Improve Civics Education to Equip Students for Active Community Engagement

In our rapidly changing world, civics education must do a better job. Civics must prepare students to engage their neighborhood, county, state, and nation. Civics courses today rely on history, current events, and case studies. But they fall short in effectively explaining the realities of government, campus, or neighborhood dynamics and teaching how to enact changes that benefit students and citizens.

The ancient Greeks did it right. To implement their demokratia—a compound of demos (the people) and kratos (power or rule) that served the “interests not of a privileged few but of the bulk of its citizens,” five hundred citizens were randomly selected, each year, to serve on a council (boule).[1] They were expected to oversee, prepare, and implement decisions for the nation (ecclesia). This was an “eloquent advocacy of the virtues of ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’” and is the earliest, and for many “remains the finest, statement of what a democracy should aspire to be.”[2]

Greek citizens understood their government by actively participating in it. Today, most citizens are not involved in governance, leaving many of us without the experience and knowledge to understand how it works. We need guidance!

To compensate for our lack of practical governance experience, civics must utilize the latest theories, techniques, and operational methods to advance our knowledge. Showing how governance works is assisted by incorporating validated findings from social, psychological, political, and economic studies into the civics curriculum and the latest program evaluation, finance, and accounting advances. This is important not only to civics education but also to governance efficiency and effectiveness. Using these discoveries is crucial to preserving our central political values—freedom and equality.

A primary lesson learned from recent discoveries is that human behavior is the energy that makes organizations function, leading to what they produce. For example, Katz and Kahn’s seminal work published in 1966 provides scientific tools that introduced an open-systems theory building on the event-structure theory of F.H. Allport, the general systems approach of J.G. Miller, and the sociological theory of Talcott Parsons.[3]

Katz and Kahn identify several functional relationships: societal values legitimized by culture, political-legal norms and statutes, economic factors like markets and inputs of labor and materials, and physical geography and natural resources. They emphasize that an organization, including political organizations, depends on its environment, highlighting the interaction between micro and macro levels of discourse.

These social psychological insights are supported by economic and political analyses from F.A. Hayek, Milton and Rose Friedman, Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom, C.S. Lewis, Milton Rokeach, and Richard A. Schermerhorn’s insights into influence, power, and authority as well as multiple contemporary scientific studies as well as legal scholars such as James McClellan and a broad spectrum of contemporary expository, research, and theory. [4]

Civics must include instructional materials about who does what, how they communicate, their organizational structure, and what works, reinforced by the emphasis on citizen governance responsibilities. Using the latest research and theories, civics would draw attention to tested policy options in health care, housing, tax, and at least a dozen other areas—a sort of Optionspedia ©.

An introduction to U.S. Congress activities begins a “how it would work” example. Knowing what congressional staff do is useful when seeking congressional assistance or supporting or opposing legislation.[5] Discovering that congressional staff performs seventeen activities and committee staff twenty-one activities in support of Congress’s work helps channel your question or request. Depending on your interest, you could ask who handles casework, such as veterans’ problems, or who handles legislation, like Social Security reform. Additionally, reviewing staff communication patterns, office and committee organization, and power and influence structures would set the stage for lobbying for tested legislative and regulatory options. Today’s democracy must build on the lessons learned from ancient Greek practice by incorporating the latest tools and discoveries into today’s civics education.

[1] Pericles as quoted in Thucydides (2. 37) from David Stockton, The Classical Athenian Democracy, Oxford University Press, 1990, page 1.

[2] Stockton, p. 186.

[3] Daniel Katz and Robert L. Kahn, Social Psychology of Organizations, John Wiley & Sons, 1966, second edition, 1978.

[4] Bruce Caldwell, Introduction, F..A. Hayek , The Road to Serfdom The Definitive Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2007; See, Capitalism and Freedom, Free to Choose, and A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960; C.S. Lewis works that are worth reading include Surprised by Joy (autobiography), The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and The Great Divorce and God in the Dock, 1948, (Hooper. Walter (ed.), London: Geoffrey Bles (1971); Milton Rokeach’s, Beliefs, Attitudes, Values, Josey-Bass, 1970; “A psychologist looks at political values,” a paper presented to American Political Science Association (APSA), September 9, 1971, and The Nature of Human Values, The Free Press, Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1973; Richard A. Schermerhorn, Society and Power, Random House, New York, 1961; His commentary and editor of The Federalist and James McClellan, “The Doctrine of Judicial Democracy,” Modern Age, Winter 1969-70.

[5] Harrison W. Fox, Jr and Susan Webb Hammond, Congressional Staffs The Invisible Force in American Lawmaking, The Free Press Macmillan Publishers, 1977.

Photo by Oleksandr — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 801439759


  • Harrison Fox

    Harrison Fox Ph.D. has practiced American Civics over 56 years as a US Congress professional staff member, professor National Defense University, founder of a firm serving over 100 financial institutions, as well as a civic activist in his neighborhoods, and founder of Citizens for Budget Reform and American Military Housing Services not for profits.

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