Restoring Democracy Through Active Civic Learning

Higher-Ed Quality & Affordability

June 21, 2021

Civic knowledge and participation remain unacceptably low in the United States. Half of Americans are unable to name the three branches of government. When it comes to engaging in civic activities, such as volunteering, donating to nonprofits, or joining a civic group, too many Americans choose to remain uninvolved. One might expect schools to take on greater responsibility to prepare America’s youth to become active citizens, but in actuality very few schools prioritize civic learning and opportunities.

Weak civic education from kindergarten through college contributes to uninformed citizens especially from underrepresented populations, thereby increasing the power of privileged individuals who already yield disproportionate influence in our political system.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Four Key Strategies

This paper examines four key strategies to improve the quality and amount of civic learning and engagement in America and offers recommendations for policymakers in each:

  • Active Civic Education – Providing students traditional and interactive civics lessons, coupled together. Students trained through active citizen education efforts score highest on civic knowledge and skill assessments.
  • Service-Learning – An instructional methodology that makes intentional links between the academic curriculum and student community service work. Service-learning simultaneously benefits local communities and students by providing meaningful opportunities for the latter to apply what they learn to issues that matter to them. Compared to their peers, young adults who participate in K-12 service-learning are more likely to discuss politics or community issues and vote in an election year.
  • National & Community Service – Before, during, and after college, paid service work that enables young people to address local needs through hands-on experiences. Service experiences during youth tend to lead to a life-long habit of volunteering and other forms of civic participation.
  • Voting – Engaging youth in voting, voter registration, and voter participation activities. Those who vote when they are first eligible are likely to continue voting throughout their lives, while someone who does not may never pick up the habit. Leading first-time voters through key steps in the voting process—learning how to register to vote, how a ballot works, what’s on a ballot, and where to go—increases citizen participation in constructive, democratic governance.

Policy Recommendations

Additionally, we also lay out our recommendations for several key policies that should be enacted at the federal, state, or local level to ensure voting-age adults are ready to carry out their civic responsibilities. They are:

  1. Require active civic education at the K-12 level;
  2. Create an Election Day holiday from classes and coursework requirements;
  3. Make voter registration part of the high school commencement process;
  4. Register college students to vote through the postsecondary education course enrollment process;
  5. Revise and reinvest Learn and Serve America;
  6. Boost support for community service and civic engagement through the Federal Work Study program; and
  7. Encourage institutions of higher education to partner with AmeriCorps and offer campus-brand service opportunities

Read the full issue brief here.