Making Civic Education Matter

September 07, 2021
7 min read
Photo credit: Paapaya / Shutterstock.com
At a moment in time in which the foundations of democracy are undeniably in peril on both sides of the Atlantic, it is challenging to find potential solutions that garner widespread citizen support.

In the United States, Democrats, asserting that the country finds itself in the midst of an existential moment for its democracy, are advocating for laws that would protect and expand the right to vote. Republicans have responded with efforts to protect election integrity through measures that could ostensibly restrict access to the ballot box. In Europe, immigration and refugee resettlement, set to increase with the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, will continue to drive the conversation about who should actually constitute a citizen. In numerous countries, like Poland and Hungary, authoritarianism masqueraded as populism has begun to emerge as an alternative to democracy itself.

Clearly, as we are learning in GMF’s Cities Fortifying Democracy initiative, reforms are desperately needed. While there may be relative agreement that democracy itself is broken, historically high levels of political polarization in the United States and Europe make it challenging to agree upon potential solutions.

One solution that has emerged as an area of consensus is civic education. It seems that irrespective of political ideology, individuals can agree that, in order for democracy to function, citizens should know how to participate in the political process. While all citizens could certainly use a refresher in how government works, it is most effective and appropriate to start with young people in our public schools- the institutions most able to effectively teach and scale civic learning.

Educating young people to become politically knowledgeable and active is vital in efforts to strengthen democracy. 

Despite the seemingly uncontroversial nature of promoting civic education, an attempt to define it reveals more complicated questions that threaten to negate its widespread appeal. Educating young people to become politically knowledgeable and active is vital in efforts to strengthen democracy. Without a real conversation to define the purpose and goal of civic education, however, the idea risks becoming more of a talking point than a substantive reform. The debate on the meaning of civic education itself is reaching fever pitch in the United States, and a potential solution may come from across the Atlantic—in Germany.

At face value, civic education has wide appeal. A recent poll was conducted with over 1,000 likely voters in the United States, asking which reform would have the most positive and meaningful impact on strengthening American democracy. Civic education ranked highest, with 56 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans agreeing on the measure (over solutions like a year of national service like in the Peace Cops or the military, reducing the role of money in politics, and easier access to voting).

Giving further credence to these statistics, in the months following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Republican and Democratic governors alike have promoted youth civic education as a necessary antidote to the nation’s democracy woes. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, recently signed into law a new civics requirement. He noted: “An understanding of civics strengthens our democracy by ensuring an understanding of the role that everyone plays in the future of their community, our state, and our nation.” Similarly, Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota, a Republican, has said that, “Today we have an opportunity to address the root cause of this problem: we must reform young Americans’ civic education...They should see firsthand the importance of civic engagement.”


percent of the participants in a survey conducted by GMF as part of its Cities Fortifying Democracy project said that “poor civic education” is a serious or moderate threat to democracy in their city.

Relatedly, 77 percent of the participants in a survey conducted by GMF as part of its Cities Fortifying Democracy project said that “poor civic education” is a serious or moderate threat to democracy in their city. In a recent governance discussion as part of the initiative, representatives from the 12 participating cities consistently noted that poor civic education of residents resulted in unrealistic expectations of local governmental action. Youth civic education has emerged as a popular and necessary reform for city leaders hoping to engage more of the citizenry in local issues.

In the United States, the lack of a clear definition of civic education remains a problem. For many on the right, it should focus on foundational principles of constitutional knowledge. In the U.S. context, this type of civic education focuses on students’ understanding the exceptionalism of the country’s democratic experiment. In countries like Poland, public financing has recently contributed to foundations being focused on patriotic education, promoting Polish values, and a right-wing narrative of Polish history.

On the other end of the spectrum, a more experiential civics curriculum promotes the idea of young people learning politics through engaging in it. In this, the focus is on young people learning civics to improve their communities. In a recent phone interview, Casey Carl, the city clerk of Minneapolis noted, this type of civic education allows young people to learn “how they can make a change in the city.” Carl says that many young people in Minneapolis do not have patience for how democracy has been practiced to date and are eager to change the contours of the political process itself.

The debate regarding whether civic education should focus on the functions of government or the ability of citizens to make a difference in the political process has begun to take hold in state legislatures across the United States. Whereas numerous studies demonstrate the efficacy of project-based learning in all subjects, conservatives claim that the experiential form of civics is a trojan horse for creating more progressive activists.

Some advocates of civic education claim that the knowledge versus experiential debate is a false dichotomy and aim to bypass the controversy. But a lack of real conversation about the true meaning of the subject contributes to a potential inefficacy in its implementation. The solution to the lack of definition of civic education is not to attempt to find a middle ground, but rather to define it in a way that honors the challenging, fraught, yet promising history of democracy.

A potential answer may involve looking to Germany, a country that has sought to embrace the importance of the subject as a way to acknowledge a challenging past and move forward collectively. In the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust, Germany formed a Federal Agency for Civic Education, which supports a network of hundreds of foundations, nonprofits, and schools with significant funding and training. Importantly for city-specific implementation, each of the 16 German states also runs its own agency for civic education, acting independently and creating books, workshops, and materials for teachers. Germany invests significantly on the subject: in 2020 an estimated total of $461 million, which compares to a paltry $5 million in federal funds in the United States.

The civic education promoted in Germany focuses on a need for pluralism, media literacy, and—crucially—explicitly includes the teaching of controversial issues. Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, notes that “What is controversial in society must be presented as controversial.” Germany has indicated an acute understanding of the need to not run away from its past, but to ensure that its students meet it head on.

Germany is experiencing its fair share of democratic challenges, with a nativist political right looking to gain more power in its upcoming elections. But it also presents a potential model in presenting, promoting, and investing in a real form of civic education that not only educates young people on how government works, but also acknowledges the controversial past of the country’s democracy. For Germans, civics is explicitly taught as a discipline that should empower young people to improve upon Germany’s democracy.

Civic education, especially for young people, can and should be a necessary reform in promoting and creating more equitable democracies in cities across the Atlantic. But we should stop using the term as a catch-all and look to actually define the subject. Germany provides a path forward for the United States and countries throughout Europe through its prioritization and implementation of an honest, authentic, prioritized civic education that honors and recognizes the past, while acknowledging that young people must help to envision and create a better future.

GMF Cities, with the support of Germany’s Foreign Office, is leading a two-year, transatlantic multi-city cohort to explore and advance city practice in strengthening democracy called Cities Fortifying Democracy. The project will examine city innovations in governing, voting and elections, public safety and justice, and local journalism.


Where democracy exists in the world, cities and local government are on the frontlines of it.