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Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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1. Citizenship: Making Government Work, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources





Topic Overview Unit 1

Citizenship: Making Government Work

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Explain why learning about government is important.

  • Define the basic elements of government, politics, and democracy for your students.

  • Describe the difficult and ongoing problem of balancing freedom and public order.

  • Introduce the idea of public influence on policy decisions.

  • Discuss what it means to be a citizen of the United States, including a discussion of the responsibilities of citizenship.

This session covers the basic elements of government, politics, and democracy. A grounding in these issues will give you a solid foundation to enhance your teaching of civics. More important, approaching civic education by emphasizing this balance illustrates why civic education is important. The emphasis on balancing rights and responsibilities demonstrates that government is important to all of us. Since all of us will be governed, what matters is how this balance is struck and how those of us in a democratic society can assure the proper balance.

Governments provide several basic public goods, which are things that all citizens enjoy by virtue of being part of a political community. A primary public good is the maintenance of public order. Governments are formed to protect the life and property of their citizens. Without government, people suffer lawlessness and chaos. Recent examples of total lawlessness in a given country include Somalia in 1992 and Haiti in 1994. At times even crime-ridden areas of our own country are considered lawless.

To enjoy the benefits of public order, citizens must surrender some of their freedoms to ensure order and the rule of law for everyone. In the United States, the Constitution affirms our commitment to the rule of law. The Constitution is a fundamental charter of government that seeks to balance public order with basic individual rights and freedoms. It outlines the basic powers of government, and stipulates the limits of those powers. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights, list basic freedoms and rights that citizens enjoy and that cannot be taken away by government or other citizens.

Politics, or the activities aimed at influencing or controlling government, can be found in all governments. Since representative democracy (also called republican democracy) seeks to embody the will of the people, political activities are particularly essential. As the authors of the Constitution (especially Madison) understood, opinions among the public are and will be divided. Thus, political conflict will always be a part of representative democracy. By design, such conflict can occur in numerous institutions and points in the policymaking process, including among the three branches of government, between the House and Senate, between the national and state governments, and among the citizens themselves. Working through this inherent conflict to arrive at a solution requires debate, deliberation, and compromise.

Representative democracy requires participatory citizens. Legal citizenship in the United States is for most people a birthright, as anyone born in the U.S. is considered a citizen. People can legally apply for and gain their citizenship after immigrating to the U.S., which is a process called naturalization. Legal citizenship is not, however, sufficient to maintain a representative government. Because representative governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed, such governments need actively engaged citizens who are knowledgeable about their government and involved in the nation’s public and civic life. Once we clarify that citizens have both rights and responsibilities in representative democracies, it is a more accurate idea to think of government as “us,” not “them.”


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