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What is Civics?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Civics is a branch of political science that focuses on the role of citizens in their governments. In many nations, it is a fundamental part of instruction for students who are about to graduate, ensuring that every citizen has at least a basic knowledge of it. The study of civics may be combined with economics, because political and economic systems are often closely intertwined, and understanding both can be key to succeeding in society.

Students of this discipline look at both the duties and entitlements of citizens, ranging from paying taxes to receiving health care. They may also examine some of the larger ethical issues involved in politics, along with the workings of specific systems of government. At a basic level, civics informs people about the societies they live in, and how they can interact with the government. On a more advanced level, this field can involve an exploration of the social issues of a society, and look at the way in which history, social norms, economic policy, and other factors influence the health of a nation and its government.

In civics education classes, students are usually taught about the system of government used in their nation, and the implications of that government in their own lives. Students are also encouraged to get involved in their governments, with many classes including assignments like writing letters to elected officials, visiting government offices, or talking with local politicians. The goal is usually to get students engaged in their society. At the advanced levels, people may learn about the perspective of other countries so that they understand the systems of government used around the world, along with the nature of citizenship in a variety of places.

When people apply for citizenship in a new country, they are often asked to take civics classes. These courses introduce immigrants to the system of government used in their new nation, and to their rights and responsibilities as citizens. For example, immigrants to the United States typically learn about the Bill of Rights and the guarantees laid out therein, while immigrants to Sweden might be educated about that country's system of taxation.

Many people feel that studying civics is a critical part of being a citizen, because it helps people understand their relationship to the government and each other. In every society, from an anarchist cooperative to a totalitarian regime, citizens have specific rights and responsibilities, and being educated about these can be very empowering. People who do not know their rights may find themselves abused, while people who fail to fulfill responsibilities may face legal penalties.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Fa5t3r — On Feb 22, 2013

@clintflint - Well, in my mind "getting it right" means opening up a dialogue with the kids and teaching them to think critically about everything, and particularly about politics and other civic matters.

The world we live in today has such an abundance of political opinion, it's impossible to avoid it. Students need to learn how to process all that information and figure out what it all means to them.

Students are smart, if you give them a chance. They thrive in environments where they are allowed to really participate and form opinions, rather than having opinions thrust upon them. And, to be honest, it's their generation that will be calling the shots after we're gone. They have to learn to make decisions at some point.

By clintflint — On Feb 21, 2013

I'm learning to be a teacher at the moment and civics seems to come under social studies as far as I can see. I think it's quite a difficult thing to teach properly, because it can be very difficult to find the right balance between addressing what could be considered problems in society, and teaching the students to be good citizens.

I'm glad there seem to be a lot of good social studies teacher resources out there, because it's definitely a subject I want to get right.

By latte31 — On Aug 23, 2010

BrickBack- I remember when I was in elementary school my social studies teacher had us bring in articles from the newspaper that we can discuss in class.

This allowed us to develop dialogue regarding different events and how they relate to our society.

This was a fun homework assignment because each student got a little bit of attention from the teacher, and we had to discuss aspects of their chosen article.

Social studies was my favorite subject in school, and then I later majored in political science in college. Today I am a political junkie. I follow politics very closely, so I guess some things never change.

By BrickBack — On Aug 23, 2010

Greenweaver- I remember that my children participated in a national mock election, in order to vote for president of the United States.

Each classroom added up their votes and the school announced the winner. It was really set up to teach the children about the election process.

Children learned from this exercise that their vote mattered and some became very passionate about their candidate. This was great social studies idea.

By GreenWeaver — On Aug 23, 2010

I wanted to say that the National Council for Social Studies offers lesson plans and curriculum standards.

It also offers downloadable books for teachers and is an excellent social studies teacher resource. There are lesson plans on teaching about war and terrorism, as well as women's history and aspects of the State of the Union address.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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