Reflections on Narrative in Civics Education


Narrative has been something that has long intrigued me because of how primal it is for humans to share stories with each other. Narrative unifies us and allows us to share experiences so that we may navigate the complicated power structures in this world. It connects us on the deep levels of our most treasured values, and ultimately gives us the hope and motivation to join with one another and act for the common good.


In mid-September I attended a lecture by Harvard Graduate School of Education’s visiting professor, Helen Haste, titled “Civic Engagement Needs Stories!” I found this research to be especially interesting because of the connection between young people’s use of language and what we can learn about best practices in civics education. In her research, she asked young people about their perceptions of the future and analyzed the language they used to describe the world they thought we were headed towards and the actions citizens should take in the future.


Based on their narratives, she identified three general civic-orientation categories: (1) compliant, (2) cynical, or (3) critical. The compliant students thought that we were headed toward a future where life would be “business as usual,” and they had little or no civic engagement. At most, they expressed the most conventional participation in civic life: voting. The cynical students had an “every person for his or herself” attitude and were wary of the government. They perhaps monitored what happened in the world around them, but they did not believe that individual citizens could or should affect it.


The third category of critically thinking students believed that the only way to avoid certain disaster in the future is through individual efficacy and civic responsibility. They made their voice heard through marches or lobbying, and helped their community by joining local organizations to fix the ills of government. These were the students who could carry us to a better future.


I was heartened to see the mission and results of Generation Citizen corroborated in this last group of students. We must be doing something right if our students learn to think critically about fixing systems they see not working, and also see hopeful paths to change them. But I was still left wondering – how do we made sure that every young person can believe in their generation’s ability to make change?


Certainly, we can keep improving Generation Citizen’s program, but that still is a limited pool of schools (for the time being). What we need is to ensure is that all civics education is effectively getting students to realize their how ability to influence how government works, and we can do this through narrative. The new era of civics education needs to be experiential – not just rote memorization of facts. Understanding the stories of the individuals who are affected by all levels and branches of government will make civic life come alive. Our students’ narratives express frustrations in unequal in power and bring their personal experiences into the political realm.


Action civics gives young people a mode to hear stories of civic heros and find role models. Young people can recognize that our democracy is at risk, and then immediately get their voices heard to change that fact.


We at Generation Citizen and our allies have the responsibility to make sure all of our students reach the stage of Haste’s “critical” category of narrative. Every young person has the right to an effective action civics education, so we must hold up the narratives of those change makers who are exemplifying values of self-efficacy and responsibility to their communities.


Join us, as we share these narratives of critically-thinking young people. Listen to the compelling stories Generation Citizen students have to share at Civics Day, at the Civic Tech Challenge, at your next college chapter meeting, in your next class. I’m excited to hear the new narratives that come forward in this new semester of action civics education.


Leila Quinn, Greater Boston Advocacy Manager


Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.