Teaching Civics Should Be Mandatory

Photo by Dan Dennis

In his 2023 book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, Richard Hass sadly tells us that in America “Only eight states and the District of Columbia require a full year of high school civics education. One state (Hawai‘i) requires a year and a half, thirty-one states half a year, and ten states little or none. And if you are somehow reassured at all by these numbers, don’t be, as the breadth and depth of what is taught is so uneven. Things are little better at the next level. Less than a fifth of more than one thousand colleges and universities examined in one study require any civics education of students as a condition of graduation.” (p. 99) This is truly a very sad state of affairs.

I taught civics at Kyung Hee University in South Korea for seven years, and I was the first English-speaking civics prof at the school, and during that time it was a mandatory class for every undergraduate student. The vast majority of classes were taught in Korean by Korean faculty, but my class was taught in English for the benefit of the many foreign students now in Korea and also for those Korean students who spoke reasonably good English. The class was only one semester, but I thought it should be two. I am Canadian, but I went to John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills, California, and I therefore chose a book about President Kennedy’s patriotic ideals called The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation by Scott D. Reich. We learned about the Kennedy brand of citizenship, his service in the USN during World War II, civil rights, the Peace Corps, the space race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, courage, loyalty, and everything Kennedy ever said about what it takes to be a good citizen in the 1960s. Much to my surprise and delight, it resounded very well with many of my students, despite the cultural differences, and I was told it was the top-rated civic education class on campus. Not only that, but I received a letter of commendation from Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and she included her late father’s book Profiles in Courage, which I will always treasure.

I really enjoyed teaching this class, but one day I was informed that the English-only civics class had been cancelled because the teaching of civics was no longer mandatory and they needed to downsize the faculty. I was really upset about this as my university was one of very few (at most) that had civics as a mandatory subject in Korea. The education of citizens is now sadly neglected in this country just as it is in the United States. The results of this are evident in the selfish, me-first mentality that now dominates public behavior and discourse in both countries. I admit it was a little bizarre for a Canadian to teach American civics in Korea, but somehow it just clicked and became a class that many students thoroughly enjoyed, much more than the Korean professors’ classes which were based on traditional Korean teaching methods that many Korean students think are outdated.

The teaching of civics should be mandatory in every democracy, especially in universities. In that regard, I agree wholeheartedly with Richard Hass’s point of view. Democracy has become increasingly fragile in recent years, and only through a reemphasis on the education of citizens can this slide be reversed. No country is stronger than its people, who believe they all have an obligation to serve others, the community, the nation, and the world itself. As Kennedy famously said “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. It is a message we still need to hear today.



Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.