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Getting Ready for Civic Responsibilities

Even beyond the classroom and the workplace, critical thinking is all around us

· Democracy,Civic readiness,election

// College, Career, and Civic Readiness (4/5): A Thinking Habitats Blog Series

After examining the concepts of college readiness and career readiness earlier in our blog series, we’ve arrived at the final component of the three “Cs”: civic readiness. We’ve already discussed civic readiness on the Thinking Habitats blog; it’s a great introduction to the topic, and we recommend you read it, if you haven’t done so yet.

Civic readiness is all about the importance of democracy as a whole. Democracy, by definition, is self-governance. The old cliche “power to the people” is an appropriate description; in democracy, the citizenry votes to elect officials and pass legislation that they support. In order to appropriately convey this support (or, sometimes, opposition,) democracy requires citizens who are informed and thoughtful, participate in their communities, are involved in the political process, and possess moral and civic virtues(Levinson, 2011).

Of course, as you may have already observed, not all members of our society choose to participate in this democratic process. In Thinking Habitats’ hometown of Toledo, Ohio, the 2015 election on local and state issues saw just 26 percent of registered voters participating (Messina, 2015).

This statistic illustrates all too clearly that “civic responsibility” means a lot more to some than it does to others. By characterizing these different viewpoints, we can identify different types of citizenship within any given society. In a 2004 article, Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne described three basic kinds of citizens:

  1. The personally responsible citizen, who abides by laws, is generally honest, and participates at a basic level in their community

  2. The participatory citizen, who takes a more active leadership role in their community, often acting as an organizer and motivator for other citizens

  3. The justice-oriented citizen, who truly devotes their life to improving their local and global community, seeking out injustice and doing everything in their power to right it

To play even the most basic role in this hierarchy, one must answer some tough questions that require and purposeful consideration and evaluation. In short, being a responsible citizen is a bit like being a prepared college student or a successful professional; it requires some preparation. Specifically, the National Center for Learning and Citizenship has described three key “strands” of civic competency:

  1. Knowledge of our government and how it functions.

  2. Skills and behaviors -- like the ability to think critically and analyze information -- that enable citizens to make informed decision.

  3. A “civic disposition,” which describes a desire to participate in government, fueled by true value for democracy and the feeling that democratic participation is worthwhile.

When taken together, these three “strands” can be “braided” together to form the foundation for an informed and responsible citizenry. All three are necessary to reach Westheimer and Kahne’s highest level of citizenship. In 1999, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted an assessment of civic education in twenty-eight countries throughout the world, and patterns emerged touching on the importance of all three of these “strands.” Here are just three of the items that the young people surveyed agreed upon; note how they correspond to the three “strands” listed above:

  1. Those with the most civic knowledge are most likely to participate in civic activities.

  2. Schools that model democratic practices (helping students directly develop skills) are most effective.

  3. Good citizenship includes the obligation to vote.


If you had to characterize yourself, which of Westheimer and Kahne’s three kinds of citizens are you? If you wished to advance to the next “level” of citizenship, what kinds of things could you practice to enhance your civic readiness? Share your ideas in the comments.

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