NATIONAL CIVICS AND GOVERNMENT STANDARDS
Responding to the Goals 2000 Act (1994), the Center for Civic Education developed the National Standards for Civics and Government. The voluntary standards were first published in 1994, and the current version is dated 2003.
In the Preface, the authors state that “education has a civic mission: to prepare informed, rational, humane, and participating citizens committed to the values and principles of American constitutional democracy.... Civic education, therefore, is essential to the preservation and improvement of American constitutional democracy.” This is a good statement. We prefer the term “constitutional republic,” but more on that later on.
The authors realize that several institutions play a role in shaping Americans’ civic education: “The family, religious institutions, the media, and community groups exert important influences. Schools, however, bear a special and historic responsibility for the development of civic competence and civic responsibility.” Yes, schools are important, but the family is the most important influence. Schools should support the right of parents to oversee the academic and religious education of their children.
Overall the standards provide a lucid and thorough introduction to the principles of American civics and government. We have one general criticism, however: the standards downplay or miss religious connections at numerous points. It’s not that religion – and Christianity in particular – is ignored as an important factor. The point to be made is that Judeo-Christian values and Western Civilization have played a key role in America’s founding and heritage, and that connection should be explored more explicitly throughout the standards. For more on this topic we suggest Matthew Spalding’s book as a reference: We Still Hold These Truths.
These are “exit” standards, specifying what students should know and be able to do at the end of 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The writers state that civics/government is “an interdisciplinary subject, whose substance is drawn from the disciplines of political science, political philosophy, history, economics, and jurisprudence.”
The standards stress both “content” knowledge/skills and “participatory” (inquiry) skills: “To be able to think critically about a political issue ... one must have an understanding of the issue, its history, and its contemporary relevance, as well as a set of intellectual tools or considerations useful in dealing with such an issue.” The standards seek to balance content and inquiry, but the emphasis is where it should be – on content (knowledge).
The standards are divided into three sections according to grade bands: K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. These sections are divided into five major categories, which have similar titles in each grade band. Thus there is a progression in the various topics through the grade levels, with more complexity as the student grows older. Each of the five major categories has several sub-categories which contain the individual “content standards.”
We will consider the five major categories separately, combining the content for the various grade bands. This seems logical since there is much overlap in content from one grade band to the next; this repetition is done for progression within topics and for review of previously learned material.
I. What are civic life, politics, and government?
*Civic life (public life – concerned with the community and nation) is contrasted with personal life (private life – concerned with one’s own interests).
*Politics is described as the process by which a group of people reach collective decisions that are regarded as common policy.
*Government is defined as “the people and institutions in a society with authority to make, carry out, and enforce laws, and settle disputes about law....” Students begin (grades K-4) by looking at the governance of families and schools. These would be good examples if all parents and school officials were fair, objective, and genuinely concerned about the children. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Children from dysfunctional families might not relate well to this example of government.
*Authority (a lawful right) is distinguished from power (a capacity or ability). It is properly stated that: “In the United States, the authority of the government comes from the consent of the people.” It is correctly stated that power without authority is illegitimate.
*The standards state (grades K-4) that the basic need for government is “to protect the rights of the individual and to promote the common good.” This is expanded in later grades to include the needs for providing security/defense, accomplishing common goals, and solving problems. An interesting reason given for government (grades 9-12) is “because human beings are sinful or depraved by nature.” This could initiate an interesting discussion on man’s nature (are we inherently sinful or good?), but the standards do not provide a religious (theistic) perspective on this.
*What is left unsaid in the standards is the origin of human rights. The Declaration of Independence states that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Students should know that the Founders believed that natural rights are given by God; i.e., rights should not be viewed as gifts from the government – sometimes granted and sometimes taken away.
*The central purposes of rules and laws are said to be “guiding behavior and establishing order.” Several types of laws are mentioned, including laws that address privacy, property, equal opportunity, infrastructure, taxation, military service, and child protection. What is missing is any discussion of the moral and ethical principles that form the basis of law. America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, so our laws have historically been based on tenets found in the Bible. Children should be informed about this; doing so is not an “establishment of religion,” but rather a fact of history.
*Limited government is contrasted with unlimited government. In a limited (constitutional) government all the people (including leaders) “must obey the laws” and “effective limitations are placed upon those in authority....” In unlimited (authoritarian or totalitarian) governments “there are no effective controls over those in power.”
*The rule of law (accepted rules/laws must be followed by everyone) is contrasted with rule of men (lack of restraints on those in power).
*Students are asked (grades 9-12) to “explain alternative ideas about the sources of law, e.g., custom, Supreme Being, sovereigns, legislatures.” Students should understand that the basic source for American laws is a Supreme Being (God). This needs to be stated explicitly.
*Students (grades 9-12) “identify different varieties of law, e.g., divine law, natural law, common law, statute law, and international law.” Students should know that the highest forms of law are (quoting from the Declaration of Independence) “the Laws of Nature” [natural law] and of Nature’s God [divine law].” The standards refer to the U.S. Constitution as “a higher law limiting the power of government.” What this really means is that the Constitution is the highest statute (manmade) law in the U.S.
*Students learn that constitutions may be written or unwritten, and that they may be used to support limited government (e.g., the U.S. and Great Britain) or unlimited government (e.g., the former Soviet Union or Nazi Germany). The standards rightly call for comparisons of different types of government around the world (current and past). The goal should be to help students understand the unique advantages of America’s constitutional, limited government.
*A nice section in grades 5-8 stresses the necessity of a citizenry that (1) is educated, (2) is supportive of the Constitution, (3) practices good values and principles (virtue), and (4) assumes the responsibility of citizenship. The standards also explain the necessity for public officials who (1) understand and support the Constitution, (2) practice good values and principles, and (3) understand constitutional limitations. If there was a common point of agreement among the Founders, whether Federalists or Anti-Federalists, it was the need for the propagation of a virtuous citizenry if we hope to keep our free, self-governing tradition.
*Government systems with shared powers (United States) are compared with parliamentary systems (Great Britain). Rather brief descriptions of American separation of powers, functions of the three branches, and checks and balances are given. These descriptions are expanded in category III.
II. What are the foundations of the American political system?
*The key principles of American constitutional government are enumerated, including the sovereignty of the people, natural rights, limited government, a written constitution, the rule of law, equal opportunity and treatment, freedom (of religion, speech, and expression), the right to private property, work ethic (self-reliance), market economy, volunteerism, et al.
*A clear deficiency is the lack of any careful discussion of the source of these principles. This section does list “the Judeo-Christian ethic” as a characteristic of American society, but it goes no further than that. The fact is that basic American values and tenets come from God. Thus these principles are not arbitrary or contrived, but the Founders derived them from their knowledge of God and His precepts as revealed in the Bible. It is important for students to know this, but you won’t find it in these standards.
*Truth is listed as one of our “fundamental values,” but there is no consideration of its origin. Men like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams followed in the tradition of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment. This British Enlightenment, as distinct from the French, valued virtue as the highest of the enlightened traits, not reason. So, for the Founding generation, the American experiment in self-government would proceed in a search for truth, and this could be pursued both with fidelity to Scripture and long-established religious traditions and also with the new emphasis on developing our God-given reason, including the advances in the sciences. In our postmodern society, many would deny that absolute truth exists. Thus it is important for students to know that the Founders believed in absolute truth as established by the Bible in concert with human reason.
*The standards state (grades K-4) that “the identity of Americans is defined by shared political values, principles, and beliefs rather than by ethnicity, race, religion, class, language, gender, or national origin.” This is a good statement, although we would be inclined to move language from the second list to the first. A common language (English) is a key part of the nation’s identity, and a strong command of the English language is necessary both for personal success and good citizenship.
*The standards speak often of diversity as an important positive factor, which it is. For example, diversity can contribute to “vitality and creativity” in the U.S., and it can help “people appreciate cultural traditions and practices other than their own.” However, much less is said about the patriotic unity Americans (including immigrants) should feel as a part of our society. Students are asked to “explain why diversity is desirable and beneficial....” Shouldn’t they also explain why unity as a people and allegiance to the common American culture are desirable?
*The standards ask the important question: How can conflicts about diversity be resolved in a peaceful manner? The principal answer given is that we should focus on “common beliefs, interests, and goals” or “the beliefs Americans share.” While good in theory, universal agreement on such beliefs is not really possible in the U.S. today. There is no simple answer to this diversity of values, but a reasonable way to address the issue in academic standards is to stress that the Founders based American society on core Biblical precepts, and that those values and principles must be adhered to today for our style of government to continue to succeed. Yes, we can allow certain diverse beliefs to co-exist in American society, but we cannot compromise on Biblical principles in government if we expect our way of life to survive.
*Discussions of diversity in the standards could be interpreted in terms of multiculturalism, i.e., viewing all cultures with equal respect, validity, and scholarly interest. But the fact is that some cultures have better values and ethics than others. In America our value system is largely based on Biblical concepts, which were readily accepted by nearly all citizens throughout most of our history. Today, however, postmodern “diversity” teaches that a Biblical basis for values is only an opinion – one option among others. The standards in general support traditional American values/morals and thus avoid multicultural interpretations. There should, however, be standards that contrast traditional Judeo-Christian values with postmodern diversity.
*The standards state that “everyone has a right to public education” and that “universal public education” was an important factor in shaping American society. While true, nothing is said about the right of parents/guardians to direct the academic and religious education of their children. This may mean the opportunity to attend a public school, but it should also include alternatives like private/religious schools and home education.
*Coverage on American political culture is quite good. The authors note that political conflicts in the U.S. are usually less divisive than in other nations. Students engage in helpful discussions about why change in America is normally peaceful. Reasons include respect for the Constitution, national unity within diversity, widespread participation in government, acceptance of majority rule with respect for minority opinions, et al. There have been exceptions, of course, notably the Civil War, Vietnam War, and civil rights and labor struggles; students consider these as well.
*This statement is made (grades K-4): “Students must learn that in order to protect their own rights, they must be responsible for supporting the rights of others, even those with whom they may disagree or dislike.” This means that we acknowledge the right of others to have views different than our own; it does not imply that we must accept all views as equally valid. The question of respecting different viewpoints versus accepting all views is not clarified very well in the standards.
*The standards devote a fair amount of space to resolving conflicts between the ideals and the realities of the American system of government (grades 5-8): “The history of the United States ... has been marked by continuing attempts to narrow the gap between ideals and reality. For these reasons, Americans have joined forces in political movements to abolish slavery, extend the franchise, remove legal support for segregation, and provide equality of opportunity for each individual.... Citizens need to understand that American society is perpetually ‘unfinished,’ and that each generation has an obligation to help the nation move closer to the realization of its ideals.”
*The standards do a good job of helping students explore the conflicts between ideals and reality. They learn that sometimes one ideal must be balanced against another (e.g., liberty vs. equality) and that individual rights at times conflict with the common good. Overall, students are given an extensive, objective treatment of this topic.
* This section could be improved by noting how the Declaration of Independence and its statement about God-given natural rights has been the touchstone for everyone seeking to live up to those ideals. A key element of American exceptionalism is how our country politically functions with a self-correcting system. The nation makes necessary historical changes by continual reference to the unchanging elements of its own Founding. Even in 2015, the Declaration establishes the gold standard by which wise changes are made.
*At the end of grades 9-12 there is an extensive discussion on liberalism and republicanism. This is a necessary and informative topic, but it can be confusing. Fortunately the authors do a good job of explaining it. The standards state: “Classical republicanism emphasizes the ideal of the common good while [classical] liberalism stresses individual rights.” The standard goes on to distinguish “liberal” as used in the classical sense versus the current use of “liberal” as the Left or Progressive side of American politics. Then classical “republicanism” is contrasted with the word “republic,” which is government of the people through elected representatives. Also explained is the word “democracy,” which in Greek means “rule by the people.” Finally, the term “democracy” is distinguished from the “Democratic party,” and the term “republic” is distinguished from the “Republican party.”
*The standards choose to refer to the United States as a constitutional democracy, while we think a more accurate description is a constitutional republic. “Democracy” implies direct rule by the people, while “republic” denotes representative government. In fact, both terms are in common usage.
III. How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?
*There is a lot of basic, practical information in this section. The material is intended to be instructive, and the material is (for the most part) not controversial.
*There are reasonable standards on legislative, executive, and judicial powers. These show how power is shared among the three branches and how the system of checks and balances works.
*One standard asks students to “evaluate the argument that separation of powers, checks, and balances, and judicial review tend to slow down the process of making and enforcing laws, thus insuring better outcomes.” Students should know that a slow, deliberative process of decision-making was put in place intentionally by the Founders to help prevent a strong executive or a small group from taking control of the government or issuing unjust orders or rules. Under this topic, students should consider situations (particularly recent ones) in which the executive branch has issued orders or new regulations with little or no Congressional or judicial oversight. The concept of slow change will be difficult for many students to grasp, since they have been brought up in a world stressing fast communication and instant gratification.
*There are good standards in grades 9-12 that describe how federalism (1) divides powers among the federal and state governments, (2) places limitations on both, and (3) provides numerous opportunities for public participation in government.
*Students are asked to “evaluate competing arguments about the proper role of government in major areas of domestic and foreign policy, e.g., health care, education, child care, regulation of business and industry, foreign aid, intervention abroad.” This is an important topic that needs to be treated objectively, since some citizens (“liberals”) favor bigger government and stronger intervention in these areas and other citizens (“conservatives”) favor smaller government that has a more limited role in domestic affairs. This topic causes widespread division among citizens, and both sides of the subject should be presented even-handedly. The idea of “social justice” (including government welfare and redistribution of wealth) should be contrasted with the American ideals of personal independence, enterprise, and self-reliance.
*Students consider the sources of government revenue – mainly various taxes and social insurance payments. Borrowing is also listed as a source of government revenue, but we would disagree with this designation. Borrowing is not real income, and it increases the national debt. Paying “interest on the federal debt” is listed as a use of tax revenues, which it is, but there is no further discussion of the effect of debt on our current and future economy and well-being. There should be a standard in grades 9-12 that analyzes the national debt and discloses its dangers.
*The standards state: “Students should be able to identify their representatives in the legislative branches as well as the heads of the executive branches of their local, state, and national governments.” This is a refreshing learning objective, since most adults will not know this information!
*There is a good standard in grades 5-8 on identifying “the strengths and weaknesses of a rule or law by determining if it is well designed ... understandable ... possible to follow ... not biased ... [and] designed to protect individual rights and promote the common good.” We might have added “morally defensible” to the list. Students should recognize that not all legislation, rules, and regulations are good public policy.
*There is a useful discussion in grades 9-12 on the rule of law. The law (1) sets limits on government, (2) protects individual rights, (3) promotes the common good, and (4) provides equal protection. This section contains information on due process considerations for those accused of crimes. The information explaining a person’s legal rights should receive thorough coverage in class.
*The public agenda is defined as “those matters that occupy public attention at any particular time....” Explanations are given as to how the public agenda is shaped and how citizens can provide input. There are good learning objectives on “political persuasion.” For example, (1) “explain how public opinion ... sometimes can be manipulated,” (2) “evaluate ways the government and the media influence public opinion,” and (3) “evaluate the role of television, radio, the press, newsletters, and emerging means of communication in American politics.” This is an important subject. Media bias should be a part of the discussion on the public agenda, and we would suggest adding a standard on evaluating the premise that mass media tend to favor liberal, Progressive positions on issues.
IV. What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?
*This is a short section compared to the others. Among the topics covered are nation-states and their relations, past and present U.S. foreign policy, national interests, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and America’s influence on the world
*This section (for both grades 5-8 and 9-12) begins with this statement: “The world is divided into nation-states each of which claims sovereignty over a defined territory and jurisdiction over everyone within it.” Students are then asked to “explain why there is no political organization at the international level with power comparable to that of the nation-state.” Not much else is said about national sovereignty, which is a key concept in many nations – and especially the United States. Students should explore sovereignty issues in more detail; for example, (1) how treaties, trade agreements (like NAFTA), and alliances (like NATO) can provide benefits but also cause the U.S. to cede some degree of sovereignty, (2) how foreign laws are sometimes used to influence American court decisions, while these rulings should be based on the U.S. Constitution and U.S. statutes, and (3) how pressure from immigrants to adopt foreign customs and legal precepts (such as Sharia law) can undermine U.S. sovereignty.
*One might expect more coverage of the United Nations and our country’s interactions with it. Instead, the UN is merely mentioned as one of several “major governmental international organizations.” Students should evaluate the UN’s role in the world and its connections to the U.S., including both positive and negative aspects.
*Students are asked to “explain the idea of the national interest” and how it relates to U.S. foreign policy. This is an important topic since many Americans think that we should promote democracy and self-determination around the world. Many nations are still shackled by autocracy, oligarchy, and suppression of human rights. Students should know that the idea of actively promoting democracy overseas has only been an “American ideal” since the early 1900s. Historically, Americans have had very little interest in events in other parts of the world. Every war involving American military forces had been fought inside of North America until 1898. The “idea of national interest” was limited to those threats to this country inside of the Western Hemisphere. If some countries remained under the control of monarchical, non-representative systems, we generally would leave them alone. An activist role around the globe was not the original attitude or the intention of the founding generation.
*One standard (grades 9-12) asks students to “evaluate the current role of the United States in peacemaking and peacekeeping.” This brings up the question of America’s role as a “policeman” in the world. The U.S. is currently the only nation that has the power and influence to play that role, and students should consider the pros and cons of America assuming a policeman’s role versus a more restrained posture.
*This section properly mentions the environment as an international concern. Students are asked (grades 5-8) to “describe environmental conditions that affect the United States, e.g., destruction of rain forests and animal habitats, depletion of fishing grounds, air and water pollution.” The civics standards do not provide any detailed coverage of this subject, which is dealt with more fully in other disciplines such as Earth/environmental science and environmental geography. Students should know, however, that environmental issues are often as much political as they are scientific in nature. Topics like energy sources (renewable vs. nonrenewable), resource depletion/conservation, economic development, pollution control, human lifestyle, sustainability, and climate change affect all nations. It would be appropriate to give some coverage to the global political perspectives on environmentalism in these standards.
V. What are the roles of the citizen in American democracy?
*This section considers the meaning, rights, and responsibilities of American citizenship. The character traits needed for citizenship and leadership in a democratic society are enumerated.
*Citizenship is either by birth in the U.S. or by naturalization. The process of naturalization is explained. There is a brief mention of noncitizens (aliens) who are in the U.S. In view of current debates over immigration policy, the discussion of noncitizens should be expanded. For example, students should consider (1) the differences between aliens who are in the U.S. legally and those who are “undocumented” (illegals), (2) the pros and cons of various ways to deal with illegals (e.g., deportation, amnesty, work permits, adjudication, incarceration), (3) the pros and cons of providing government benefits to illegals (e.g., education, health care, child care, food and housing), (4) employment of “guest workers” in the U.S. in the midst of widespread unemployment among citizens, and (4) the arguments for greater border security.
*This curious statement is made: “Few rights, if any, are considered absolute.” The point being made is that some rights must be curtailed in special situations like a “clear and present danger,” national security, a “compelling national interest,” a threat to public safety, or libelous speech. There is no problem with these exceptions. The fact is, however, that there are certain rights that are absolute, as stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Students should be reminded of this truth from the Founders; the default position ought to be that natural rights are absolute. Nevertheless, it is true that every major conflict involving our country – especially during the past hundred years – has modified our natural rights, usually by restricting them.
*Students are asked to “identify the major documentary sources of personal rights, e.g., Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, state constitutions.” While references to these documents are fine, there is no reference to the ultimate source of human rights – namely a Supreme Being (God). The Declaration of Independence refers to “the Laws of Nature [natural law] and of Nature’s God [divine law].” Students should realize that the Founders who established our government knew that natural law and divine law were superior to any laws conceived by man – including the U.S. Constitution. In this (as well as other places in the standards), the writers tend to ignore references to God.
*There are good standards on the responsibilities of citizens, and students are strongly encouraged to take their duties as citizens seriously. Personal responsibilities include taking care of oneself, supporting one’s family, caring for one’s children, adhering to moral principles, considering the rights of others, and behaving in a civil manner. This brings up the question – not considered in the standards – about the government’s policy towards citizens who neglect or are unable to fulfill their responsibilities. Should government subsidies support these people indefinitely? Should the government help train and find jobs for the unemployed? Should dependent children and their parent(s) receive assistance? Obviously there are many people receiving government subsidies who cannot support themselves due to long-term illnesses, disabilities, or family-care responsibilities. But there are others who receive assistance who are able-bodied and employable. Students should discuss these issues in an objective manner.
*There are also good standards on civic responsibilities like obeying the law, being informed politically, monitoring officials, paying taxes, voting knowledgably, serving on a jury, volunteering for the military, assuming leadership roles, performing public service, and practicing patriotism. Again the question arises: what about people who shirk these responsibilities? Is there anything the government or individuals can do to induce recalcitrant citizens to assume their proper roles in a constitutional democracy? Students should discuss ideas in this regard.
*This statement (grades 9-12) is quite pertinent and bears repeating: “American constitutional democracy requires the responsible self-governance of each individual; one cannot exist without the other. Traits of private character such as moral responsibility, self-discipline, and respect for individual worth and human dignity are essential to its well-being.” This quote from John Adams is appropriate: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
*Students are asked (grades 9-12) to “describe the personal qualities necessary for political leadership.” This is a good topic to consider, since many politicians are in government for the wrong reasons. Students should contrast (1) genuine concern for citizens vs. a desire for power and wealth, (2) a commitment to doing the right thing vs. voting for expediency, (3) service as a public official for a limited time vs. politics as a lifelong pursuit, and (4) honesty and sincerity vs. telling people what you think they want to hear.
National Civics and Government Standards
National Economics Standards
National Geography Standards
National History Standards
National Social Studies Standards