Why Civic Learning Matters, Part I

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation

Low levels of civic engagement are well-documented across successive generational cohorts in the United States. Our citizenry is increasingly disconnected from the elected and appointed officials who represent us in government. At the same time, the scale of problems facing our democracy have grown as civil society has shrunk, weakening our collective capacity to address them.

These problems are particularly acute in Illinois, and most pronounced among our youngest citizens. According to the 2012 Illinois Civic Health Index (2013, McCormick Foundation and the National Conference on Citizenship), Illinois Millennials (ages 18-29) fare poorly when compared to their national peers on several measures of civic engagement. Fewer than three-in-ten vote regularly in local elections (29.8% in Illinois compared to 34.9% nationally), ranking 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Illinois Millennials rarely speak to (29%, 45th) or receive favors from (7.2%, 42nd) neighbors, or work with them to resolve a community problem (2.2%, 48th).

While by no means a panacea, high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities present a partial solution to what imperils the very state of our democracy. Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools (Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics, 2011) makes a profound case for the benefits of school-based civic learning, including:
  1. Promoting civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions
  2. Closing the civic empowerment gap
  3. Building Twenty-First Century competencies
  4. Improving school climate
  5. Reducing the drop-out rate
I'll elaborate on each of these documented benefits in the next three posts that follow.

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