Right Opinion

Whatever Happened to Civics?

Guest Commentary · Jan. 21, 2020

By John White

“It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” —President George Washington

“Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.” —President John Adams

“We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it.” —President Calvin Coolidge

“The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over its government.” —President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“An America that is militarily and economically strong is not enough. The world must see an America that is morally strong with a creed and a vision. This is what has led us to dare and achieve. For us, values count.” —President Ronald Reagan (1983)

At the memorial service for a deceased person in my home town, a large crowd of friends and acquaintances attended. Marilyn had been deeply involved in the life of our community. My wife and I knew her through Girl Scouts, where she had been a long-time troop leader.

After the service, everyone gathered in the parish hall to offer condolences to her family and to have refreshments. There was a display board of photos and documents from events in Marilyn’s life. One particularly caught my attention. It was her third-grade report card for the school year 1939-40. The report card was just a small piece of paper about 8" x 8", folded in half. On one side of the paper was the name of the school system, the student, the grade, the teacher, and a message to parents that read in part: “This report concerning your child is sent to you five times during the school year. It is an attempt to give you an idea of how your child is doing in his studies and the teacher’s judgment as to the citizenship traits he is developing.”

The other side containing the actual grades for the marking periods struck me forcefully. It had two columns. One was headed Scholarship Progress and Reading Level. The other column — fully half of the grading section — was Citizenship Progress.

An explanation under the heading said: “The child’s attitude and behavior are of great importance. Education is not just a matter of book learning. It also includes learning to get on well with people, doing one’s best, facing facts, and doing the right thing in each situation.”

Specific subheads made clear what that meant. They included: Health and Posture, Orderliness, Thrift, Promptness, Clear Thinking, Initiative and Self-Reliance, Self-Control and Obedience, Perseverance, Honesty and Trustworthiness, Fair Play and Sportsmanship, Civic Responsibility, Courtesy and Consideration, and Cooperativeness. Each topic had a number of very specific statements on which the child was graded as having strength or weakness and whether the child needed to improve a trait or was improving. Civic Responsibility, for example, read: “Supports the right and opposes the wrong.” “Performs well the duties of any office to which he is elected.” “Takes pride in appearance of school property and does his share to keep it in good order.”

That was for a third-grade child! Good citizenship traits were instilled and developed to prepare the child not just to exist but to participate positively in the life of his or her community and the nation. The teacher and the school system inculcated honesty and morality along with scholarship, a sense of civic duty along with reading progress, courtesy and consideration along with penmanship, self-control and fair play along with spelling and language, and an attitude of self-reliance equal in importance to learning arithmetic.

Whatever happened to Citizen Progress? Whatever happened to civics?

The Dumbing Down of America

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the study of citizenship and government in schools was called civics. Notice that both aspects of our nation were included — the society and the government. According to my 1961 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, the term “civics” included materials derived from sociology, economics, geography, social psychology, international affairs, social ethics, and the study of occupations. Today, however, the Britannica noted, these areas of study, along with history, are known in secondary education as the social studies or the social sciences. Among the social studies still may be found courses devoted specifically to the organization and processes of governments and the rights and duties of citizens. Such courses may be called civics or they may be called government or citizenship or some yet different name.

Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia, likewise tells us: “Civics is the science of comparative government and means of administering public trusts — the theory of governance as applied to state institutions. It is usually considered a branch of applied ethics and is certainly part of politics.”

That narrowing of the meaning, it seems to me, is part of what has been called “the dumbing down of America” — not just intellectually but also civically and morally. Civics today is not the same thing as civic education. Civics should again become more than merely the study of government because there is so much more to it than that.

The word “civics” is derived from the Latin civitas, meaning “the city.” Civic means “of or related to a citizen, city, citizenship or civil affairs.” That definition comes from Our Constitution and Government, published in 1940 by the U.S. Government Printing Office. It gives this summary sentence of the meaning of civics: “Interested in the good of a city or a community.”

A city often has a civic center for business and commerce, a civic arena for sports, and a civic auditorium for entertainment, lectures, and other public events — none of which are governmental entities per se. But they are central to the life of the community and hence have to do with the society. Moreover, they can be sources of what is called “civic pride,” or positive feeling toward one’s city or community. And, again, that has nothing to do with government per se.

Perhaps the most obvious form of civics are neighborhood groups called civic associations. They are formed by local people to protect and advance the quality of life in their neighborhood. Civic associations are grassroot expressions of concern for “the city.” They are local demonstrations of citizen involvement in the life of their part of the city in general and their local piece of it, the neighborhood. They display citizen pride and responsibility and volunteerism — all of which are not dependent on, or even connected with, government per se.

Civics, then, in its broad and best sense deals with the rights and responsibilities of citizens of the American republic, both locally and nationally. In America, one’s citizenship training begins at home via the family. It continues at the local or community level via schooling and other activities involving young people such as religious training, Scouting, Demolay, Rainbow Girls, etc.

Civil means “of or related to citizens.” The purpose of civics is to teach civility. It is the basis of civil-ization.

Turning once more to the 1940 GPO pamphlet, we find this important statement:

Civility means “courtesy, politeness” but it is much more than an expression of manners. An older meaning is “training in the humanities.” That training refers to education in a broader sense. It includes formal, academic studies, but more broadly, it means education in the higher realms of human thought which provides the basis of civilization. The civility of all the individuals of a society supports or detracts from the quality of civilization. A civilized person is one who understands and supports the principles of his or her society. Included in that is civil law and civil liberty.

Education begins at home; so does civics. Let’s look at some of the elements of civility that are largely absent from current-day teaching of civics.

In a self-governing society such as ours, the basic safeguard against crime and social breakdown is, quite simply, morality and religious values. Those are first learned at home in the process of parents rearing their children. The higher levels of government — the city, the state and the nation — come much later into the lives of young people learning to function in society. That is why the home is the first level of government in America; it is where children first learn to govern themselves. Laws don’t prevent crime and social breakdown; they merely define the limits of acceptable social behavior and punishment for those who don’t conform through moral living and internal control.

The home, as a two-parent, marriage-based family, is where young people first see role models for good citizens, with all the rights and responsibilities to oversee the governing of our nation. There is where they learn self-control, morality, the work ethic, respect for others, respect for private property, respect for law and duly constituted authority, love of learning for lifelong education, respect for our history and heroes, and other civic virtues that have built our nation, such as self-reliance, rugged individualism, thriftiness, charitable giving, community volunteerism, and exercising the right to vote. The schools, churches, temples, and mosques reinforce what is learned in the home — or at least should. Without proper upbringing in a stable home and local community, young people become dysfunctional and lost to society. All too often they end up as incarcerated criminals or dead-end derelicts.

“You have often read that in a democracy like ours the people get the kind of government they ask for. If they give all their time to their own affairs, try to avoid the obligations of citizenship, pay no attention to politics, and don’t bother to vote on election day, they are asking for corrupt and inefficient government—and they usually get it. If they take an active interest in politics, try to have their parties nominate honest, capable men, and work hard to elect them, their town and state will usually have honest and efficient government. What this means to the average person is that the town and the state will be a better place to live in.” —Connecticut — The State and Its Government (secondary-school text book) by William E. Buckley and Charles E. Perry (Oxford Book Company, New York, 1954).

As I’ve said before, young people are 20% of the population but 100% percent of the future. Therefore, if the youth of America do not have a vital understanding of what this nation is all about, in a few generations there will not be an America. It is as simple, and sad, as that.

Somehow, over the last half century, the curriculum of America’s public schools has lost touch with many of the elements that developed the sentiment of patriotism in children. Why? The curriculum has room for sex education, drug awareness, and AIDS prevention, but not for simple exercises such as memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution. Why?

Education is fundamental to all life, and with regard to our national life (and its preservation), patriotism must be taught — and taught far better than it is at present. Patriotism, like charity, begins at home.

How is patriotism inculcated in young people? To recap Chapter 1: Patriotism is a sentiment, not an instinct. It results from a process that, over time, unites head, hand, and heart into a clear vision of what America is all about. In other words, patriotism is not inborn; it is learned. And it is learned as much by example as by speech. It is learned from parents, teachers, public figures, and others in positions of authority and influence who demonstrate patriotism in their words and their lives. It is absorbed from the culture, directly and indirectly, in the process of becoming responsible citizens. Native-born children learn it growing up; immigrants learn it by assimilating into mainstream America.

American patriotism is understanding and appreciating the fundamental ideas, principles, values, events, traditions, goals, and dreams that have built our nation. Without that, America will decline and eventually vanish into history — a future history of tyranny and oppression horrible to contemplate because of forces in the world hostile to freedom. American patriotism, therefore, is intelligent love of our country — informed and grateful love of our country’s past, present, and future.

Patriotism begins in the home. “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” And it continues growing through a child’s schooling. As the poem “The Schoolhouse Stands by the Flag” states:

‘Tis the schoolhouse that stands by the flag,
Let the nation stand by the school;


'Tis the school bell that rings for our liberty old,
'Tis the schoolboy whose ballot shall rule.

Likewise, a child’s religious and social training is part of the educational process of inculcating the sentiment of patriotism. Starting athletic events with the national anthem and hearing patriotic invocations by clergy at the beginning of public events are examples of that.

Another educational resource for teaching patriotism is literature. As a child, I loved stories of heroism and gallantry, whether the stories were in prose or poetry, in books or movies, or on radio or TV. Patriotic poems and songs especially had a profoundly formative effect on my character and on my appreciation of America. Young people today are not being exposed to the literature of patriotism the way I was as a boy. The tales about colonial America, Valley Forge, the USS Constitution (better known as “Old Ironsides”), the Alamo, the westward movement of pioneers — the entire epic of America — gave me an inspiring sense of what it means to be a citizen of this nation. It was deepened by rote memorization of key passages from documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, from speeches by various Founding Fathers (“Give me liberty or give me death!” “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”), and by opening exercises in school. My training as a Boy Scout also contributed greatly. (I have collected the words and lyrics to many patriotic poems and songs in a reader intended for school children. I titled it Celebrating America in Poem and Song.)

Because of that, I propose that elementary-school curriculum should embrace the following topics. Moreover, the present curriculum should be reviewed for opportunities to enhance patriotism and civics. The curriculum should:

  1. Discuss the meaning of patriotism, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, Independence Day, Flag Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day.

  2. Memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, the national motto, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the opening two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.

  3. Teach how to show respect for the flag and how to show proper etiquette for it; how to display the flag in public; how to show respect when the national anthem and “Taps” are played; and include a brief history of the flag (from Betsy Ross to Ft. McHenry to now).

  4. Study symbols of American liberty: The Great Seal of the United States, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Washington crossing the Delaware, Lincoln at Gettysburg, the Statue of Liberty, raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima, etc.

  5. Discuss what makes America unique among all nations and why it stands out so favorably (especially our Declaration of Independence, which says all people are equal and have inalienable rights derived from God, not any government body; and our Constitution, which guarantees those rights for everyone while establishing a government that is the servant of “we the people”).

  6. Discuss why the United States is a democratic republic, not a pure democracy, and what the difference is between the two. Compare a republic with other forms of government (monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, socialism, fascism, totalitarianism, statism, etc.) Discuss the two aspects of any nation: the society and the government, and why both are necessary.

  7. Contain a unit on the military structure and history of the United States. The unit should cover the branches of the armed forces; the chain of command from the president, through officers, to enlisted people; the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart; and the nation’s military academies (West Point, Annapolis, Air Force Academy, Coast Guard Academy and King’s Point for Merchant Marine).

  8. Contain a unit on what a veteran is and what they do after military service when they join the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, etc.

Thomas Jefferson provided the greatest short lesson on civics when he said in his First Inaugural Address (1801):

The essentials principles of our Government…form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety.

Don't miss Guest Commentary and other great columnists. Subscribe today!

Click here to show comments

It's Right. It's Free.