What Is Civics?

The National Association of Scholars upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.

What Is Civics?

Civics is instruction in the rights and duties of citizenship. The word’s root is the Latin word for citizen. 

What it means to be a citizen varies from one society to another, but the basic contrast is between a person who is a “subject,” such as the subject of a king who must take the king’s orders, and a “citizen” who has rights and within limits orders his own life.

In America we are citizens, not subjects. But we are always at some risk from those who would prefer us to be obedient to their orders and thus forfeit some (or all) of our rights as citizens.

Our form of government is a “republic.” America is sometimes described as a “democracy,” but this is misleading. A republic is a representative form of government. We generally elect our leaders, and we rely of democratic means (i.e., voting) to accomplish this. But we are not a simple democracy, which would require a popular vote on every public matter.

Both the theory and practice of government can get complicated. People in a republic have to weigh many factors to decide how best to arrange their public affairs. For that reason, civics is something that requires study. Children don’t pick it up as easily as they learn how to use a cell phone or as easily as they learn the lyrics of a popular song. To learn how to be a citizen requires learning some history, philosophy, and qualities of character.

Traditionally, American civic education at its beginning stages consisted of learning about the reasons for the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the writing of the Constitution. These events—usually called the Founding—lead on to learning about the kind of federal government the Constitution put into place. The division between a two-part legislative ranch, an executive, and a judiciary is easy to grasp. At a slightly deeper level, students can begin to understand why that three-part division was chosen and why it has remained ever since. Along with learning about the federal government, young children learn about state and local government, and how they differ from federal branch.

In other words, civics instruction begins with understanding the structure and function of government in American life. Within this framework, many important details remain to be filled in. What are our duties to government? Why vote? What is a jury? Why pay taxes? Who serves in the military? What is a prison? What are the qualifications for elected office? 

The answers to such questions make little or no sense unless you first have a basic understanding of how our government is organized and why it is that way.