What Is Civics Education?


After the Charlottesville violence, there will probably be renewed calls for civics education.* But what is civics education? Any initiative needs a clear understanding of it.

Here is what I would offer. Civics education conveys, develops, and enlivens the premise that a country is built on principles, structures, realities, and interpretations, and that each of these has internal contradictions and contradictions with other elements. Civics education would help students understand (a) what these principles, structures, realities, and interpretations actually are; (b) where they come from, historically and philosophically; (c) how they have coincided or conflicted with each other over time; (d) how one can grapple with these confluences and contradictions; and (e) how one can apply this understanding. In addition, such a curriculum would bring out the relation between external government (government of a country or smaller political unit) and internal government (government of the self). A civics curriculum that built this kind of knowledge, questioning, analysis, and introspection would be fine indeed!

So, for instance, the principle of “pursuit of happiness” runs into frequent conflict with the principle of equality, but both are essential to this country and part of its foundation. How does one reconcile them? Answers may be found in philosophical works, court cases, literature, and more, but such answers are not final and do not solve everything. The question stays open, continually calling for new responses, not only in the political arena, but in our minds and lives.

A civics curriculum would include but go beyond courses in government, philosophy, and history alone; it would involve arts, languages, literatures, mathematics, and sciences, since all of these help us understand who we are, who others are, what is known and unknown, and what matters.

Very well, you might say. When and how will this great education come about? I say that it already exists, in places and in pieces. The challenge is to lift it up and make it stronger. This will require, among other things, renewed dedication to secular education–that is, not education that denies or diminishes religious faith, but that builds a common basis and mode of discussion among people: a basis of knowledge and a mode of reasoning, imagining, and listening.

This may sound grand and far-fetched, but I have seen it in practice. I sensed these qualities in my best high school, college, and graduate school classes; I have found them when visiting classes taught by colleagues. I see them in the philosophy roundtables and philosophy journal at Columbia Secondary School. I experience them each summer at the Dallas Institute and look forward to reveling in them at the upcoming ALSCW Conference. In addition, I find them when reading, listening to music, visiting other countries, speaking other languages, and writing. These are some of the contexts I know; how many more there must be! This practice exists, in other words; it just needs attention, recognition, and strengthening.

Image credit: Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516 edition.

*The term “civics education” may seem redundant, since “civics” already denotes a field of study. I use it to refer not just to the field but to the ways of teaching it and the subjects surrounding it. 


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  1. Susan

     /  August 17, 2017

    Your description of civics education is breathtaking.

    In my opinion you are describing a way of thinking about approaching inner and outer curriculums that would result in a powerful, empowering life-worthy education. At the heart of learning is a never-ending adventure:
    * the on-going search for answers, answers that really have no end other than perhaps for a moment in time. And then someone, some where, uncovers another piece that will change today’s answer a little or maybe a lot.

    Disciplines are dynamic because life is dynamic. The idea that knowledge is static and can be ‘polished’ via repeating back what is already known might be the one of more immoral ‘acts’ of K-12 education. Children and youth are robbed of the opportunities to uncover who they are and who they are in this world; the 2 things they (all of us) are ‘wired’ to do on this earth.

    • Thank you, Susan! You describe what I have in mind. “Repeating back” isn’t necessarily bad in itself–it’s essential for learning languages, for instance, and for mastering certain basics–but all depends on what you do with that. If students are encouraged to play with what they have learned, look at it from different angles, and raise questions, then the “repeating back” won’t constrict them. If the “repeating back” is the end goal, though, it turns education into something static, predictable, and controlled.

      A simple example: When I lived in the Netherlands at age 10, I often heard the second-graders down the hall chanting the multiplication table. I was in sixth grade. We (and the fifth-graders) were learning mental arithmetic, which requires not just mastery of the times table but the ability to look at a problem in different ways. What’s 89 x 21? You might treat it as 90 x 21 – 21 or as 20 x 89 + 89; either way, you could quickly arrive at 1,869. But you could continue finding more ways of looking at it; for instance, you could see it as 90 x 7 x 3 – 21. In all of this, it helped to know the times table backwards and forwards–but knowing it backwards and forwards was only the starting point.

  2. Susan

     /  August 17, 2017

    You are welcome.

    I agree, there is a place for memorization, like the times tables. Adding to your adventure of looking at the problem in different ways: having these tables at your fingertips frees the brain to work on the problem. We do not have to stop the flow in working memory (break attention) and figure out the answer to a multiplication problem in order to work with the complexity of the bigger part of the problem. So yes, knowing the times tables backwards and forwards is only the beginning:))

  1. Smorgasbord: Unity, Faction, and Learning – Schools & Ecosystems

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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