Spencer Foundation
The New Civics
Request for Proposals


The New Civics initiative starts with the assumption that a central aim of civic education is to prepare young people to act with civic purpose and to do so effectively and with good judgment. Like others, we presume that individuals must be educated for citizenship and that schools have a historic mandate to develop young people’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions for responsible citizenship. At the same time, we expand the scope of civic learning for civic action beyond the school; community organizations, political parties, and many other groups have both the interest and the capacity to contribute to this critical aim. If the goal is to prepare young people to act in informed and mature ways, what civic knowledge, skills, dispositions, and attitudes do they need to learn or develop? How do young people learn these building blocks for civic participation? Broadly speaking, how can education, in whatever form it takes and wherever it occurs, contribute to more effective programs and practices to achieve this goal?

The New Civics initiative invites research proposals that ask critical questions about how education can more effectively contribute to the civic development of young people. As a start, we ask what experiences, environments, and contexts help young people, from all walks of life, develop the habits, skills, understandings, and dispositions that encourage informed participation in civic affairs. In so doing we seek to connect to a tradition of civic education inside schools, both to reassert its legitimacy as a primary aim of public schooling, and to reimagine what civic education might include. Yet civic development also occurs outside classrooms and schools, and we underscore our interest in research about civic action and learning in those contexts as well. Our ultimate aim is to contribute to educational improvement by supporting high-quality research studies that can lead to better-designed, more effective programs, policies, practices, and settings that prepare young people to act and to do so in informed and reasoned ways.

Central Goals

Our aim is not simply to increase the quantity of civic action, but also to improve the quality of young actors’ deliberations and participation, particularly by helping them to learn skills, knowledge, attitudes, and dispositions that support this quality. While the quality of civic action is central to our framing of this work, we highlight here as well our interest in understanding the pathways to civic action for young people from diverse political, social, and economic backgrounds. Thus, we wish to encourage research efforts aimed at three goals – action, quality, and equality.

Action matters.
We view civic learning – what young people should know and be able to do – in an expanded way. Civics (the “old” civics) tends to be associated with a rather staid preoccupation with historical, descriptive, and procedural knowledge about systems of government . The New Civics views the aims of civic learning as targeting not just or primarily the skills and knowledge associated with the old civics, but ultimately, the learning and other factors that contribute to well-informed civic actions. We encourage work that addresses action with the following characteristics: the action addresses systemic or social issues, or power relations; the action is, in some way, in the public sphere. Examples of such actions include voting, working together to solve a neighborhood or school problem, participating in an organization aimed at a broader social goal, writing to a newspaper or on a blog about an issue, producing art with social or political themes, or using the Internet to rally people around various causes. We seek to understand the developmental pathways to greater adult participation, but we are equally interested in how and why young people participate at different ages and in different contexts.

Quality matters.
We emphasize here action that results from informed, reasoned deliberation and a meaningful civic commitment rather than from fleeting impulse or ill-grounded conviction. Yet the challenges to well-informed and reasoned participation are many, including the extraordinary expansion of information sources, in many cases accompanied by a narrowing of points of view represented in those sources, globalization, and the increased demands of global and regional citizenship. We believe that successfully meeting these challenges may depend in large part on providing young people with formal and informal opportunities to learn particular skills, knowledge, attitudes, and dispositions relevant to civic participation. Thus, knowing more about learning that leads (or could lead) to quality civic action is a central aim of The New Civics.

Equality matters.
Of special interest are improved understandings of the avenues for and impediments to civic learning and civic action among young people who do not attend college, who reside in marginalized communities, who are recent immigrants or immigrants of different legal statuses, or who are less economically privileged. We are aware that individuals are members of social groups, some privileged and some excluded. We want to know how civic learning and civic action are influenced by the group context or by the individuals’ social ties that bridge these groupings.

Research Priorities

Our research priorities, while framed broadly enough to encompass a range of approaches and research questions, ultimately come down to understanding factors that promote the learning emphasized in The New Civics, as well as factors that discourage that learning.

Three sets of influences on civic learning and action interest us:

  • Powerful motivations and psychological influences

How and why do civic motivations and other cognitive and psychological influences – such as a sense of social responsibility, civic agency, and civic identity – develop and change? What role do they play in influencing civic action?

  • Enabling learning experiences and environments

What kinds of environments, pedagogies, curricula, and relationships are especially conducive to civic learning and to developing civic motivations and commitments?

  • Societal or group norms, political processes or events, historical and cultural trends, and other contextual influences

How are individuals, groups, and institutions influenced by the times, cultures, and contexts in which they live? How do political processes like elections, unique unifying events (like 9/11 or the Columbine shootings), national or local policies, and other potential historical or contextual factors influence civic learning and civic action?

The scope of research that contributes to this agenda is broad. We are interested in populations ranging in age from young children to early adulthood, in formal and informal educational settings and contexts (including ‘new media’ and the like), and in work that explores the implications for civic action of differing national political systems and cultures and of the globalization of citizenship, national identity, and agency. The portfolio will benefit from the perspectives of many disciplines and from diverse methodologies and perspectives. We encourage research that is theoretically well-grounded and that allows for consideration of alternative explanations and of multiple possible pathways to civic learning and civic action.

We invite scholars in education, the social sciences, and the humanities to consider the aims of the Initiative, the questions that animate the research priorities, and the opportunities for making a contribution to this important area.