigning in public elections; but they also tend to express low levels of political interest and efficacy (Miller 1985). The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds voting in public elections lags far behind the rate for those over age 25, which also tends to be much lower than desired by advocates of responsible citizenship.
There is a clear need to improve the learning of young Americans about their responsibilities as citizens of a democratic society. Parents and school teachers must act in concert to strengthen the desire and capacity of children for performance of civic obligations.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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