Civic Education

Teachers are the core of our union

Fresno Bee, March 5, 2016

  • Character and civic education is essential for our democracy
  • American schools are unique
  • Character education conference will be held Thursday

Caring and creative educators cultivate the next generation of democratic citizens. It is not easy to transform a child into a compassionate and engaged citizen. But no task is more important. The future of our democracy depends upon the work done in our schools.


Teachers are charged with providing instruction in academic subjects. Moral and civic education seems different. Morality appears to be both more pervasive and more personal than reading, writing or arithmetic. Perhaps we think that morality and citizenship will somehow take care of themselves.

Morality and civic engagement lie in the background of every other educational endeavor. Cheating and dishonesty make learning impossible. Poor citizenship undermines discipline. And bullies destroy trust in community.

I spoke about character and civic education with my colleague, Dr. Jacques Benninga, the director of Fresno State’s Bonner Center. Benninga is a nationally recognized leader in the field of character education. His vision of character and civic education is informed by decades of research and experience – and a great passion for American democracy.

Benninga maintains that American schools have a unique obligation to prepare children to become democratic citizens. He explains that schools have a “fundamental role to play in a constitutional, democratic republic.” He believes that teachers are guides and role models for civic life.

Benninga points to occasional headlines about bad teachers to make his point. We hold teachers to a higher standard. We are rightly appalled when a teacher makes a moral mistake or breaks the law.

The good news is that most educators live up to a high moral standard. Benninga is forthright in his praise for teachers. He says, “most teachers are outstanding individuals who are caring, fair and respect kids. They do the hard work of making schools wonderful.”

Benninga has a lot of data to support this generalization. Since 1988, he has been giving awards to schools that have outstanding programs in civic and character education. Benninga has evaluated hundreds of schools in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties.

Exemplary schools receive an award at the Bonner Center’s annual character education conference for teaching credential students from Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University. This year the conference will be held Thursday at the Fresno Convention Center.

The conference will feature Renee Gomez, Fresno County’s teacher of the year, and Lisa Butts, Kings County’s teacher of the year. The keynote address will be given by Michelle Herczog, former president of the National Council for the Social Studies. Herczog’s speech is titled “Why We Must Prepare Students for College, Career, AND Civic Life.”


The need for such preparation is obvious. We are not born ready for college, prepared for a career or ready to participate in democratic society. Good education imparts academic and vocational skills and encourages moral development and citizenship.

Educators know what works in terms of character and civic education. Moral and character lessons should be infused within the curriculum, across subject matter. Students should be provided with opportunities for moral action – through service projects on campus and in the community.

Benninga points out that schools provide laboratories for democratic action, in the simple act of voting for student council. Benninga suggests that this is a unique aspect of American schools. It is hard to imagine, for example, democratically elected student councils in North Korea.

We take our democratic and morally engaged schools for granted. Americans have grown up practicing democracy at school. We learned honesty, integrity, fairness and care from our teachers and other significant adults. We practiced tolerance, respect, patience and hospitality in school. Our moral and democratic habits are the result of the diligent work of the previous generation of educators.

Through my collaborations with the Bonner Center, I have visited a number of exemplary schools. I have been impressed by caring teachers who are hard at work in the classroom. I’m hopeful that our democracy will flourish as a result of their labor.

If you know a teacher, thank them for their efforts. And ask them what they are doing to educate the next generation of citizens. You’ll be inspired to learn about the unheralded service that teachers perform daily in support of our democracy.

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