Civics: What Americans Need to Know

Christopher Reid Contributor
Civics: What Americans Need to Know

What is the Definition of Civics?

Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. It includes the study of law and government and how citizens influence and are influenced by these institutions. The underlying assumption of civics education is that self-government means that ordinary people—the citizenry—have a role in the operation and oversight of government. The theoretical, political, and practical aspects of citizenship are all covered in civics lessons.

Civics is typically taught as part of social studies in American high school or middle school. Such classes allow young people to get their first taste of what it is like to think like a voter. The quality of civics education varies with each state. In New York, for example, high-quality lesson plans are drawn up and a great deal of money is allocated to teaching civics.

Each year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, administers a civics assessment that measures the civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are essential for responsible citizenship in American democracy. The assessment is given to students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

It should also be noted that American school children are not the only ones who must attain a certain level of civics literacy. Foreign-born persons who apply for U.S. citizenship are required to take and pass a civics test before they can take their oath. There are many options for them to learn this material, including classrooms, online learning centers, and podcasts.

A Brief History

The Founding Fathers of the United States believed that democracy as a system of government required advanced citizenship. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, thought that civic education and civic knowledge was the only means of protecting and preserving individual rights. James Madison similarly believed that civic learning would instill a degree of public-minded virtue and civic engagement that would prompt people to hold the government accountable.

While the founding generation laid the fundamentals of civic literacy in the United States, they had a very limited understanding of who the Bill of Rights should protect and who should have a say in American democracy. In their minds, “We the people” included only white property-owning men. This exclusionary vision of democracy is a legacy that the country has struggled with ever since. However, a number of reform movements in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to create civics education that included more people and consisted of a greater diversity of perspectives.

The first great civics education reform movement was led by Horace Mann in the 1830s. The Common Schools Movement aimed to provide all students with a civics education, regardless of gender, religion, or social status. Though deeply flawed in its methods and practice, it was the first attempt to launch an inclusive nationwide civics program.

The next movement came in the late 19th century. It was led by the philosopher and educator John Dewey, who believed that civics education should be viewed as pragmatic democratic education. Dewey further believed that such learning would create the kind of shared interests that would then lead to a gradual wearing down of race, class, and ethnic divisions.

Today, the principles laid down by John Dewey are at work in most civics courses. Although the exact content of what students learn is contested and debated over, modern civics education no longer contains explicitly bigoted and highly divisive and exclusionary ideas. It aims to make the next generation of citizens aware of their role in shaping public policy and holding the U.S. government accountable.

What is an Example of Civics?

Civics goes beyond politics and political parties. It is not concerned with what people believe about government and society, but how the latter two entities function and how citizens interact with and within them.

For example, the 26th Amendment gives every U.S. citizen who is 18 years or older the right to vote. Throughout the decades since the amendment was passed, various groups have launched voter drives to register people who meet these criteria. This is a perfect example of civic engagement. A civics course would not focus on party affiliation or even the outcome of elections, but on the mechanics of such an organization and the impact it had on the number of people who registered to vote.

What Are the Topics of Civics?

The topics of civics are many and varied. They tend to answer specific questions such as:

What are the branches of government?

What is the role of the federal government in the creation of public policy?

What is the role of the Supreme Court?

Why does the U.S. have an Electoral College?

How do congressional investigations work?

What does the minority whip actually do?

What are Civil Rights?

Who was Sandra Day O’Conner and why was she so important?

Is Washington, D.C. the most important point of governance?

What is the Purpose of Civics?

The aim of civics education is to equip citizens for participation in government and society. It involves the study of the rights and responsibilities of each citizen in America’s constitutional democracy. Students learn civic practices such as voting, volunteering, jury service, and joining with others to improve society.

Going through such a course can inspire you to join charity organizations through ICS (International Citizen Service) or commit yourself to raising funds for the improvement of a local library or community center.

What is the Difference Between Civics and the US government?

The best way to distinguish the two fields of study is to review the focus of each. Government is the study of how laws, legislatures, and other branches of government function as institutions in America.

Civics is the study of how people influence, shape, and control those institutions through individual and collective action. The first takes a top-down view; the second, a bottom-up view


Good civics education is essential to the formation of good citizens. This has not changed since the time of Thomas Jefferson. American democracy today is freer and more open than it ever has been. It is now possible for anyone to learn civics—in theory, and in practice.