Thus, it establishes a sense of optimism
in the context of an existing injustice
that still needs to be remedied—
a maxi-mally motivating combination.
The civil rights movement embodied
the fundamental aspirations to liberty
and equality that have animated the
best moments of American democracy
since its founding. It is an American
story that played out in the context of
American constitutional ideals and laws.
Martin Luther King Jr. claimed this
heritage in his famous 1963 “I Have a
Dream” speech when he stated that his
dream for the liberty and equal rights
of all citizens was “deeply rooted in the
American Dream” (U.S. Constitution
Damon, W. (2011). Failing liberty 101: How
we are leaving young Americans unprepared
for citizenship in a free society. Stanford,
CA: Hoover Press.
To acquire civic
knowledge as well as
Dillon, S. (2011, May 4). Failing grades on
civics exam called a “crisis.” New York
Times, p. A23.
civic virtue, students
need to care deeply
about their country.
Gould, J. (Ed.). (2011). Guardian of
democracy: The civic mission of schools. Philadelphia: Leonore Annenberg Institute for
Civics, Annenberg Public Policy Center,
University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved
Gowdy, J. D. (Ed.). (n.d.). Quotes on liberty
and virtue. Retrieved from the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison Institute at
Such real-life, in-person civic experi-
ences can bring U.S. citizenship to life
for students, especially when combined
with peer support and integrated into a
solid curriculum that conveys the
essential concepts of government and
history. By participating in community
civic and political events outside the
classroom, young people gain a sense of
their own important roles in the con-
tinuing saga of our society’s search for
an exemplary democracy. When stu-
dents acquire pride in the past aspira-
tions and successes of our nation, faith
in its future, and confidence that they
can personally make a difference—
indeed, that their contributions will be
vital—they are on the road to devel-
oping strong civic purpose. EL
Hedges, C. (1999, November 21). 35% of
high school seniors fail national civics
test. New York Times, p. A23.
By learning about the civil rights
movement, students can learn about
universal values of human rights and
social justice in the context of the particulars of U.S. citizenship—another
propitious combination. This kind of
material is ideally suited to inspire students’ interest in citizenship and their
motivation to participate.
National Center for Education Statistics.
(2011). The nation’s report card: Civics
2010. (NCES 2011–466). Washington,
DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S.
Department of Education. Retrieved from
Helping Young People
Find Their Role
Beyond teaching such vital topics as the
civil rights movement, schools should
create opportunities for young people to
participate in civic and political events
within and beyond the school. In the
classroom, coursework can draw connections between students’ own experiences and problems historical and
contemporary civic leaders faced.
Author’s note: The research discussed in
this article has been supported, in part, by
grants from the Spencer Foundation and the
Carnegie Corporation of New York and by
support from the Boyd and Jill Smith Task
Force on Virtues of a Free Society.
In one program developed by the
University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg
Center for Public Policy, Central High
Bailyn, B. (1960). Education in the forming of
American society: Needs and opportunities
for study. Raleigh: University of North
School in Philadelphia held a forum
for current mayoral candidates at the
school, giving students the opportunity to question the candidates on
civic issues of concern to them. On
another occasion, students from the
school joined with students from other
Center for Information and Research
on Civic Learning and Engagement
Ravitch, D. (2006). Should we teach patri-
otism? Phi Delta Kappan, 87(8), 579–581.
Schmitt, G. J., Hess, F. M., Farkas, S.,
Duffett, A. M., Miller, C., & Schuette,
J. M. (2010). High schools, civics, and
citizenship: What social studies teachers
think and do. Washington, DC: American
Southern Poverty Law Center. (2011).
Teaching the movement: The state of civil
rights education in the United States 2011.
Montgomery, AL: Author. Retrieved
Tocqueville, A. (1840/2002). Democracy in
America (H. C. Mansfield & D. Winthrop,
Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago
Press. (Original work published 1840)
Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A
history of American urban education. Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
U.S. Constitution Online. (n.d.). The “I have
a dream” speech. Retrieved January 18,
2012, from U.S. Constitution Online at
(CIRCLE). (n.d.). Quick facts: Youth voting.
Retrieved January 18, 2012, from www
Chinard, G. (Ed.). (1926). The commonplace
book of Thomas Jefferson: A repertory of
his ideas on government. Baltimore: Johns
Philadelphia schools to conduct civics
projects on topics ranging from global
warming to gun violence (Gould, 2011).
Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: How
young people find their calling in life. New
York: The Free Press.
William Damon is professor of edu-
cation at Stanford University and Director
of the Stanford Center on Adolescence
( http://coa.stanford.edu). Damon is
the author of Failing Liberty 101: How
We Are Leaving Young Americans
Unprepared for Citizenship in a Free
Society (Hoover Institute Press, 2011);