What is Civic Learning? A Proven Way to Strengthen Democracy

We have reached a critical moment in our country — a crossroads in the future of democracy that has launched many important dialogues. Today, research illustrates the American people are increasingly distrustful of our government (and in the concept of democracy itself). Racial tensions and income disparities are rising, and our civic health is faltering as people are struggling to connect to each other and to the institutions that seek to serve them.

A democracy thrives on participation; ours risks breaking without it. And while theories abound about the best ways to heal, rebuild, and move forward as a nation, it’s important to consider how we can not only navigate through this moment, but also build the foundation for a movement — a movement that will endure into the future, reinforce the values of our democracy, and enable equitable and inclusive participation for all Americans in the country we share.

At PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement), we believe one way to build that movement is through civic learning — a broad term that describes the process of teaching young people what it means to play an active role in democracy and build the skills to make it happen. These educational experiences can occur in classrooms or in “real world,” out-of-school contexts, and can include service-learning, civic simulations, dedicated civics courses, leadership development — and many things in between. It gives young people an opportunity to have the experience of participating in democratic life, and learn the skills to carry that forward. Civic learning has been shown to amplify participation in democratic life, and to deepen the connection to community that lies at the heart of active citizenship.

To help further the conversation around civic learning, PACE created the Civic Learning Primer. A tool for understanding the civic learning landscape, the primer starts at the beginning, with a definition of civic learning and a rationale for understanding why it matters, especially in our nation, and especially now. The tool highlights six practices that have been proven to advance civic learning and participation, alongside a series of innovations that are bringing civic learning into the rapidly-shifting civic landscape of our 21st century democracy. The primer also highlights unique opportunities for funders to play a role in improving our country’s civic learning landscape.

But a picture of our nation’s civic learning reality would not be complete without a discussion of its challenges. As the primer outlines, inequities in our civic learning structures today mirror — and reinforce — those in our society at large. Young people from lower-income families have fewer civic learning opportunities and, as a result, experience diminished levels of participation in civic life. Furthermore, many young people in rural and urban areas lack access to quality civic education. These disparities deepen existing social divisions and inequities in our nation. Civic deserts — places with few or no civic opportunities for youth — alienate young people, perpetuate distrust in government institutions, and set the stage for lifelong disengagement in our democracy.

We know that civic learning preserves and instills the core concepts, ideals, and values of our system of government; teaches students the skills of reflection, deliberation, and action on which our republic thrives; and prepares students to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. In short, civic learning provides the knowledge and skills to ensure this preparation for life. But today, some young people know their rights and responsibilities as citizens and feel supported to exercise these rights, while others do not.

This reality has inspired renewed interest in civic learning. Recently, the Democracy at a Crossroads Summit convened a spectrum of civic enthusiasts — from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to actress America Ferrera, and NBA star Shane Battier along with educators, students, researchers, funders, practitioners, and congresspeople — to discuss how civic learning can best serve our nation’s young people. It has also inspired organizations like PACE and the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) to explore the potential of civic learning as a pathway toward equity and opportunity for our nation’s young people.

On October 19, as a part of the NCoC’s Annual Conference, PACE and NCoC will host a salon to discuss how we can begin to reclaim civics during this divisive time, enable communities to build an inclusive foundation of committed changemakers, and embrace the civic education of our young people as integral to the collaborative movement building toward inclusion and a resilient democracy.

Today, our democracy is at risk of faltering if we continue to lack participation. We know civic learning can help address troubling trends: studies have shown that civic learning improves the quantity and quality of civic participation, including interest in politics, application of knowledge to solve public problems, participation in the voting process, and knowledge of government structure and process. But like all structures, access to it must be equitable in order to serve the varied scope of American people who call our country home. PACE, alongside the civic learning field writ large, is committed to exploring this timely and important conversation, and we welcome you to join us.