Civic Skills

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civic Virtue
Civic skills provide the foundation for responsible and community-minded citizens, and reinforce our system of democracy. Those who possess and maximize the skills feel a link to their communities and to the well-being of other citizens.

by Elizabeth Whitacre



In the most basic definition of the phrase, civic skills can be described as the skills relating to or of a citizen, city, or citizenship. These include the skills required to participate as a responsible citizen (Learning To Give).

In order for citizens to be capable of fully engaging in civic and political life, they must possess a minimum of civic skills. Civic skills include personal communication skills, knowledge of political systems, and the ability to critically think about civic and political life (Comber 2003).

Historic Roots

The idea of citizens participating in the public sphere is rooted in the beliefs of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. They established democracy with a belief that they were developing a system of government where opinions would be refined through public debate and practical compromise (Edwards 2004).

For more than 250 years, Americans have shared a vision of a democracy in which all citizens actively engage in civic and political life with an appreciation and understanding of the public sphere. This vision includes citizens taking responsibility for building communities, contributing diverse talents and energies to solve local and national problems, deliberating about public issues, influencing public policy, voting, and pursuing the common good (Carnegie and CIRCLE 2003).


With the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 through movements leading to suffrage and civil rights, American citizens have demonstrated the importance of utilizing their civic skills to empower themselves and achieve changes in government policies and procedures. Participants who actively contribute to public conversation will reach a consensus regarding the critical issues through the force of rational argument (Edwards 2004).

It is important that Americans, both young and old, see themselves as members of a public. Feeling part of a community provides a sense of common good, and allows citizens to recognize their important role in achieving it. Beyond this, "being an effective citizen also means acquiring an education in civic skills that nourishes the ability and willingness to make judgments about what is best for the whole. These judgments are rooted in such principles as fairness, beneficence, self-denial, liberty, loyalty, honesty and a commitment to the greater good" (Education Commission of the States 2000).

Educating the public about civic skills helps them learn to become active citizens and emphasizes the importance of acquiring the knowledge and attitudes that will lead them to become competent and responsible contributors to the public sphere. Responsible citizens act politically and "have moral and civic virtues such as concern for the rights and welfare of others, social responsibility, tolerance and respect, and belief in the capacity to make a difference" (Carnegie and CIRCLE 2003, 4).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Civic skills provide the foundation for responsible and community-minded citizens. Those who possess and maximize the skills feel a link to their communities and to the well-being of other citizens.

In fact, "competent and responsible citizens ... participate in their communities through membership in or contributions to organizations working to address an array of cultural, social, political, and religious interests and beliefs" (Carnegie and CIRCLE 2003). By teaching these skills to children at a young age, we can provide them with the tools they need to develop a greater understanding of civil society, and a greater likelihood of becoming involved in the public sphere as adults (Education Commission of the States 2000).

Key Related Ideas

Persuasive speech has been practiced by great rhetoricians since the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Elements of a persuasive speech include describing a situation, giving the audience a complication or problem, and then offering a solution and suggesting an action (Harvard 2000).

Having skills to successfully participate in constructive conversation and group discussion allows citizens to work together with other members of society to achieve common goals. These skills provide knowledge of how to constructively raise issues and then guide conversation in a productive direction (Human Nature at Work).

Voting and petitioning ensure that each citizen´s voice is heard in the public sphere, and that a group of citizens can join skills to instigate change. In present-day America, voting is a possibility for every American citizen, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic status. This is due in large part to the passage of the 15th and 19th amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The 15th amendment ensured that race could not be used as criteria for voting, and the 19th amendment that sex could not be used as criteria (US Constitution).

Learning to differentiate between fact (statements which can be proved true), and opinion (statements that express judgments or ideas) enables citizens, especially young children, to critically evaluate what they read, hear, view, and write (Novelli 1999). It is also a way to prevent bias, which is typically not based on facts, but the opinions passed along by prominent figures in children´s lives (Auburn 2004).

Important People Related to the Topic

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.): The Greek philosopher, educator, and scientist is argued to be perhaps the most renowned and respected student of rhetoric in history. It is because of the early works of Aristotle, in which he combined the thoughts of earlier philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, that the field of rhetoric is as defined and understood as it is today (American Rhetoric).

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865): Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863. The speech is known as one of the greatest short speeches ever, and led to Lincoln´s acclaim as a master persuasive speaker (Harvard 2000).

James Madison (1751-1836): Madison, the fourth president of the United States, played an integral part in the ratification of the Constitution and in drafting the Bill of Rights (White House).

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906): Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the first leaders of the American woman's rights movement. In 1869, she and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association and worked together to secure women's right to vote (America´s Library).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Center for Civic Education is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational corporation dedicated to fostering the development of informed, responsible participation in civic life by citizens committed to values and principles fundamental to American constitutional democracy (
  • The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) promotes research on civic engagement by Americans between the ages of 15 and 25. CIRCLE conducts and funds research for projects that work to increase youth engagement in politics and civic life. (



  • "The Civic Mission of Schools." A Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement,  2003.
  • Comber, Melissa K. "Civics Curriculum and Civic Skills: Recent Evidence." CIRCLE: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, November 2003.
  • Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. ISBN: 0745631320.
  • Education Commission of the States "Every Student a Citizen: Creating the Democratic Self, An Executive Summary." Campaign for Action, Compact for Learning and Citizenship, National Study Group on Citizenship in K-12 Schools, 2000
  • Novelli, Joan. "FACT VS. OPINION." Instructor-Intermediate 3 1999, Vol. 108, Issue 6. In EBSCOhost [database online].  Available from Indiana University Libraries.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.