Understanding Civic Republicanism
Can you provide a few examples of how to teach civic republicanism to California middle-schoolers?
California State History-Social Science Content Standard 8.1.4: Describe the nation’s blend of civic republicanism, classical liberal principles, and English parliamentary traditions.
There is a famous story about the day the Constitutional Convention ended in September 1787. Benjamin Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall, and a woman ran to him and asked, “Dr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Whether apocryphal or not, this statement shapes the definition of active citizenship in this country. At the heart of Franklin’s challenge is the idea of civic republicanism. The notion that it is imperative for people of this country to remain attentive and devoted to the maintenance of our institutions for their sustainability is still one of America’s cherished ideals.
The California State History Standards ask that the background of civic republican traditions be covered during students’ 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years. A student begins the middle years with Greek and Roman political contributions, continues with the Enlightenment’s influence on democratic thought and its links to Greek, Roman, and Christian pasts, and then blends those ideas with the evolving republic of the United States. In other words, the idea of civic republicanism is not meant to be a one-shot assignment that can be covered with a worksheet. It is an ongoing theme and discussion throughout the middle school years. While the various ideas that emanate from civic responsibility can certainly be weighty to teach, their density is manageable if presented consistently over the years. Since the traditions of civic republicanism extend back to colonial America, it is fitting that they should be enmeshed in the curriculum throughout the students’ 8th-grade year of study.
Students must understand that while citizenship is a right it is also a responsibility. We all have responsibilities to our families, communities, schools, places of worship, the state, the country, the world, and, especially, our descendents. Many schools now require students to complete a set number of hours for community service. A discussion about why it is important to complete community service is a great place to start when tackling the ideas of civic republicanism with eighth graders. Before moving on to the relationships between our government’s structure and how it is influenced by past traditions, it is useful to conduct a discussion or writing assignment about what students do to make their communities better, why it is important to do so, and what benefits result from such participation.
Many textbooks have sections regarding the roles of citizenship that can prove quite useful when introducing the concept of civic republicanism. This lesson plan and this plan, both from the Center for Civic Education, can be used to help students explore and identify what it means to play an active role in our republic. This would also be an appropriate time to review ideas from students’ 6th- and 7th-grade classes, such as Pericles’s praise of public service and the Roman Republic’s expectation of its citizens to perform public service, and various Enlightenment ideas from thinkers like Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.
This handout can be used as part of a class discussion. The first page would be done by students in groups or as an entire class while sharing common ideas. (It may also be helpful to identify pages in your textbook that can help students answer these questions.) The second page includes some of the content that could come out in the discussion of the second question and particular principles.
Again, this concept is not an easy one to teach, especially with the limited time our school schedules are allowing year after year. While teaching our subject matter is essential, we must remember that ultimately our responsibility as educators demands that we are constantly guiding our students to be active citizens who are energized by their potential to play a part in achieving a better society. Citizens in a republic must stay engaged in the social fabric of making their institutions better. Our students must be reassured and impressed with the idea that civic participation has benefited civilization since ancient times, as can be seen throughout their studies of history in the middle years.