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January-February 2013

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Civic Learning and Engagement

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.

Melissa Apostolides and Taylor Stanek from the Department of Education and Bethany Sutton and Halim Rizk from AAC&U contributed to this article.

Thomas Jefferson

Two years after Thomas Jefferson penned those cautionary lines in 1816, he offered this masterful—and still startlingly relevant—summary of the goals of education:

To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing; To improve by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment; And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties … are the objects of education.

Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia

Since this nation's founding, the success of the American experiment and our capacity to maintain a vibrant democracy have depended on a well-informed, public-spirited, and engaged population.

In the 21st century, no less than in the past, knowledgeable, engaged, globally minded citizens hold the key to this country's shared democratic values, prosperity, and security. This means that our K-12 and postsecondary education systems must ensure that Americans are prepared to participate in this country's civic life and to achieve its democratic ideals for all citizens.

Yet there is mounting evidence that today too many Americans are poorly prepared to act as knowledgeable and active citizens in their communities, their states, the nation, or the global community—in which the United States remains the most powerful and influential democracy (Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011; Finley, 2012).

There are widespread efforts afoot to better equip Americans for success in college and careers. But today we need to renew that Jeffersonian commitment to prepare all Americans for their lives as citizens. We cannot assume that civic knowledge, capacities, and commitments follow automatically from completing high school, crossing the finish line in college, or entering the workforce. Educators need to intentionally foster this kind of learning in their students.

The Threat of a “Citizenless Democracy”

Although America's democratic ideals remain a model for the world, US levels of voter participation and civic knowledge should give everyone pause (see box).

Ten Indicators: of Anemic US Civic Health

  1. In 2007, the US ranked 139th of 172 democracies in voter participation.

  2. Only 10 percent of citizens contacted a public official in 2009–10.

  3. Only 24 percent of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level in civics in 2010, fewer than in 2006 or in 1998.

  4. Less than one-half of 12th graders reported studying international topics as part of a civics education.

  5. Half of the states no longer require civics education for high school graduation.

  6. Among 14,000 college seniors surveyed in 2006 and 2007, the average score on a civic literacy exam was just over 50 percent, an “F.”

  7. Opportunities to develop civic skills in high school through community service, school government, or service clubs are disproportionately available to wealthier students.

  8. Just over one-third of college faculty surveyed in 2007 strongly agreed that their campus actively promotes awareness of US or global social, political, and economic issues.

  9. A similar percentage (35.8 percent) of college students surveyed strongly agreed that faculty publicly advocate the need for students to become active and involved citizens.

  10. Only one-third of college students surveyed strongly agreed that their college education resulted in increased civic capacities.

(National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012)

In remarks at the 2011 iCivics conference on “Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pointed out that when polled, nearly two-thirds of Americans failed to name all three branches of government. Less than half of the public can name a single Supreme Court justice. And more than a quarter can't identify which nation America fought in the Revolutionary War.

When Newsweek asked one thousand Americans to take the US citizenship test, almost 40 percent failed. Nearly a third could not name the current vice president. And roughly three-quarters could not explain why we waged the Cold War (Romano, 2011).

This lack of basic civic knowledge reflects weak learning at the school level. According to the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), less than one-third of American fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders are proficient in civics. In the NAEP's “roles of citizens” component, only 27 percent of seniors could identify two privileges US citizens have that non-citizens don't, and only 8 percent were able to list two responsibilities of citizens.

When polled about specific topics they had studied during the current school year, fewer seniors (67 percent) reported studying the Constitution than in prior reports (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). And in our ever-more interconnected world, it's cause for concern that less than half of those surveyed reported studying other nations' systems of government or international organizations such as the United Nations.

The picture does not improve in higher education. In one study of 14,000 college seniors, the average score on a test of civic knowledge was F. Civic learning is rarely a requirement at the college level; nor, at many institutions, is history (Intercollegiate Studies Institute & National Civic Literacy Board, 2007).

If, as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said in reaction to the school findings, “the habits of citizenship must be learned,” then more than three-quarters of near-voting-age youth haven't yet learned them.

The challenge we face has been years in the making. As John Dewey, whose career spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, noted, “The trouble … is that we have taken our democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation.”

In 1998, the National Commission on Civic Renewal, chaired by former US Senator Sam Nunn and former US Secretary of Education William Bennett, again raised concerns about the current state of citizens' disengagement. The Commission's report warned that “in a time that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators.”

For decades, in short, our education system has failed to adequately combat this decline of civic engagement and awareness, resulting in what many are now calling a “civics recession.” The good news is that there is growing awareness, at all levels, that we need new and concerted efforts to make civic learning and engagement a core component of every American's education, from elementary school to college and beyond.

The Compelling Benefits of Civic Learning and Engagement

By “civic learning and engagement,” we mean educational experiences that prepare students for democracy by developing their civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions through learning and practice. In the 21st century, civic learning needs to address both US and global developments related to democratic principles and freedoms, as well as global movements for greater self-determination.

Encouragingly, there's compelling preliminary research to suggest that students who are provided with robust civic-learning experiences are more likely to develop stronger critical thinking skills and earn better grades, graduate from high school, enroll in college, and complete college on time—all while gaining a commitment to civic problem solving (Dávila & Mora, 2007; Northup & Brown, 2010; Brownell & Swaner, 2010).

In short, preparing learners of all ages for informed, engaged participation in the civic and democratic life of our communities, states, and nation is not just essential—it is entirely consistent with the over-arching national goals of increasing student achievement; with closing achievement gaps; and with President Obama's goal that by 2020, the United States will once again have the world's highest proportion of college graduates.

A National Call to Engagement and Educational Action

To succeed in this enterprise, we need strong leadership from educators, policy leaders, and key stakeholders from business, philanthropy, labor, and government. Over the past two years, each of the authors has been working within her respective sphere of influence to mobilize the needed leadership and chart a direction for a new era of civic learning and engagement. In partnership with the Civic Mission of the Schools—a coalition working on school reform—we have articulated both an educational vision and an action agenda to make civic learning not just a shared priority but an achievement.

Neither we nor the colleagues who worked with us believe that the federal government should be the prime mover in changing the way schools and colleges prepare students for a deep engagement with the issues facing our democracy. Educators themselves have to set the direction—and, encouragingly, tens of thousands of them already are mobilizing to reinvent the way we prepare students for knowledgeable democratic citizenship.

But we also believe that the federal government can create a far more enabling environment for advancing civic learning, both in the schools and in postsecondary education, by the signals it sends about raising civic learning to prominence throughout its college-going and career-preparation initiatives and by the criteria it sets for programs, grant competitions, and research.

To these ends, the US Department of Education supported a major national dialogue and study—organized by the AAC&U and the Global Perspectives Institute, Inc.—to determine the level of and set goals for the renewal of students' civic learning and preparation in schools and colleges. Educators from all over the country convened in a series of roundtables; existing research was reviewed and synthesized; and the Department took stock of its own record and opportunities for helping educators, policymakers, and others move civic learning to a more significant level nationally.

Both of these lines of work came together in a national convening on “Civic Learning and Engagement for Democracy's Future,” held at the White House on January 10, 2012. There, over sixty colleges, universities, community colleges, and national organizations made commitments to help move civic learning from the margins to the center in education at all levels.

The White House convening released and discussed two national reports that chart a path forward. The first, entitled A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future, provides an organizing framework for civic learning from school through college. It also provides many examples of curricula, pedagogy, and community-based partnerships that exemplify what it would mean to make it an intrinsic part of school and college learning.

The second, Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action, identifies nine steps that the US Department of Education is undertaking to provide leadership and support for civic learning as a national priority.

A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future

A Crucible Moment was written with guidance from hundreds of educators, convened in formal and informal roundtables, who had already made a strong commitment to advancing civic learning and engagement. As the advisors who framed A Crucible Moment acknowledge, its recommendations could only be made because educators from all sectors have been testing new designs for campus and community partnerships, for public scholarship, for community-based learning and problem solving, and for pedagogies that teach students to work and learn with people different from themselves. A Crucible Moment pays warm and well-deserved tribute to these civic trailblazers.

The trailblazers themselves were quick to say, however, that we now need to take civic inquiry to the next level. Recognizing the value of both service and service learning, they nonetheless want to engage students in what the report describes as “civic problem solving.” Students should have opportunities to work with community partners to tackle and help ameliorate the myriad public problems we face nationally and globally.

A Crucible Moment calls on educators at all levels to make civic learning and engagement with real-world problems a core component of all students' education, both in the schools and in all sectors of postsecondary education. Civic learning should be expected, not elective—pervasive rather than marginal.

The document provides a framework to guide students' acquisition of civic knowledge, capacities, and experience. Its key idea is that schools and colleges need to cooperate in developing pathways for civic learning that combine rich knowledge of democratic principles and practices with hands-on, face-to-face work in our communities on problems that affect our future, such as poverty, literacy, nutrition, health, and the environment.

A Crucible Moment A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement


  • Familiarity with key democratic texts and universal democratic principles, and with selected debates—in US and other societies—concerning their applications

  • Historical and sociological understanding of several democratic movements, both in the US and abroad

  • Understanding one's sources of identity and their influence on one's civic values, assumptions, and responsiblities to a wider public

  • Knowledge of the diverse cultures, histories, values, and contestations that have shaped US and other world societies

  • Exposure to multiple religious traditions and to alternative views about the relation between religion and government

  • Knowledge of the political systems that frame constitutional democracies and of political levers for influencing change


  • Critical inquiry, analysis, and reasoning

  • Quantitative reasoning

  • Gathering and evaluating multiples sources of evidence

  • Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives

  • Written, oral, and multi-media communication

  • Deliberation and bridge building across differences

  • Collaborative decision making

  • Ability to communicate in multiple languages


  • Respect for freedom and human dignity

  • Empathy

  • Open-mindedness

  • Tolerance

  • Justice

  • Equality

  • Ethical integrity

  • Responsibility to a larger good

Collective Action

  • Integration of knowledge and examined values to inform actions taken in concert with other people

  • Moral discernment and behavior

  • Navigation of political systems and processes, both formal and informal

  • Public problem solving with diverse partners

  • Compromise, civililty, and mutual respect

General education is one way to do this, but it is not enough. In perhaps its most pace-setting argument, A Crucible Moment argues that college majors, including those that prepare students directly for jobs, need to teach students what it means to take responsibility for the democracy in which we all participate and in which we all have a stake.

So A Crucible Moment recommends that “public questions” and “civic inquiry”—what some have called “civic professionalism”—be incorporated into every field of study and major. Those preparing for careers in science, health, engineering, education, business, accounting, and the trades all need practical experience of the kinds of questions with which every field and every professional inevitably wrestles. The report provides specific examples of institutions, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and California State University, Monterey Bay, where this kind of career-related civic learning is already a core dimension of each student's professional development.

In issuing this call to action, those engaged with A Crucible Moment launched the American Commonwealth Partnership, spearheaded by Harry Boyte, which is working with many campuses and organizations to foster partnerships between educators and their communities focused on disputed public questions.

In addition, to make civic learning part of the expected educational experience for all students, AAC&U has formed a formal partnership with a dozen other major organizations that are already addressing different aspects of civic inquiry and engagement. This Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Action Network (CLDE) is led by Caryn McTighe Musil, the senior AAC&U leader who also was the primary author (with myriad advisory editors) of A Crucible Moment.

The CLDE effort complements and builds on a parallel initiative, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, that already is gaining traction in school circles and whose leaders contributed to the recommendations in A Crucible Moment. The partner organizations are all working to make civic learning pervasive within higher education and to build additional evidence about what works in fostering civic knowledge, engagement, and commitment. The Kettering Foundation has signaled its intention to work directly on Crucible's recommendation that civic learning be incorporated into major programs, including career fields. Musil will be a key figure in this effort as well.

To assist the CLDE, AAC&U is expanding its journal, Diversity and Democracy, to feature the most important examples of public-spirited curricula, pedagogy, and ongoing community partnerships that CLDE members can identify. Diversity and Democracy will also publish emerging research on what is and is not working in developing students' civic commitments and capacities. Building on the energy already surging through many disparate movements and efforts, the CLDE network wants to create cooperation around a shared direction in order to accelerate the pace of change. This effort is central to AAC&U's next strategic plan.

The schools have the NAEP assessments of civic learning and history—now it's higher education's turn to assess the civic learning of its students. AAC&U and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) are spearheading a task force that will recommend how to do so—and how to make students' hands-on civic problem solving part of that assessment.

Will these efforts to reclaim higher education's civic mission result in far-reaching change? Time will tell. But it is a very promising sign that, in a separate but important development, the Lumina Foundation is now beta-testing a 21st-century framework for college-level learning outcomes, the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), in which civic learning is one of five domains proposed as necessary to every associate's, bachelor's and master's degree.

Over 125 colleges and universities and half a dozen higher education associations and accrediting agencies are trying out the DQP framework and seeing how well it works for their students and accords with their missions. Early reports indicate that the experimenting campuses by and large see the DQP's emphasis on civic learning as the right step forward.

The Obama Administration's Commitment to Civic Learning

As AAC&U and its partners have convened educators, identified the community's strengths and weaknesses, and clarified higher education's role in developing knowledgeable and active citizens, the Administration has worked to define the federal role in this effort.

The Department's Civic Learning Road Map, crafted in part as a response to A Crucible Moment's call to action, outlined nine steps the Department of Education, in partnership with the White House and various agencies of the Obama Administration, will take to advance this important effort (US Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary & Office of Postsecondary Education, 2012). Each step represents just one small piece of the national agenda, but taken together they have become a driving force behind the Department's ongoing work to fulfill the President's vision of “cradle-to-career” education reform and achieving the 2020 completion goal.

The first objective is to serve as a convener and catalyst for schools and postsecondary institutions to increase and enhance high-quality civic learning and engagement. In the years ahead, the Department plans to expand its efforts to promote institutional commitment to high-quality civic learning, from grade school to graduate school, and to increase public awareness of educational institutions' role in developing informed citizens.

This could include encouraging states, schools, and postsecondary institutions to conduct civic audits, develop plans to prepare students to lead engaged civic lives, and publish their results. The Department can also encourage postsecondary education leaders to advance civic-learning partnerships and to adopt recommendations from leading national efforts.

The Department has set as its second objective to identify and support the development of improved indicators of students' civic strengths and weaknesses and help the field craft appropriate responses to them. For example, to amplify tools such as the NAEP civics exams, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance will add questions to an upcoming national survey of high school students, the National Longitudinal Transition Study, about their transitions to postsecondary education. These findings and other relevant data will be disseminated to educators and the public in order to increase civic-learning opportunities in all sectors of education.

By convening stakeholders and improving data, the Department hopes to identify promising practices in civic learning and engagement and to encourage further research about what works. This third objective will be accomplished through a broad outreach effort. In a recent move to reach this goal, the Department's National Center for Education Research included language in its Requests for Applications, thus emphasizing that civic learning and engagement approaches are appropriate targets of intervention for improving academic outcomes.

The Department continually solicits promising civic-learning and engagement practices online, as well as holding frequent stakeholder meetings. The agency will also encourage schools and postsecondary institutions to assess the impact of civic-learning initiatives on the civic and economic health of the school or college and of the community.

As its fourth objective, the Department is considering ways to leverage federal investments and public-private partnerships in support of civic learning—for example, by encouraging grantees and grant applicants to include civic-learning and engagement initiatives in federally funded education programs. Where appropriate, such activities could be regarded as allowable uses of program funds, with criteria and reporting requirements adjusted to give them a stronger focus. Education grantees could also be encouraged to pursue public-private partnerships with businesses, foundations, and community-based organizations to advance their civic learning and engagement goals.

The Department must support civic learning in schools and on campuses across the country by looking to all the programs that it sponsors. That is why the fifth objective in the Road Map commits the agency to encouraging the expansion of community-based work-study placements under the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program.

Currently, the program mandates that institutions of higher education use at least seven percent of the total amount of funds awarded to provide community-service jobs for students. In the 2009–2010 award year, federal funding for these jobs topped $220 million—a sum augmented by a much larger pool of non-federal matching funds.

Going forward, the Department will encourage expanded efforts to place FWS students in assignments tailored to their interests in federal, state, or local public agencies—or in private nonprofits. The agency will also encourage postsecondary institutions to track outcomes for students and the community and to share promising evidence-based practices nationally.

The sixth objective is to encourage public-service careers among college students and graduates—and especially to attract top talent to teaching, public safety, and related fields. The Administration is taking significant steps to make it easier for many borrowers, including those who devote their time and talent to public service, to repay their federal student loans through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, the Income-Based Repayment plan, and other tools.

Recognizing the importance of civic learning to students of all ages, the seventh objective is to support civic learning as part of a well-rounded K–12 curriculum. The Department's Blueprint for Reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has proposed a new competitive program: Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.

This funding would assist states, local education agencies, and nonprofits in developing, implementing, evaluating, and replicating programs that demonstrably contribute to a well-rounded education—including civics, government, economics, and history. Other disciplines could also incorporate proven civic-learning and democratic-engagement approaches, such as service learning. As this Administration continues to call on Congress to reauthorize ESEA, it stands ready to implement this new program.

The Road Map's eighth objective is to ask Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to identify high-impact, evidence-based civic-learning practices that increase student success. The HBCUs and MSIs have a proud record of preparing students to be national and community leaders in civil rights, the sciences, engineering, and medicine. The Department will encourage these institutions to maintain their focus on developing civic leadership and to identify best practices that might benefit all of America's colleges and universities.

The ninth objective outlined in the Road Map is to increase student and family participation in education programs and policies at the federal and local levels. President Obama's first executive order was a memo to federal agencies about making government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Consistent with that call, the Department has begun to identify and promote opportunities for students and families to participate as collaborators and problem solvers in education reform.

A Crucible Moment challenged the higher education community to create real commitments and goals in the national effort to reclaim its civic mission. While the Department cannot be the sole driving force behind that work, it can serve and support it.

Equipping Americans to “Do” Democracy in the 21st Century

The nation has reached a critical point in its history. We Americans need to take concerted action at the national, state, local and institutional levels to ensure the survival and success of our democracy and society for generations to come.

In his 2012 State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. … As long as we are joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.”

It's clear to us that in this effort, we are joined by a common purpose. We must rise to meet this “crucible moment” with bold and innovative strategies that reinstate civic learning and engagement as a vital part of 21st-century education in communities across our nation.

If we succeed, as we must, our students will have the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to meet tomorrow's challenges. They'll be America's future public servants, problem solvers, entrepreneurs, inventors, and leaders. They'll be the heartbeat of our common culture, the stewards of our shared civic life, and the trustees of our values. They'll “do” democracy in a way that provides hope and inspiration for the world.


1. Brownell, J. E. and Swaner, L. E. (2010) Five high-impact practices: Research on learning outcomes, completion, and quality, Association of American Colleges and Universities., Washington, DC.

2. Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (2011) Guardian of democracy: The civic mission of school, Author.Retrieved from

3. Dávila, A. and Mora, M. (January 21 2007) Civic engagement and high school academic progress: An analysis using NELS data, CIRCLE: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.Retrieved from Paper 52

4. Finley, A. (2012) Making progress? What we know about students' achievement of liberal education outcomes, Association of American Colleges and Universities., Washington, DC.

5. Intercollegiate Studies Institute's National Civic Literacy Board (2007) Failing our students, failing America: Holding colleges accountable for teaching America's history and institutions, Retrieved from

6. McCormick Tribune Foundation (September 29 2007) Civic disengagement in our democracy, McCormick Tribune Conference Series., Chicago, IL. Retrieved from

7. National Center for Education Statistics (May 2011) The nation's report card: Civics 2010, Institute of Education Sciences., Washington, DC. Retrieved from

8. National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012) A crucible moment: College learning & democracy's future, Association of American Colleges and Universities., Washington, DC.

9. Northup, J. and Brown, S. (June 2010) Cluster evaluation of Ohio Learn and Serve, 2009–2010, RMC Research Corporation.Retrieved from

10. Romano, A. (March 20 2011) How dumb are we? Newsweek/Daily Beast, Retrieved from

11. U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary and Office of Postsecondary Education (January 2012) Advancing civic learning and engagement in democracy: A road map and call to action, Retrieved from

Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter ( has served in that capacity since June 2009. Kanter oversees the US Department of Education's policies, programs, and activities related to postsecondary education, career-technical and adult education, and federal student aid. She has had extensive experience in both teaching and administration and has been a board member and advisor to a variety of national, state, and local organizations. Before joining the Department, Kanter served as chancellor of California's Foothill-De Anza Community College District.

Carol Geary Schneider ( has been president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities since 1998. Under her leadership, AAC&U launched Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), a public advocacy and campus action initiative designed to engage students and the public with what really matters in a college education for the twenty-first century. Schneider has published extensively on all the major areas of her educational work and has taught at the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Chicago State University, and Boston University.


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