The idea of citizenship — of members of the republic being responsible for the quality of their own government — made America unique at its founding. Until James Madison made “We, the People” the foundation of the Constitution, other modern nations were full of subjects, rather than citizens. For citizens to choose their new leaders successfully, they needed to become informed electors. Safeguarding America’s fragile experiment required voters, almost exclusively propertied white men, to attend political discussions and read the newspaper.
As the country grew beyond the revolutionary period and the rights of citizenship began to include non-property-owning white men, the country increasingly embraced the idea that all white Americans needed to be well educated to ensure effective self-government. In the decades that followed, the country’s public education system was predicated on producing such citizens. “The children of a republic [must] be fitted for a society as well as for themselves,” said Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement, in 1842. “As each citizen is to participate in the power over governing others, it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of rights, of those whom he is to govern.” Only schools could effectively achieve that goal.
Mann’s idea that good citizenship was a necessity for a thriving democracy peaked in popularity during the early 1900s. But two camps emerged as to what precisely constituted good citizenship. Famed philosopher and education reformer John Dewey envisioned “democracy as a habit” that needed to be practiced and relearned constantly but redefined for every generation. Equipping students to undertake Dewey’s notion of citizenship involved inculcating key character traits such as honesty and self-motivation, while also teaching young people to read deeply about the American system and to discuss extensively what tweaks it required. The citizen in Dewey’s vision of America was responsible for upholding the country’s traditions, as well as requiring the country to correct its failures.
In the same period, however, millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in the United States, concerning conservative intellectuals that their presence might change the national character. To address that perceived risk, they sought to “Americanize” these immigrants. This vision of good citizenship involved a more structured and patriotic pathway than Dewey’s did. The American system was ideal and did not need any fixes in their telling. Properly trained citizens, therefore, simply worked to uphold the country’s treasured past.
These competing conceptions both influenced school curriculum. The Constitution was taught rigorously, and the flag and the country were celebrated regularly, laying the foundations of good “Americanism.” And yet, just as Dewey would have wanted, a new, more complete notion of “good citizen” emerged in schools during the 1920s, one that went beyond politics. Students now learned how democracy was an all-encompassing way of life.
From books with titles such as “Your Worth to the World,” students learned that even menial or mundane tasks — from the chores their parents assigned to their eventual jobs to the act of picking up trash off the street — were of critical importance to America and the students’ value as citizens.
Students also gained exposure to an increasing number of ways to engage politically. In textbook after textbook, discussion after discussion, students learned to write their representatives, volunteer for causes they cared about, and write pieces for their newspapers about issues that mattered to them. In at least one major American city, Boston, most students took at least five classes on how to be the type of citizen who bettered democracy.
But the political need for good citizenship soon began to wane. The conservative emphasis on good citizenship ended as Americans moved from wanting to “Americanize” immigrants to simply keeping them out through strict quota legislation. Liberal reformers turned their attention elsewhere, too, focusing on improving skills-based education during the Great Depression and World War II and then on ending vocational education after the period ended. These philosophical shifts eventually diminished the pressure for schools to produce good citizens.
Even if civics were no longer the defining educational mission of schools, the early Cold War provided new inspiration for continuing some civics education: learning the necessity of democracy in comparison with communism. While critics again contested this civic project from all ideological sides, students still took as many as three civics courses during their middle and high school years through the 1950s. The trend quickly reversed, however, thanks to a reassessment of what was required to win the Cold War. The threat of nuclear war and the space race intensified a focus on the sciences and on cultivating the smartest young people to lead. Civics and democracy were replaced by technology and meritocracy as students gradually stopped learning about good citizenship at all.
As schools failed to redefine young people’s civic duties, shifting politics meant that even in the political sphere, the concept ceased to matter. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act marked the culmination of decades of progressive activism, the moment when the franchise and, therefore, full citizenship were granted to all Americans. The victory was so momentous, however, that it left many Americans without a civic purpose.
Meanwhile, the country’s political embrace of multiculturalism left conservative intellectuals fuming about how their vision of Americanism — which had remained mostly constant throughout the 20th century — had been diminished. Lynne Cheney, the then-director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, captured the civic rupture that had taken place in her 1987 book “American Memory.” She pleaded for students and Americans to recognize their common cultural and political heritage with the Greeks and Romans, rather than focusing on the many complicated, less triumphalist histories of the American electorate. Her argument revealed that what constituted good citizenship remained deeply contested and that no camp offered a vision that seemed relevant for the end of the 20th century.
This absence of a shared — or really, any — notion of good citizenship remains evident today. Students in many states take no civics classes, and in states that require them, students often take government courses rather than ones focused on a citizen’s personal duties.
Politically, the country is the most polarized it has been since the Civil War. People feel more attached to their party identities than to practically anything else in their lives, and over half of Democrats and Republicans see members of the other party as close-minded. It makes sense that people do not see the point of engaging with the other side when Americans lack a common civic identity and are not exposed to any discussion of shared civic duties.
But the decline of good citizenship as a national ideal reveals how it can potentially be relevant again. Schools need to teach an expansive version of citizenship that ventures beyond informed voters. Students must grasp and grapple with America’s flaws while also appreciating the ideas that have driven change in previous generations. Likewise, dialogue across difference, whether it be political or racial, is a necessity to end polarization and restore the notion that American democracy is a project to which citizens can and should contribute.
Combining two existing civics curriculums would help achieve this goal. Action civics focuses on encouraging direct political engagement to address structural problems in democracy, while the case method requires students to think as if they are political leaders at key moments in American history. A combination of the two would create a modernized version of Dewey’s defenders of democracy. This push in schools also holds additional promise: It might allow us to hammer out, for the first time, a consensus view of good citizenship, one that could return the concept to the center of our civic life and build bridges across divides.