Citizenship Education Essay

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Citizenship typically refers to the relationship between the individual and the community, state, or nation. Encompassing aspects of membership, identity, civic knowledge, civic values, dispositions, and civic skills, citizenship education is often narrowly defined as taking place in civics, government, and history classes. But citizenship education is far broader than civics; here, it is defined as any educational experience that promotes the growth of individuals in regard to their civic capacities. The civic realm, the world of political and community work, requires particular kinds of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. This is particularly true in a democracy, where the role of the citizen takes on special importance in governance.

This entry looks at citizenship education from the perspective of the social foundations discipline, which has conceptualized itself from the beginning as a field concerned with promoting schools relevant for a democratic society. Education for democratic citizenship, therefore, is both a key commitment for many in the field and source of inquiry across the range of disciplinary perspectives in the foundations of education. Whereas researchers in social studies education and political science do much work in the area of citizenship education, particularly in regard to the formal curriculum taught in schools, social foundations scholars have contributed to the inquiry and knowledge of citizenship education by pursing questions that are broader. Foundations scholars have been concerned with social contexts beyond the school, and they are more explicitly critical in their inquiry than are other kinds of education scholars. The contributions of social foundations scholars to citizenship education theory and practice are described in this entry by focusing on four overarching questions that have been central throughout the field’s history.

Role Of Citizenship Education

What is unique and important about citizenship education in schools that are to promote and sustain a democratic society? Citizenship education can take place in any sort of society: fascist, communist, or democratic. Education for democracy, and democratic citizenship, is perhaps one of the most fundamental issues occupying social foundations scholars since the field’s inception. This question has particularly concerned philosophers of education, since the question is not empirical but a normative and interpretive inquiry into the meanings of democracy and the best ways to prepare students to contribute to a society aspiring to democratic ideals.

John Dewey led the way in positing that citizenship is not something people learn in one kind of classroom or course, but all through the home, community, and school life. For Dewey, democracy is more than a political system or a technical description of the way government is run; it denotes a way of living, teaching, learning, and doing. Democracy is a moral ideal; he said in his 1939 book Freedom and Culture that democracy is moral in that it is based on a fundamental faith in the ability of humans to respect the freedom of others while creating a social and political system based on cohesion rather than coercion.

Democratic education, in Dewey’s writings, represents the task of unleashing the powers of each individual citizen in association with the various communities and societies of which people are part. Education for democracy involves a “freeing of individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims,” he said in his 1916 work, Democracy and Education. Students learn both through disciplined study and through the experiences of living in a school connected to the concerns and work of their own community, that democracy is the process of cooperatively solving shared problems.

Some contemporary philosophers of education have argued against this view, challenging Dewey’s broad conception of democratic education as connected with human freedom. Educational philosophers such as Kenneth Strike suggest that the schools of a democratic society must balance between the individual rights of students and parents in a pluralistic society and the more minimal requirements of a democratic society. Citizenship, in this view, requires learning valuable knowledge through the disciplines, as well as learning skills for critical thinking and shared deliberation among diverse learners and future citizens. Dewey’s emphasis on shared problem solving remains a key point of consensus for many foundations scholars, but since Dewey’s time, the increasingly diverse society in the United States and other nations has brought about changes in the way democratic education is conceptualized.

Access To Civil And Social Rights

This question has been of special importance to historians of education, since their work has been a cornerstone for understanding how and why full citizenship has been long denied to many groups in the United States and elsewhere. Scholars in the foundations of education have particularly focused on realizing greater equity and civic participation. This question, therefore, has interested not just historians but also scholars working in curriculum studies and philosophical studies of education, as well.

Noted historian of education James Anderson has documented the education for second-class citizenship received by generations of African Americans in the United States. Historians join sociologists and philosophers of education in documenting the many forms of unequal education provided to Blacks, Hispanics, women, and American Indians. Assuming the role of equal citizenship necessitates that an equal education must be available to all children, social foundations scholars have revealed and analyzed the great disparities in educational opportunities and the corresponding lack of access to civil and social rights among many groups in the United States and other democracies.

For example, after the conquest of Native American lands and parts of Mexico, the U.S. government implemented educational programs focused on deculturalization; being a Native American or a Mexican American was, in the view of the time, not congruous with being a democratic citizen. In segregated schools designed to train children from these groups for work as laborers, students were assimilated but not socialized or educated for full democratic citizenship. Similarly, being a woman and being a citizen were, since ancient times, seen as incompatible identities. Recent feminist scholarship in philosophy has analyzed how our very conceptions of “citizen” and “the public” are gendered, and have proposed a revisioning of these terms to include a wide array of political identities and political work.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the first Brown v. Board of Education decision, many educators in the United States reflected upon the significance of that decision in terms of full citizenship under the law for Blacks, as well as upon the continued challenges to full racial integration in the United States. Foundations scholars have also taken up these important questions. Does a democratic society require integrated public schools? Can students learn about participating in a diverse democracy without experiences in schools that reflect the diversity of the civic body itself?

Socialization For Citizenship In Schools

In the classic sociological study of schooling, Life in Classrooms (1968), Philip Jackson analyzes the magnitude of the 7,000 hours spread across an elementary schooler’s existence in schooling. Contributing to the scholarship engaging the question how schools socialize students, Jackson documented some of the very fundamental characteristics of school life, which he summarized as crowds, praise, and power. Schools teach people how to live in crowds, to be one among many, and to learn to accept the features of this existence (e.g., standing in lines, the importance of keeping quiet). Schools are also places of constant evaluation—of behavior and academic activities. Students learn that their work is evaluated by others—what becomes important is not what they think of their own work, but the mark that the teacher puts upon it. Third, school is a place where there are sharp distinctions between weak and powerful, Jackson showed. Institutions are places where students are under the control and authority of others.

Jackson’s study became a classic in the foundations of education, though directly as a text about citizenship; however, this study and others confirmed that schools are not places where students can learn democratic citizenship through experience, discussion, and shared inquiry. Jackson’s work argues that the hidden curriculum of schooling often teaches students to be passive and controlled rather than learning how to understand, through practice, the engagement and work of democratic citizenship.

Historiography has also contributed much to the question of how schools as institutions have shaped citizens. Not unlike the findings of Jackson’s study, many other historical and sociological studies in the foundations of education field confirm that schools have often been places of social control and monocultural assimilation rather than achieving the Deweyan democratic ideal of realizing individual freedom within the contexts of diverse communities and disciplined inquiry. A central civic mission of early twentieth-century schooling in the United States, for example, was the “Americanization” of immigrants, and while the integration of new immigrants has always been a central aim of schools, “Americanization” was often carried out through blatantly sectarian and untruthful methods. Textbooks, for example, have long emphasized heroic, celebratory themes of American history, and historical scholarship reveals a century of school districts prohibiting books that were critical of American policy or leadership. Schools, it was thought, should teach a history of progress, loyalty, and heroism if new immigrants were to be assimilated as proper patriots. Thus, the history taught in the schools reflected the views of history desirable by those groups in power but not necessarily the real history of the nation or all its people.

In general, schools often socialize students for various norms that can work against the cultivation of good citizenship. Consistently deferring to those in power; or working primarily on individual tasks rather than in cooperative groups on shared, relevant problems; or learning about history through a very slanted and partial interpretation of historical events, all fail to promote democratic citizenship among students. A question that has accompanied these critical studies is, therefore, how should schools educate for citizenship, particularly in the way classrooms and schools are run? Philosophers and curricularists have developed responses to this question. A shining example of philosophical inquiry that has strongly shaped teachers’ ideas on how we might best shape school practices toward democratic aims is found in the work of Maxine Greene. Among her contributions to the field has been her focus on how the arts and arts education can help students learn about meanings of human freedom in democratic societies. The arts can help people understand and empathize with diverse others, can help them imagine alternatives to “what is,” and can help them take risks that promote human growth as learners and teachers.

Contrasting with the pervasive classroom norm characterized by teacher-talk and student-listening, educational philosopher Nicholas Burbules has written on the centrality of dialogue in the teaching and learning process, focusing on dialogue as a communicative relationship we enter with others. Not unlike Dewey’s conception of democracy that is embedded in notions of communication and community, Burbules discusses dialogue with the hopes of expanding the ways that teachers and learners can come to know both as individuals and in the social realm, gaining both relational virtues such as respect, patience, and trust, as well as technical skills such as listening and the articulation of one’s ideas.

Citizenship In A Pluralistic, Globalized Society

Globalization—the political, economic, social, and technological interdependencies that order the world—has implications for how people understand citizenship. Philosophers of education now debate whether and how globalization should change the way citizenship education is conceptualized and taught in schools. As the world becomes smaller through technological innovations (airplanes, the Internet, communications technologies), the concept of citizenship as one strictly encompassing one nation-state is challenged. That is, increasingly, people have multiple identities, loyalties, and political involvements that may cross national borders.

What does this mean for how schools prepare students to be citizens? Many scholars have argued that a more cosmopolitan citizenship necessitates a greater knowledge of the world and its peoples, a greater understanding of human diversity, and the recognition that one’s worldview is shaped by one’s own cultural and historical traditions. Other scholars emphasize the increasing role that knowledge of the ecosystem and biodiversity must play in educating citizens for a global society.

Planetary citizenship, according to C. A. Bowers, whose work involves education and ecology, involves a revitalization of the commons, of shared public spaces and practices in local communities. Bowers suggests that educating for planetary citizenship involves far more than understanding the harms that the current consumer society brings to the earth, its resources, and its inhabitants; it involves nurturing alternative economic, political, and social systems which are more sensitive to local cultures and ecologically sustainable practices. What all these scholars do agree upon, however, is that globalization and its positive and negative effects require rethinking citizenship to suit this new age. Education for democratic citizenship is a concept that may have to be reinvented in this new age of globalism, with all its technological wonders and environmental problems.


  1. Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  2. Bowers, C. A. (2004). Revitalizing the commons or an individualized approach to planetary citizenship: The choice before us. Educational Studies, 36(1), 45–58.
  3. Burbules, N. C. (1993). Dialogue in teaching: Theory and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.
  5. Dewey, J. (1939). Freedom and culture. New York: Capricorn Books.
  6. Jackson, P. W. (1968). Life in classrooms. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  7. Strike, K. A. (1993). Professionalism, democracy, and discursive communities: Normative reflections on restructuring. American Educational Research Journal, 30(2), 255–275.

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