Magazine Feature

Why Civics Needs Social Justice Education

Social justice-oriented civics education is crucial for developing the civic knowledge, skills and dispositions people need to fulfill the potential of a multiracial and inclusive democracy.
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Illustrations by Ashley Lukashevsky

The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s 2022 annual survey that measures civic knowledge found that fewer than half of adults in the United States can name all three branches of government. Only 20% accurately name freedom of the press and only 24% identify religious freedom as protections provided by the First Amendment. Over half incorrectly believe that the First Amendment means that Facebook must allow people to freely express themselves on its website.

Also noted is declining participation in places that bring people together to solve common problems—places like community centers, unions, local government, and cultural and religious institutions. Dubbed “civic deserts,” such places provide fewer opportunities for people, especially young people, to engage in civic or political life.

Increasing polarization and a decline in our ability and willingness to actively participate in public life have fueled recent calls for more emphasis on civics education and more opportunities for involvement in civic organizations. The very reason public education was established in the mid-1800s was to prepare citizens to participate in democracy. Without concerted effort, growing disconnection from democratic institutions and norms is likely to widen divisions that now threaten our commitment to democracy.

Definitions of Civics Literacy

As traditionally defined, civics literacy requires cultivation of the knowledge, skills and dispositions essential for participation in democracy.

  • Civic knowledge entails understanding how our political system works and knowing our political and civic rights and responsibilities—such as the right to vote and run for public office and our responsibility to respect the rights and interests of others.
  • Civic skills include the ability to analyze and evaluate issues so we can thoughtfully articulate and defend positions on topics that matter to us. Civic skills enable us to participate in public processes such as monitoring government performance and mobilizing with others around issues of collective concern.
  • Civic dispositions—such as public-spiritedness; critical-mindedness; and the willingness to listen, learn from, negotiate and compromise with others—are the basis for participating respectfully with others as equals.

The Purpose of Civics Education

Civics literacy in practice can develop citizen power to keep government entities in check, impede attempts to undermine democratic norms and processes, and create avenues for peaceful change. Civics literacy and engagement are the foundation for an effectively functioning democratic society.

While civic knowledge, skills and dispositions are necessary qualities, many argue that they do not go far enough in addressing structural injustices that prevent equal participation. Models of civics education need to consider dissenting voices and forms of resistance, acknowledge entrenched inequalities in society, and commit to addressing injustices. Doing so would better prepare all young people, particularly those from historically marginalized communities, to envision themselves as important political actors with valuable ideas and experiences to contribute.

A central purpose of civics education should be to prepare young people to participate actively and skillfully in our multiracial democracy to address problems and develop solutions together. This would include helping youth consider differentials in the power and ability to participate and challenge inequitable power relations that privilege some while marginalizing others. And civics education would give them the skills to recognize the experiences and perspectives of different groups in our society, understand their historical trajectories in this country, envision ways to live together that do not perpetuate dominance, and promote truly inclusive democratic engagement as essential to solving the problems we face as a society.

Social Justice Education and Civics Learning

The purpose of social justice education—as defined in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice—is to create a society where everyone has fair access to the resources and opportunities to develop their full capacities and everyone is welcome to participate democratically with others to mutually shape social policies and institutions that govern civic life.

Social justice-oriented civics education that values the lives of all young people creates conditions that enable their human capacities to flourish.

The process for attaining social justice is necessarily democratic because it is inclusive, respectful of human diversity and affirming of the capacity of people to join with others to create change for our collective well-being.

A social justice approach recognizes and values diversity: differences such as race, ethnic heritage, class, age, gender, sexuality, ability, religion and nationality. Equally important is an understanding of oppression and the multiple levels on which it operates—individual, interpersonal, institutional and societal—and recognition of how power is used to sustain inequalities.

Appreciation for diversity and understanding of oppression can germinate in spaces where people learn about the impact of oppression on various groups in our society, over time and in the present; develop an awareness of our linked fates in the face of daunting ecological, economic and social problems; and experiment with alternative ways to act in and on the world to promote social justice for all.

Accordingly, a social justice-oriented civics education would focus on promoting recognition and respect for different groups’ histories and create learning spaces where diverse individuals can express their distinctive identities, experiences and perspectives. It would help young people learn to attend to group dynamics, supporting those whose histories and participation have been limited while encouraging those whose perspectives have been overvalued to share space more equitably.

Such spaces could enable young people to engage in dialogue in ways that do not diminish the humanity or dignity of anyone. Social justice-focused civic engagement would take as a given that racial and other forms of inequity are inherent obstacles to democracy and recognize that addressing them will ultimately lead to a more equitable society for all.

This is a strong starting point for imagining a social justice-oriented civics education.

Social justice-oriented civic knowledge: Historically grounded conversations about current events that highlight the agency and grassroots political action of historically marginalized groups could affirm youth from all social groups, particularly those who are from oppressed communities, and help young people see themselves as actors in history. Instruction in government, history, economics, law and democracy, while an important part of a civics curriculum, needs to explore critical and contested views of history—by, for example, examining flaws in how the Constitution was written and attempts to remedy these over the course of our history as well as learning about groups in every historical era who have challenged the country to live up to its ideals.

The prevailing model of civics education assumes a position of neutrality that tends to privilege the experiences of political actors from dominant groups. Instead, we need to treat the histories and lived experiences of historically marginalized communities as a necessary part of civic knowledge.

Social justice-oriented civic skills: A social justice orientation to civics would help young people develop analytic tools to examine issues of power and privilege.

Learning to ask critical questions would crack open the veneer of inequitable arrangements portrayed as unchangeable and help young people discern the powerful interests that lock advantage in place. They can learn to examine questions such as, “Whose interests does an oppressive status quo serve? Who benefits and who pays?” Such questions get at the heart of how unfair advantage entrenches in purportedly neutral systems to congeal into “the way things are.”

Social justice-oriented civic dispositions: Civics classes that focus on fostering inclusive, empathetic and equal relationships among students would promote a sense of belonging and safety that enables young people to grapple with oppression, reflect on histories of mistreatment, negotiate differences honestly, and work toward shared understanding and mutual empowerment. This would help young people recognize their agency and define the terms of their own political participation. It could also heighten political empathy across groups, especially among those from advantaged groups.

Social justice-oriented civics education that values the lives of all young people creates conditions that enable their human capacities to flourish. Classroom and community forums could then become places where young people figure out who they are in relationship to diverse peers and how they fit within and can contribute to a more just society where all can thrive.

Illustration of two people reading books.

Social Justice-Oriented Civics Education in Practice

A social justice-oriented civics curriculum grounded in the lived experiences, identities and histories of young people should help them investigate compelling and meaningful issues in their own lives. Such an approach would go beyond discussion of current events and controversies to surface concerns they and their communities face and avenues to impact the institutions that affect their daily lives. Engaging in creative political and cultural expression, democratic decision-making, and civic action to address relevant issues in their schools, communities and the broader society would develop young people’s civic muscles and could energize ongoing civic participation as a life-long commitment.

Meetings and classes, clubs and organizations, online and face-to-face networks, community action projects, and public protests are all contexts that bring people together to reflect on and identify the causes of the problems they face and generate possibilities for democratic change. Fortunately, examples already exist in storytelling and participatory action research projects that engage youth in identifying and addressing problems in their schools and communities.

Storytelling is one powerful way to engage young people in developing their civic selves. When they get together with peers to study the impact of oppression in their lives through sharing stories, young people begin to create a new consciousness, pride and sense of agency. Storytelling helps them discover they are not alone in their feelings and experiences, break down barriers and build cross-group understanding, and develop a shared vision, sense of solidarity and collaborative action for change.

In one example from Empowerment Through Multicultural Education, girls in an urban elementary school shared experiences of success and failure in academics and sports, discussed how media images affect their sense of what girls and women can be and do, and role-played alternatives that helped them experiment with how to challenge limiting notions. They devised proposals to address the lack of extracurricular opportunities for girls in their community and presented these to their elected representative while on a field trip to the state legislature. Meeting with female legislators from diverse racial groups also excited their imagination for what roles they might play in the future. One such result occurred when they organized and facilitated a career day for girls in their school that highlighted active roles for women.

Some community groups use storytelling as a participatory research method. Stories help to surface needs and concerns of young people, especially from groups that have been marginalized. Common themes are then used to design proposals and guide projects for change that build on and support youth leadership. For example, a participatory action research project in New York City, Polling for Justice (described in “Accountable to Whom? A Critical Science Counter-Story About a City That Stopped Caring for Its Young” by Madeline Fox and Michelle Fine) engaged predominantly Black and Latinx youth and adult researchers in examining the consequences of urban public policy in their communities, including encounters with the police. They then presented the data to the community at large, providing a counter-story that reimagined how institutions can be accountable to youth and their communities.

Social justice-oriented civics education offers an engaging, creative and powerful way to help young people develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions for active civic engagement. Such an education is essential for fulfilling the potential of a dynamic, diverse, multiracial democracy that can equitably meet the needs of all.

Resources for Further Reading

Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey

Civic Deserts: America’s Civic Health Challenge
By Matthew N. Atwell, John Bridgeland and Peter Levine

Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Fourth Edition
Edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, Diane J. Goodman, Davey Shlasko, Rachel R. Briggs and
Romina Pacheco

Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching, Second Edition
By Lee Anne Bell

The Storytelling Project Curriculum
By Lee Anne Bell, Rosemarie A. Roberts, Kayhan Irani and Brett Murphy

Curriculum for Justice and Harmony: Deliberation, Knowledge, and Action in Social and Civic Education
By Keith C. Barton and Li-Ching Ho

Education for Democracy: A Renewed Approach to Civic Inquiries for Social Justice
By Steven P. Camicia and Ryan Knowles

Engaging Youth in Leadership for Social and Political Change
Edited by Michael P. Evans and Kathleen Knight Abowitz

Accountable to Whom? A Critical Science Counter-Story About a City That Stopped Caring for Its Young
By Madeline Fox and Michelle Fine

The Color of Civics: Civic Education for a Multiracial Democracy
By Matthew D. Nelsen

Empowerment Through Multicultural Education
Edited by Christine E. Sleeter

The Need for Civic Education in 21st-Century Schools
By Rebecca Winthrop

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