ERIC Identifier: ED350489
Publication Date: 1992-00-00
Author: Boggs, David L.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Adult Civic Education. ERIC Digest No. 129.
The purposes of this ERIC DIGEST are first, to highlight the significance of
adult civic education in a democracy, and second, to examine the substance of
adult civic education in order to answer the question, "What information and
knowledge, dispositions and values, and ultimately actions are required by
citizens in order to attend to the public's business in the practice of
Political commentators (Broder 1989; Yankelovich 1988) and citizenship
theorists (Barber 1984; Bellah and Associates 1985; Janowitz 1983; Pratte 1988)
alike worry about disengagement of the American body politic from community
affairs, from politics, and from public life. They cite widespread tendencies to
privatize things that have heretofore been public, to place a higher premium on
private rights than public and social obligations, not to see connections
between private interests and public policy issues, and to allow special
interests to supersede the public good.
The quality of democracy seems to depend upon the degree to which civic
education can assist adult citizens in finding meaningful bases for
participation in public affairs (Boggs 1991a). Through participation, new areas
in which learning through discussion, reflection, and further study is desirable
are identified. At the same time, participation presumes some knowledge of the
community, of government, and of the problem or issue at hand. It requires
skills necessary to function successfully in groups and contribute effectively
to their work. Its primary function, according to Barber (1984), is the
education of judgment which leads to rational choice. The problem for democracy
and for adult education has always been the same: how to keep citizens and
learners responsible for the whole community, while leaving them free to and
indeed assisting them in reaching personal objectives.
DEFINITION AND CONDITIONS
Adult civic education can be
defined as "the purposeful and systematic effort to develop in adults the skills
and dispositions to function effectively as citizens in their communities as
well as in the larger world. The purpose is to both develop understanding and
judgment about public issues and to contribute to guided and informed decisions
and actions through deliberation, public talk, and dialogue" (Boggs 1991b, p.
It is characterized by three conditions. First, it is context specific.
Disputes over such issues as taxes, zoning, and annexation and the positions and
philosophies of political candidates find their context in the lives of adults.
Second, the civic knowledge that adults require is both continually expanding
and incomplete at the same time. Each week, if not daily, developments challenge
the capacity of citizens to respond with understanding and competence. Third,
understanding the political environment requires engagement with it. Since the
conditions are dynamic, there is much we cannot know until we try it. Only in
the political process are certain kinds of insights possible. Civic knowledge
arises out of the interconnection between reflection and action.
The integral elements of adult civic
education are information, values, and action. Programs that include all three
elements enable citizens to
and interpret data in order to be informed about and influence public decisions
their priorities and values when confronted with the challenges of an
ever-changing society where resources are shrinking and new technology poses
both problems and opportunities;
skills to direct social change in ways that further their vision of a better
and define bases for political participation, including specific steps for
practice democracy, citizens require information about complex local and
national issues from air quality to zoning and the skills and wisdom to put the
information to effective use. Boyte (1989) explores the responsibilities and
capabilities of citizens as agents of democracy in an "information age." His
thesis is that effective citizenship is possible if--and only if--"citizens
develop the abilities to gain access to information of all kinds...and the
skills to put such information to effective use" (p. 5). Thus knowledge about
often increasingly technical issues, as a resource to be shared by citizens, as
well as values, virtue, and moral judgments about political actions, are all
inescapable elements in citizenship.
An objective in adult civic education should be to help citizens learn how to
use the aid of experts and qualified professionals in making public policy
decisions while limiting it to citizen review and control. Interactions among
citizens as learners are distinctive precisely because they are interactions
among equals; as such, they have no binding authority over one another in
respect to the subject matters of their interactions as citizens.
the heart of choices about concrete and specific situations lie inescapable
questions about often conflicting values. Political choosing involves moral
reasoning and acting with reference to conflicting standards about what is
important to a community. The problem for adult civic education is to help
learners develop civic virtue as a basis for acting when their involvement in a
public issue in the first place is often driven by emotional investment in a
special or "hot" interest, deflecting attention from a larger view of public
Civic virtue involves first, interest in community issues and public affairs,
second, willingness to be involved in matters of importance to the commonwealth,
and third, an attitude of civility and decency toward one's fellow citizens.
Pratte (1988) says: "Civic virtue is not a matter of mere behavior; it is a
matter of forming a civic disposition, a willingness to act, in behalf of the
public good while being attentive to and considerate of the feelings, needs, and
attitudes of others. It implies an obligation or duty to be fair to others, to
show kindness and tact, and to render agreeable service to the community" (p.
In this technological age, the actions that citizens take in the public
sphere, whether in regard to land use or solid waste disposal or any other of
the myriad problems facing local communities, have enormous ramification for
themselves and generations to come. Hence forming civic conscience is
fundamental because it involves behaving morally toward others as a response to
their basic dignity and worth.
ultimate objective of civic education is to help citizens learn to be morally
responsible actors. At its core, responsible citizenship involves responsible
involvement in public issues. Adult educators have responsibility to serve as
advocates, not of specific choices or solutions to public issues, but of
thoughtful and deliberate choice that is a prelude to action. Through
participation in adult civic education, citizens should be able to recognize and
talk openly about moral choices and to make more reflective judgments about
Adult educators run the risk of being viewed as advocates for particular
positions or for specific solutions to public problems. Their role needs to be
made clear. Promoting study and reflection on public matters does not mean
advocating a particular solution or point of view. Rather it signals commitment
to facilitating full inquiry and understanding by the public regarding its
choices. Adult educators are advocates only in the sense of helping citizens
with the task of becoming informed about complex problems and choices that often
have long-term consequences.
Civic knowledge, skills, and the disposition to
use them in order to achieve a vision of the community that is desired can be
furthered through purposefully structured civic education. Informed judgment and
action with regard to the public's affairs--dynamic and effective citizenship in
full bloom--is the goal of adult civic education. Certainly, other imperatives
stemming from economic and social forces, technological and social change, and
demographic and occupational trends should command the attention of adult
educators. Yet none of the imperatives to which adult education agencies respond
is immune to the debilitating consequences of erosion of a strong and active
sense of citizenship.
The challenge is to infuse an understanding of citizen responsibilities and a
capacity for thinking about political issues in educational programs for
learners as diverse as pharmacists (continuing professional education),
tradespersons (adult vocational education), and high school dropouts (adult
basic education). All the purposes adults seek to attain through additional
education, in the end, rest upon democracy as an enabling condition. As society
becomes more fragmented, and conversely, the world more interdependent, and as
technology improves life while making it more complex, the future of democracy
will increasingly depend on the ability of citizens to make wise and unselfish
The skills of citizenship can be learned through civic education programs
that encourage participants to move outside the confines of what is familiar and
comfortable and explore new information and perspectives. Civic education
promotes the ability to make connections, to see causal situations and outcomes,
and to understand the relationship between the individual and the larger
community. Civic education challenges citizens to recognize the
interrelationship of specific private issues with larger public problems and to
use civic skills in solving them.
Barber, B. STRONG DEMOCRACY. Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1984.
Bellah, R. and Associates. HABITS OF THE HEART: INDIVIDUALISM AND COMMITMENT
IN AMERICAN LIFE. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Boggs, D. L. "Civic Education: An Adult Education Imperative." ADULT
EDUCATION QUARTERLY 42, no. 1 (1991a): 46-55. (ERIC No. EJ 434 058)
Boggs, D. L. ADULT CIVIC EDUCATION. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas,
Boyte, H. COMMONWEALTH. New York: The Free Press, 1989.
Broder, D. "What It Takes to Build Democracy." WASHINGTON POST, December 31,
1989, p. 7C.
Janowitz, M. THE RECONSTRUCTION OF PATRIOTISM. Chicago: University of Chicago
Pratte, R. THE CIVIC IMPERATIVE. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.
Yankelovich, Daniel. "Changing Public Values." KETTERING REVIEW (Fall 1988):