CHARACTER And CIVIC EDUCATION: You Cannot Have One Without the Other

By Edward F. DeRoche, Ph.D.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

“You are a citizen, and citizenship carries responsibilities.” – Paul Collier

We know that the primary responsibility for the cultivation of ethical behavior and the development of private and moral character lies with families, religious institutions, schools, work settings, and the communities in which we live.

We also know that social studies teachers have a responsibility and a duty to teach all students character and civic virtues.

The question is, given the current political climate, how can civic education strengthen and complement the development of character and civic virtues?

Let talk about teaching civics in today’s classrooms.

Several years ago, two Wisconsin Social Studies educators wrote that a multicultural society needs “roots.”  These roots, they said, “are described in our founding documents, in our symbols and slogans, and in our personal and public civic virtues.  Our schools, therefore, are called to educate the young to uphold (and sometimes challenge) core virtues, such as, trustworthiness, fairness, patriotism, justice, courage, responsibility, respect, and honesty.”

Today—a warning from Jeremy Knoll, a 20+ high school teacher.

I am telling you civics education is gasping for breath.  Too often, people mistake teaching civics as teaching politics.  Civics is the study of rights and duties of citizenship.  It is a close examination of the privileges and obligations of our citizens.”

A report from neaToday (2017) notes that “It’s not an exaggeration to say that civics education is in crisis.”  The proof:

“Only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the ‘proficient’ standard on the NAEP Civics Assessment.  White, wealthy students are four to six times as likely as Black and Hispanic students from low-income households to exceed that level.

Students in wealthier public school districts are far more likely to receive high-quality civics education than students in low-income and majority-minority schools.”

As an educator in California you should know about The California Survey of Civic Education (

“Polls show that the vast majority of young people distrust political institutions and processes.  Studies find that most students lack a proficient understanding of civics, U.S. history, or our Constitution.

Civic education is no longer a priority in California’s overburdened public schools.  History and civics have all but disappeared in many elementary grades as educators concentrateon teaching reading and math.  In high school, few students even have social studies in the ninth grade.

In 2001, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) published a report titled, The Civic Mission of Schools, which identified six promising approaches that research shows can improve civic education.

“Every school should:  

  • Provide high-quality, formal instruction in government, history, law, and democracy.
  • Incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom.
  • Have students apply what they learn through community service linked to the curriculum and classroom instruction.
  • Offer extracurricular activities that involve students in their schools and communities.
  • Encourage student participation in school governance.
  • Encourage student participation in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.”

I suggest that you read and share with your colleagues and parents in your school the Brooking’s report:

The Need for Civic Education in 21st Century Schools by Rebecca Winthrop.

“The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education examined the status of civic education and found that while reading and math scores have improved in recent years, there has not been the commensurate increase in eighth grade civics knowledge.   

The study also found that high school social studies teachers are some of the least supported teachers in schools, and report teaching larger numbers of students and taking on more non-teaching responsibilities, like coaching school sports, than other teachers.

Student experience reinforces this view that civic learning is not a central concern of schools.  Seventy percent of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem, and 30 percent say they have never taken part in a debate—all important parts of a quality civic learning.”

Character and civility are about relationships – emotional and social.

Character and civility are about teaching your students skills such as sharing, participating, following directions, and listening.

It is about helping them to recognize their own emotions and be respectful of one another’s opinions and viewpoints (self-control).

It is teaching them how to recognize the emotions in others (listening and questioning).

It is about motivating oneself (grit and perseverance), learning how to be a friend, knowing how to care for and appreciating others.

Civics instruction needs to be underscored by students learning how to be polite, respectful, courteous, civil, and how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

Edward DeRoche, Ph.D., Director
Character Education Resource Center
Department of Learning & Teaching // University of San Diego
Website:  http:/

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