Democracy depends upon the competent participation of its citizens in government and civil society. This can only happen when the people are educated for citizenship in a democracy. Therefore, all democratic countries provide formal and informal opportunities for civic education, or teaching and learning about citizenship. Formal civic education is carried out through the curriculum of schools, and informal civic education occurs through the interaction of individuals in various societal organizations.
Civic education is teaching the knowledge, skills, and virtues needed for competent citizenship in a democracy. Unlike despotic forms of government in which the people are merely passive receivers of orders from their rulers, democracy involves a significant measure of independent thinking and popular decision-making. A democracy cannot be maintained unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to carry out certain duties and responsibilities of a self-governing people, such as voting intelligently, communicating effectively about public issues, cooperating with others to solve common problems, and making judgments about the performance of their government.
Wherever in the world democracy exists, schools are expected to prepare students for citizenship through civic education. The society outside the school also provides lifelong opportunities for civic education through the mass media and by participation in community service organizations and political parties.
The primary component of civic education is imparting the knowledge needed for citizens’ informed participation in their democracy. Informed citizens have basic knowledge of such subjects as history, economics, geography, and government or political science. They comprehend core concepts of democracy, the constitution and institutions of democracy in their own country, and public issues in the past and present pertaining to the practice of democracy.
A second component of civic education is developing the intellectual and practical skills that enable citizens to use knowledge effectively as they act individually and collectively in the public life of their democracy. These skills include the capacities of citizens to read, write, and speak effectively; to think critically; and to make and defend sound judgments about public issues. Skills of thinking and participating, in combination with civic knowledge, enable citizens with common interests to influence the decisions of their representatives in government.
A third component of civic education is encouraging the virtues that dispose citizens positively to the ideals and principles of their democracy. Examples of these civic virtues are civility, honesty, charity, compassion, courage, loyalty, patriotism, and self-restraint. These character traits prompt citizens to contribute to the well-being of their community and democracy.
Civic education is needed to maintain democracy, because citizens fit for self-government are made, not born. The preservation of democracy in any country requires that each generation of the people learn what their democracy is, how to participate responsibly and effectively in it, and why they should try to keep and improve it.
By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)