ERIC Identifier: ED380401
Publication Date: 1995-04-00
Author: Bahmueller, Charles F.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
National Standards for Civics and Government. ERIC Digest.
It has been recognized since the founding of the American republic that
education has a civic mission--to foster the development of informed,
responsible, and humane citizens who participate in democratic governance and
are committed to the values and principles of constitutional democracy as
practiced in the United States. In this view, the well-being of a free society
ultimately depends on the character of its citizens--on their moral and civic
capacities and virtues, on their willingness to fulfill their roles competently
as the ultimate arbiters of the purpose and direction of the body politic of
which they are members. To help achieve these goals, voluntary "National
Standards for Civics and Government" for students in kindergarten through
twelfth grade have been developed by the Center for Civic Education. More than
three thousand teachers, scholars, parents, elected officials, and
representatives of business and industry contributed to the Standards'
The Standards are organized around five central questions dealing with the
following subjects: (1) the nature and necessity of government, (2) the
foundations of American constitutionalism, (3) the functioning of American
government and the place of democratic values and principles within it, (4)
America's relations with the world, and (5) the roles of the citizen. Each of
the five questions is followed by a statement which summarizes the standards
that follow and presents reasons why citizens should be knowledgeable about
THE FIRST OF THE FIVE OVERARCHING QUESTIONS: WHAT ARE CIVIC LIFE, POLITICS, AND GOVERNMENT?
Students should know why politics and
government are necessary and integral elements of any society. There are various
views about why this is so. Aristotle believed that political society is the
result of a natural process; others argue that government is necessary because
without it people are unable to reach goals or deal with many common problems,
such as the national defense or the regulation of domestic and international
This standard also asks students to think about the purposes of government.
Some governments seek to protect certain individual rights; others pursue such
purposes as achieving a religious vision or promoting a secular utopian
ideology. Students should see that the purposes adopted for government affect
the relationships between the individual and government, and between government
and society as a whole. Thus, the purposes served by the government determine
whether a society is or is not free.
The standards also emphasize the importance of constitutions and
constitutionalism, beginning with the nature and purposes of constitutions. The
Standards ask students to distinguish between limited or constitutional
government and unlimited government, and between constitutions that are
operational and that merely are facades for despotic regimes. Students should
know what "the rule of law" means, and why it is a characteristic of limited
government. They should also know that limited government protects, within legal
boundaries, an autonomous, spontaneous, and self-organizing social sphere known
as "civil society," and they should understand how civil society can maintain
limited government. Further, students should understand the relationship of
limited government to political and economic freedom. They should know what
conditions are required for constitutional government to flourish. Finally,
students should be aware of alternative ways other countries organize
THE SECOND OF THE STANDARDS' FIVE PRINCIPAL QUESTIONS: WHAT ARE THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE AMERICAN POLITICAL SYSTEM?
Students are asked
to consider the basic ideas of American constitutional democracy. The American
idea of constitutionalism, for example, is that legitimate government is limited
both in its purposes and the means employed to pursue these purposes. Students
are asked to explore the intellectual and political background to these ideas
from Magna Carta (1215) onward, including the development of popular sovereignty
and the idea of constitutions as "higher law." Students should also understand
how the Constitution has shaped the character of American society and what the
distinctive characteristics of American society are. In addition, students are
to understand the character of American political culture, the unique features
of national identity and political life.
Students are to understand two strands of civic values central to the
American founding and influential thereafter. They are classical liberalism,
which emphasizes the protection of individual rights as a central purpose of
government; and classical republicanism, which emphasizes the primacy of civic
virtue and the common good. Students are also to understand that conflicts arise
among these values. Private rights, for example, may conflict with prevailing
conceptions of public good. They should realize that there are disparities,
sometimes important ones, between American ideals and their realization.
THE THIRD CENTRAL QUESTION: HOW DOES THE GOVERNMENT ESTABLISHED BY THE CONSTITUTION EMBODY THE PURPOSES, VALUES, AND PRINCIPLES OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY?
The Standards ask students to consider
the ways and means the Constitution's framers devised to curb the potential
abuse of power. The Constitution limits power by dispersing it. Federalism
disperses power by creating several layers of government. Further, power is
separated and shared through a complex system of checks and balances in which
each branch of government shares some powers of the others so that none is
It is essential that students grasp the basic functions and organization of
the institutions of government. They should know what the major responsibilities
of the federal government are in domestic and foreign policy, and how state and
local government are organized and discharge their responsibilities. Because
state and local government provide most of the services citizens receive and are
often most accessible, citizens should be knowledgeable about them.
Citizens should understand the function of law in a free society and its
place in the American system. They should see how the federal structure of
American government provides numerous opportunities to influence the making and
executing of law. In viewing this complex process, they should understand what
public opinion and the public agenda are, and how political communication via
the mass media affect them. Finally, citizens should have some knowledge of
political parties, campaigns, and elections in the political system; and they
should know something about the many interest groups in American politics.
THE FOURTH CENTRAL QUESTION THE STANDARDS ADDRESS: WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE UNITED STATES TO OTHER NATIONS AND TO WORLD AFFAIRS?
To meet these standards, citizens must first understand
how the world is organized politically; that is, how it is divided into
nation-states, and how these nation-states interact. They should also be able to
identify the roles of major governmental and nongovernmental international
Secondly, citizens need an understanding of the history of American relations
with the world. They should know how domestic politics and constitutional
principles affect the nation's role in the world. They should know how American
foreign policy is made, and the means and ends of foreign policy. For example,
they should be able to explain the idea of the national interest, as well as the
influence of constitutional values and principles on foreign policy. Finally,
they should have a grasp of the reciprocal influence of the United States of
America and other nations.
THE FIFTH AND FINAL QUESTION ADDRESSED BY THE STANDARDS: WHAT ARE THE ROLES OF THE CITIZEN IN AMERICAN DEMOCRACY?
This is the
culmination of the document and focuses upon the ideal outcome of civic
education. Democratic citizens are active; "democracy is not a spectator sport." If they are to consent to their roles, citizens must know what citizenship is,
what their personal, political, and economic rights are, and what
responsibilities those rights entail. Among these responsibilities are voting in
public elections and otherwise participating in civic life as a volunteer in
community organizations, and as a constructive critic of public institutions,
officials, and policies.
A key section of the Standards emphasizes how citizens take part in civic
life. To understand the life of citizenship, they must be adept at civic arts
and know the avenues available for participation. They need to understand the
difference between social and political participation, and grasp such notions as
the distinction between civil disobedience and revolution or rebellion. Above
all, they must see how democracy depends upon attentive, knowledgeable, and
competent citizens who care about their fellow citizens and their country.
The "National Standards for Civics and Government" is available from the
Center for Civic Education, 5146 Douglas Fir Road, Calabasas, CA 91302-1467.
Call toll free, 800/350-4223 or FAX: 818/591-9330. You may order 1-9 copies for
$12.00 per copy. Ten or more copies are $11.00 per copy. Add 10% for shipping
and handling costs.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of
resources includes references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by
an ED number are available in microfiche and/or paper copies from the ERIC
Document Reproduction Service (EDRS). For information about prices, contact
EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2842;
telephone numbers are (703) 440-1440 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an
EJ number, annotated monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE),
are not available through EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal
section of most larger libraries by using the bibliographic information
provided, requested through Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from the UMI reprint
Bahmueller, Charles F., ed. CIVITAS: A FRAMEWORK FOR CIVIC EDUCATION.
Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1991. ED 340 654.
Bahmueller, Charles F. THE CORE IDEAS OF CIVITAS: A FRAMEWORK FOR CIVIC
EDUCATION. ERIC Digest. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social
Studies/Social Science Education, 1992. ED 346 016.
Butts, R. Freeman. ANALYSIS OF CIVIC EDUCATION IN THE UNITED STATES: NATIONAL STANDARDS AND CIVIC EDUCATION IN THE U.S.
Paper presented at the International Conference on Western Democracy and Eastern Europe: Political, Economic and Social Changes, East Berlin, Germany, 1991. ED 345 993.
Butts, R. Freeman. THE MORALITY OF DEMOCRATIC CITIZENSHIP: GOALS FOR CIVIC EDUCATION IN THE REPUBLIC'S THIRD CENTURY. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education, 1988. ED 341 593.
Butts, R. Freeman. "National Standards and Civic Education in the United
States." INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SOCIAL EDUCATION 7 (Winter 1993): 86-94. EJ
Jonsson, Ingrid. "Creating Citizens." INTERNATIONAL STUDIES IN SOCIOLOGY OF
EDUCATION 2 (1992): 185-98. EJ 467 842.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. CIVICS: UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT
& POLITICS OBJECTIVES, 1988 ASSESSMENT. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing
Service, 1987. ED 287 875.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. THE CIVICS REPORT CARD.
Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1990. ED 315 376.
Patrick, John J. "Teaching the Bill of Rights in Secondary Schools: Four Keys
to an Improved Civic Education." SOCIAL STUDIES 82 (November-December 1991):
227-31. EJ 447 868.