What is civic education, and why does it matter? Further, what constitutes civic education, and whose task should it be to ensure a nation's citizens are civically literate? These are the questions this edition of Liberty Matters hopes to explore, beginning with our lead essayist, David Davenport. Davenport will be joined by Mark Schug, Rachel Davison Humphries, and Lee Trepanier to discuss the fate of liberty and republicanism.
The state of civic education in America is low but the stakes are high. Benjamin Franklin
warned about the dangers when he was asked what kind of government the Founders
had given us: “A Republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin responded. It turns out that nothing is more foundational to keeping the republic than robust civic education. The whole of the republic—its constitutional order and its protection of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—relies on a virtuous and educated people. Sadly, all of that has been in a steep decline and is now at risk.
Liberty and Republicanism Require Civic Education
The Founders understood that to enjoy the fruits of liberty, the American people would need to be virtuous, including a civic virtue that required them to look out not just for themselves but to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Recognizing that “enlightened statesmen would not always be at the helm,” as James Madison
put it in Federalist No. 10, the Founders also built into the Constitution an elaborate balancing of interests and powers, including checks and balances and separations of power of many kinds. As scholar Gordon Wood observed, the Founders married religious virtue with modern political science in order to keep and sustain the republic
For both pillars of the republic—civic virtue and constitutional order—a robust civic education would be required. As the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780
put it: “The most obvious republican instrument for…inculcating virtue in a people was education…being necessary for the preservation of rights and liberties.” Nearly all the leading Founders pledged allegiance to robust and widespread education in order to keep the republic. In his final message to Congress, President George Washington
urged the expansion of education as essential to the perpetuation of the new nation’s common values and the chance of a “permanent union.” Thomas Jefferson argued that education made possible the very consent of the people on which the government was built. Indeed, Jefferson advocated public education from the earliest grades through the university. John Adams
asserted that education of all classes of people should be a concern of the government and funded at public expense.
As Notre Dame scholar David Campbell has pointed out, the primary
purpose of public schooling in the founding era was civic education. “U.S. public schools were actually created for the express purpose of creating democratic citizens
,” Campbell has written. Legendary educator John Dewey warned in his 1916 book Democracy in Education
that even teaching the “three R’s” (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) were not enough to achieve the goal to “educate a useful citizen.” American schools were founded not to train students for jobs but to prepare them to be citizens of their democratic republic. My, how things have changed.
The Sad State of Civic Education Today
The Founders would be sorely disappointed to see the low priority schools now give to civic education. It is hardly taught at all in elementary and middle schools, reduced now in most states to a single course in high school. The most recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress (also called “the Nation’s Report Card”) scores show that only 22% of American 8th graders are “proficient” or better in US government and civics, while a shocking 13% are proficient or better in US history. Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to 8th graders. A study
by the Woodrow Wilson
National Scholarship Foundation found that only one in three Americans could pass the civics portion of the citizenship test, which immigrants pass at more than a 90% rate. Other surveys show that Americans don’t know the three branches of government and can’t name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment
. Some think Judy Judge is on the Supreme Court and that climate change was triggered by the “Cold” war.
In an October, 2020 study
for the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, I described the primary causes of the decline in civic education. A series of education crises has prompted huge turns away from the teaching of civics—as well as the humanities and social sciences more broadly—to other topics deemed more urgent to the national interest. The Soviet firing of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 not only led to an acceleration of America’s space program but also to a greater emphasis on science in our schools. Similarly, a major national report, “A Nation At Risk” in 1983, sounded an alarm that American students were falling behind their international peers and led to increased curricular demands for reading and math in schools. The federal “No Child Left Behind” law in 2001 codified this emphasis and required extensive student testing, especially in reading and math. Since neither the school day nor school year were lengthened to make room for these curricular additions, they came at the expense of social science and the humanities, including civic education. Now there was essentially no teaching of civics in elementary and middle schools, with only a single one-semester course in high school—too little too late.
And this shift away from civics is hardly over. The new rage is STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education so that students will be qualified for jobs in those fields. One widely quoted estimate is that the federal government now spends $54 per child per year on STEM education and only five cents on civics! National testing on civics and history are given only once, in the 8th grade, whereas more “important” subjects are tested in the 4th and 12th grades as well. The clear message we are giving is that civic education is no longer of real importance.
Too Little Civic Education Puts Liberty and the Republic At Risk
We are already seeing downstream effects of poor civic education. Americans’ trust in government has been in steady decline, with young people leading the way. The Pew Research Center has studied
trust in government since 1958 and finds it at “near historic lows” at only 24%. This lack of trust is especially prevalent among young people, as older Americans expressed trust at nearly double the rate of the young. Of course, the obvious cause is a lack of understanding: how can you trust what you do not understand? As one study
noted, “Those who are bewildered by such basics as the branches of government and the concept of judicial review are less likely to trust the court…Importantly, those who have taken a high school civics class are more likely to command key constitutional concepts.” Clearly poor civic education has put trust at risk.
Another downstream effect of poor civic education is low voter turnout and reduced civic participation. Alia Wong pointed out in The Atlantic
that only half of eligible adults ages 18-29 voted in the 2016 presidential election, and only 20% in the 2014 midterm election. Among older age groups, two-thirds voted in 2016. Experts agree that, again, poor civic education is a root cause, and there is widespread agreement that better civic education would help. Poor civic education has put voting and civic participation at risk.
The risk to liberty from poor civic education is shown even more clearly by how poorly young people understand socialism, communism, and the free market systems. Previously thought of as anathema to most Americans, socialism has now become popular, even trendy, among younger generations. A number of polls and surveys and recent years attest to this rising acceptance of socialism among the young. As early as 2014, a Reason-Rupe study
showed that 58 percent of young people ages 18-24 held a favorable view of socialism. A 2016 YouGov survey
showed that 43 percent of young people held a favorable view of socialism; similarly a 2018 Gallup Poll number was at 51%. Even more alarming, a 2019 Harris Poll found
that 49.6 percent of Millennials and Gen Zers would prefer to live in a socialist country, while a 2021 YouGov poll
said 36 percent of those groups had a favorable view of communism.
The favorability of socialism is generational but it is also educational. Apparently when young people use the term socialism, they are not thinking of its classic definition: an economic system in which the people own the means of production and distribution. The Gallup organization published a poll
on the meaning of socialism in October, 2018, and found the following top three understandings of the term: equality (23%), government ownership and control of business (21%) and free services from the government (10%). For every respondent who understood the classic definition of socialism, two thought it meant equality and free goods. In a 2010 New York Times/CBS poll, only 16 percent of young people could accurately define socialism.
Digging a little deeper, one finds a direct contradiction between young people’s favorable view of socialism and their preference for who should run business. In the same 2014 Reason-Rupe survey where 58 percent of young people held a favorable view of socialism, they preferred markets over government to lead the economy by a two-to-one margin. Likewise, the May 2019 Gallup Poll found 43% saying socialism would be good for the country, yet they chose market control over government control of everything from the economy to wealth distribution and even healthcare. Clearly there is a major educational gap in young people’s understanding of the American market system compared with socialism.
American politicians have exacerbated the misunderstanding of socialism. When Senator Bernie Sanders and others identified Denmark as a kind of socialist, or democratic socialist, economy in the 2016 presidential campaign, the Danish Prime Minister felt the need to clarify that Denmark was not socialist but rather “a market economy” with “an expanded welfare state.” It turns out that when young people say they like socialism, what they really want is an expanded welfare state and more free stuff from the government. This basic lack of understanding of economic systems shows a major deficit in their education, one that a more robust civic education should address.
Grave dangers face liberty and the republic including loss of trust in government, low voter turnout and civic participation, and misunderstanding of how the American system actually works. Surely this is a crisis of even greater proportion and consequence than Sputnik or international test scores or preparing for jobs in the new economy. As Chief Justice John Roberts has said, we have let civics fall by the wayside and we need to revive it in order to protect our democracy.
Revisionist and Politicized Content of History and Civics Endangers Liberty
Beyond the problem of too little civic education is the politicized content of much of history and civics today. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
in 1980 launched a major turn away from a more positive view of US history and civics that had been the consensus toward a series of political attacks on American history and a new revisionist history. Originally thought of as a kind of supplemental American history text, Stanford University education professor Sam Wineburg has said
that Zinn’s text “has arguably had a greater influence on how Americans understand their past than any other book.”
Zinn starts right in with Christopher Columbus who, according to Zinn, was not an explorer and discoverer but rather a greedy murderer pursuing the gold of native Indians. The founding of America, per Zinn, was a myth invented by the upper class and sold to the common man, with the Constitution really aimed at preserving the wealth of a few over the many who were poor. As Gordon Lloyd, an expert on the American founding, has said: “It’s hard to love an ugly founding,” which is exactly what Zinn has offered to students.
Now the 1619 Project, introduced by the New York Times
in 2019, has continued the negative and revisionist history of the US. It seeks to reframe the founding of the country as the time when slaves first came to the continent, rather than the traditional founding dates of 1776 with the Declaration
and the American Revolution
, and 1787 with the signing of the Constitution
. The Project would establish the economic and social institution of slavery as the real founding story, not the principles of liberty and equality proclaimed by the Declaration and the unique political system established by the Constitution. The Pulitzer Center has undertaken to bring the 1619 Project into the classroom for widespread adoption and use. Other education movements such as critical race theory, action civics and ethnic studies have accelerated a leftward and negative revision of US history and civics.
If American history is all about money and greed, little room is left for an appreciation of liberty and the political order. Instead of creating patriots with a love of country, we are often teaching ideas that cause students to hate America. As Thomas Jefferson
said, “Everything depends on establishing this love in a republic. And to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education.” Turning this misguided approach to history and civics around will be a big undertaking, indeed.
Some Good News
Fortunately, it is possible to improve civic education without waiting for a sweeping bill from a divided Congress or a major investment from a billionaire philanthropist. A number of important contributions can and should be made by parents, citizens, educators and political leaders that could secure the future of liberty and the republic. But the time to start is now, before the decline becomes irreversible.
In his farewell address
, President Ronald Reagan chose to emphasize the need for better civic education, stating clearly where it must begin. Reagan went right to the need to protect liberty, saying, “We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom,” adding that freedom is “fragile” and “needs protection.” So, he continued, we have to do a better job of teaching history, pointing out that losing our national memory would “result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” We must “start with some basics,” Reagan said, with “more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”
But then he turned to the question of where to begin, and it was not with politicians or even schools. Instead, Reagan offered, “all great change in America begins at the dinner table.” Parents must take the lead in teaching “what it means to be an American.” Reagan stated a goal, which was valuable in itself: Developing “an informed patriotism.”
Then schools must do their part and this starts with state legislatures and boards of education requiring more civics to be taught. The gold standard should be some teaching of civics in age-appropriate ways every year beginning in kindergarten. Then students are ready for a full year—not just a semester as is common now—of civics in high school. The federal government, which oversees the NAEP test, should require it be given in government and history in grades 4 and 12 as well as 8. All of this carries the clear message that civics are important.
How we prepare teachers of civics is also important. The best practice is to teach US history and civics using primary documents: the Constitution and Declaration, certainly, but also speeches and essays of the period. Students need to leave their 21st century lenses behind and travel back to key moments in American history to understand why our republic works as it does, and how it could be maintained and strengthened. This is both less boring than textbooks and less politically controversial, allowing students to study history and civics on their own terms and draw their own conclusions.
We have a long way to go to strengthen our grip on liberty and the future of the republic with better civic education. This is at least as big an educational crisis as Sputnik or STEM, and we will need all hands on deck to promote better civic education.
Reflections on the State of Civics Education in America
My overall response to the essay by David Davenport is very positive. It is a concise and insightful analysis of the state of civics education in America today. While much of it is a little depressing, his essay defines the problem and presents some actions to address it. My response mainly attempts to elaborate on some of the important points he makes.
Defining the Problem
Davenport is on target when he chooses to begin his essay by referencing the Founders’ views regarding the importance of civics education. The failure to explicitly mention education in the Constitution
meant that the Founders regarded education as properly a state and local matter. Nonetheless, John Adams
, Thomas Jefferson
, James Madison
, and George Washington
all agreed that maintaining a well-functioning republic required a strong and robust civics education.
were influenced by the Enlightenment scholars, a group that included John Locke
. Moreover, the economist Adam Smith
published his best-selling book Wealth of Nations
in 1776, the same year as the Declaration of Independence
. In his previous book, Smith had explained that patriotism is part of human nature. He wrote in Theory of Moral Sentiments
“The love of our country seems, in ordinary cases, to involve in it two different principles; first, a certain respect and reverence for that constitution or forms of government which is actually established; and secondly an earnest desire to render the condition of our fellow citizens as safe, respectable, and happy as we can.” (Page 231)
The Founders were aware of Smith’s work. George Washington
had a copy of Wealth of Nations
in his library. Thomas Jefferson
acquired a copy of Wealth of Nations
while he was in France. James Madison nominated Wealth of Nations
to be one of the books in the proposed congressional library.
The Status of Civics and History Education
I have been following the National Assessment of Education (NAEP) in civics and history for decades. It is all very depressing. As Davenport notes, the outcomes for civics learning are depressing and for history it is “shocking.”
The NAEP results are even more discouraging when placed in a somewhat larger curricular context. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a series of National Science Foundation reports that addressed the status of science, mathematics, and social science education in the K-12 curriculum. (Morrissett, L., Hawke, S. and Superka, D. (1980) The Status of Social Studies Education: Impression from three NSF Studies. Social Education 43 150-153) The social studies elementary curriculum was described as a “widening horizons” design. It started with self and school (K), family (grade 1), neighborhoods (grade 2), communities (grade 3), state history and geography (grade 4), and two semesters of American history (grade 5).
While the widening horizons approach has many shortcomings, the early grades contained patriotic content including the celebration of national holidays, guest speakers such as police officers and firefighters, and field trips to historic museums and parks. Students often learned about key moments in American history, famous Americans, and positive stories of historical figures like George Washingtom, Abraham Lincoln
, and Harriet Tubman
. The elementary grades culminated with two semesters of American history at grade 5. Much of this has simply vanished.
For the upper grades, American history was most often taught at grade 8 (2 semesters) and again at grade 11 (two semesters). American government was often taught at grade 9 (one or two semesters) and at grade 12 (2 semesters). Civics, as pointed out by Davenport, has generally eroded into one-semester course.
Downstream Effects of Poor Civics Education
Davenport does an excellent job explaining the erosion of Americans’ trust in government, low voter turnout, and reduced civic participation. The head scratcher for me has been how young people concluded that socialism is a good thing and capitalism is a bad thing. Most economists do not need to be convinced that market economies create wealth. Many economists are well aware that the individuals who stand to gain the most from free markets are those without inherited wealth, prestigious credentials, or class advantages.
Davenport illuminates how young people hold contradictory views of socialism and markets. They favor socialism. but they often define it differently than the way it is taught in economics. However, they favor markets over government when directly asked. This suggests that American history (and perhaps economics) courses have utterly failed to stress the evils of communism and socialism. Students should grasp the realities of life in the former Soviet Union, Mao's China, and contemporary North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Finally, I'd like to introduce one more point concerning what many perceive as the "socialist" nation of Denmark. The Freedom of the World Index
published by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute ranks the nations of the world according to size of government, legal system and property rights, sound money, freedom to trade internationally, and regulation. In the 2022 report, Denmark ranks fifth globally in economic freedom, above Australia (ranked sixth), the United States (ranked seventh), Canada (ranked 14th), and United Kingdom (ranked 22cd). While Denmark does indeed rank low in terms of size of government (ranked 138th in the world), it excels in areas such as legal system and property rights (ranked 10th in the world), sound money (ranked 10th in the world), freedom to trade (ranked 6th in the world), and regulation (ranked 6th in the world).
Davenport effectively critiques the "revisionist and politicized" content of curriculum materials such as The 1619 Project and Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States. Allow me to provide further observations regarding these two issues.
In August of 2019, The New York Times magazine published a special issue announcing, “The 1619 Project.” In the online announcement, the Times’ editor in chief proclaimed the purpose of the project as follows:
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times
observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” (Silverstein, 2019
As pointed out by Peter Wood in his book responding to this project
(2020), this is an unusually ambitious goal for a magazine, typically left to historians and scholars of the field. In fact, well-known historians of diverse political views have written letters and articles pointing out numerous factual errors in this project. In response to reviews from these historians and many others, the Times
quietly removed the reference to the “true founding” in its online announcement. Under the pressure of open criticism, the Times’
editors issued corrections to other essays in the project, even while accepting a Pulitzer Prize for their work.
The lead essay in the project is titled “Our Founding Ideals of Liberty and Equality Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Fought to Make Them True. Without This Struggle, America Would Have No Democracy At All.” This essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones asserts that the Revolutionary War was fought primarily to protect slavery. Under criticism from historians on both the right and the left, the Times
issued what it called a small clarification, saying that “some of” the colonists fought the American Revolution
to defend slavery. Even after this correction, historians nearly unanimously reject the contention that slavery was a primary motivator for the Revolution. A cursory examination of writings from the leaders of this time makes such an assertion difficult to sustain:
“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]. – George Washington, Letter to Morris, 1786
“… [E]very measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States …. I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in abhorrence … .” – John Adams, Letter to Evans, 1819
“Slavery is … an atrocious debasement of human nature.” – Benjamin Franklin, an Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, 1789
Davenport is correct in highlighting Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a major contributor to the absence of robust civics education. The work has been criticized for its inaccuracies and selectivity of facts. The review by Sam Wineburg helped to discredit Zinn. Yet the book has sold over 2.6 million copies. The 1619 Project is small potatoes in comparison. A People’s History is used as a textbook in many high schools and appears on the reading lists of numerous college courses.
Since 2008, Zinn’s openly Marxist approach has grown with the addition of the Zinn Education Project (ZEP) (https://www.zinnedproject.org). ZEP has partnered with Rethinking Schools, a leftist social justice organization that began in Milwaukee in 1986, and with Teaching for Change.
ZEP provides lesson plans, newsletters, conferences, and other activities to support the “people’s history” approach inspired by Zinn. The website reports that over 123,000 teachers are signed up for its materials, and claims that it has reached millions of students. To place this in context, the National Council for Social Studies, the largest organization of social studies teachers, claims to have a membership of about 10,000 teachers.
Here is a quote
from Corey Winchester, a teacher at high school history in Evanston, Illinois:
“I’ve used the Zinn Education Project’s materials since my first-year teaching. Nine years later, my students can speak to the power of deconstructing the narratives of Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln’s efforts that have replicated white supremacy and marginalization of people of color in historical discourse.For many of them, it is empowering to learn from multiple perspectives and invigorates desire to learn and disrupt the status quo.”
Only a handful of article-length critiques of A People's History
have been written, which is surprising given the book's popularity. By contrast, Mary Grabar’s book Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing Fake History that Turned a Generation Against America
(2019) stretches to over 300 pages. She begins by commenting on Zinn's rock star status; indeed, A People's History
received mentions in the movie "Good Will Hunting," was featured in "The Sopranos" and "The Simpsons," and Zinn's death in 2010 catapulted it near the top of The New York Times
paperback nonfiction list. He was even honored with tributes on "Saturday Night Live" and MTV. More recently, Zinn is reported to have inspired plays, movies, Black Lives Matter, a BBC series, and Occupy Wall Street.
Grabar suggests that Chapter 1 of A People’s History was the inspiration that kicked off the movement to abolish Columbus Day. She writes that “in October of 2018, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Rochester, New York joined at least sixty other cities in replacing Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Many articles reporting on the movement to get rid of Columbus Day came back to Zinn.
Grabar meticulously dissects Zinn’s writing, offering strong rebuttals at every turn. In Zinn’s world, America is the most racist country in the world. The American Revolution was merely a way for the elites to remain in power. Capitalism is America’s greatest evil. Hitler’s Germany was no worse than the United States. The Soviet Union was never a threat to the West. The Cold War was just a power grab.
Zinn never claimed to be an objective historian. He wrote from a Marxist narrative model of history which means that he decided in advance on the overall story and then forced the evidence he cited to fit into that story. How on earth would young readers know they were being deceived? After all, the book was probably given to them by their teachers. Thus, young people are led through a series of errors of omission, errors of commission, and out-right falsehoods to conclude that America is inherently evil.
I concur with Davenport's suggestions for improving civics and history education, which include fostering "informed patriotism," expanding civics in the K-12 curriculum, increasing NAEP testing, and utilizing primary sources.
Allow me to recommend some specific reading and curriculum materials that teachers and readers may find valuable to improve civics education.
Wilfred McClay’s book Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story
(2019) has a traditional table of contents with 22 chapters. The book is primarily a political history, and it gets the economics right. While many textbooks are encyclopedic, McClay is concise, clocking in at 459 pages. America’s story, warts and all, is told without interruption. The primary audience is students in grades 9 to 12. McClay’s objective is to provide an “accurate, responsible, coherent, persuasive, and inspiring account of their own country—an account that will inform and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit and equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.” (page xi)
The Ashbrook Center,
an independent academic center located at Ashland University, was established and named in honor of the late Congressman John M. Ashbrook, who represented Ohio’s 17th Congressional district for 21 years. President Ronald Reagan personally dedicated the Ashbrook Center on May 9, 1983. While based in north central Ohio, Ashbrook offers educational programs across the country for students, teachers, and citizens.
The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum
is a complete collection of lesson plans for teaching American history, civics, and government to K-12 students. Students who study using this curriculum learn about American history from the colonies through the Civil War at four different times during their K-12 years, each time increasing in depth. The curriculum also includes American history since the Civil War and American government and civics for both middle and high school students. This curriculum provides teachers with guidance—not dictates—about how to plan and teach a given topic in American history or civics. This guidance includes Hillsdale College-vetted books, online courses, and other resource recommendations; lists of content topics, stories to tell, and questions to ask of students; “Keys to the Lesson” that clarify important points for teachers to keep in mind; student-ready primary sources; and sample assignments, activities, and assessments.
Nurturing American Democracy: The Importance of Transforming Learning Environments
“When de Tocqueville discussed the "art and science of association," he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit. Some aspects of the science of association are both counterintuitive and counterintentional, and thus must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry. Consequently, it is the key set of ideas that citizens must understand to sustain a modern democracy…If all we teach students about American government is the structure of the diverse branches of national government and what government officials do, they will wrongly assume that all democratic citizens have to do is to vote at every election. A democratic citizenry who do no more than vote in national elections cannot sustain a democracy over the long term.”
–Elinor Ostrom, The Need for Civic Education: A Collective Action Perspective
In America, civic education is at a critical juncture, as emphasized in Liberty & Civic Education by David Davenport. His essay underscores the pivotal role of robust civic education in preserving liberty and the republic. The current trends he identifies focus the urgent need to revamp not only our civic education but also our broader educational models. This essay argues that Davenport overlooks a crucial aspect—the way we approach civic education reflects our perspective on the role of children in society and, ultimately, our concept of the individual. This response explores the intersection of democratic education with various disciplines, the importance of self-governance, and the pedagogical practices that support self-governance. It delves into the challenges faced by civic education and proposes strategies to foster dynamic learning environments, enabling children and adolescents to engage effectively in democratic decision-making. By transforming educational settings, we can ensure young people not only acquire knowledge but also develop the skills to contribute meaningfully to their communities.
What is Democratic Education?
Democratic education is an expansive field that transcends disciplines. It draws upon principles from educational philosophy, educational psychology, pedagogy, political science, economics, and more. This multidisciplinary approach reflects the interconnectedness of democratic society where education is the bedrock upon which the foundations of citizenship, civic virtue, and constitutional order are built.
Amy Guttman, author of the seminal text Democratic Education
, argues that the core democratic values of “liberty, opportunity and mutual respect are not self-evident or self-perpetuating. They must be carefully taught or else opposing values--authoritarianism, plutocracy, intolerance, bigotry, and hatred--will dominate our societies” (Sardoc p.245
). The idea that for democracy to persist there must be careful attention paid to developing certain dispositions in the population is as old as modern thoughts on education.
To expand, most proponents view the necessary role of democratic education to be threefold:
- to teach about democracy and democratic processes (the knowledge component),
- to facilitate the acquisition of democratic skills such as deliberation, collective decision making, and dealing with difference (the skills component), and
- to support the acquisition of a positive attitude toward democracy (the disposition or values component). (Biesta, 2006, p.123)
In the years following September 11, 2001, a new focus on civic education developed the framework that has guided the field since: The Guardians of Democracy: Civic Mission of Schools Report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York
. This landmark report gave the education community “six proven practices constitute a well-rounded and high quality civic learning experience”
- Classroom Instruction
- Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues
- Extracurricular Activities
- School Governance
- Simulations of Democratic Processes
While most educational institutions readily admit the importance of classroom instruction, it is in the cultivation of the skills and dispositions through other practices that they fail.
Self-Governance: The Cornerstone of Democratic Education
The opening pages of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education
, explore the philosophical foundations of democracy, noting, “since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest” (p.93). Since Dewey’s work came to prominence in the early 20th century, the philosophical understanding of the democratic foundation of schooling and education has continued to evolve and to be hotly debated.
Many would agree that the set of qualities constituting self-governance are a cornerstone of any democratic society, but self-governance as a goal of education has implications for the project of democratic education. This critical but often underemphasized facet of democratic education in a free society is the cultivation of individual self-governance within a collaborative social environment. The ability to self-govern implies not only self-control but also the capacity to make informed decisions and contribute meaningfully to the flourishing of your social environment.
Individual self-governance is essential for a multitude of reasons:
Active Citizenship: In a democracy, citizens are not passive observers but active participants. They must make choices, express their preferences, and engage in public discourse. Self-governance equips individuals with the skills needed to participate effectively in the democratic process.
- Critical Thinking: Self-governance nurtures critical thinking, enabling individuals to evaluate information, assess arguments, and make rational decisions. Informed citizens are less susceptible to manipulation and misinformation.
- Responsible Decision-Making: Democracy entails not only the exercise of rights but also the fulfillment of responsibilities. Self-governance instills a sense of responsibility in individuals, encouraging them to make decisions that consider the broader community's well-being.
- Conflict Resolution: Democracy thrives on dialogue and compromise. Self-governance equips individuals with conflict resolution skills, fostering constructive discourse and consensus-building.
The problem is that, for all the reasons Davenport outlined, self-governance is not a consideration in the design of our educational environments or experiences. The practice in the art of association, in the language of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom
, is completely removed from the classroom environment in favor of easily measurable and testable content knowledge. And while every publication of the NAEP scores results in public lament, for all our efforts and policy changes, the most recent scores mirror those of 1994.
Where is the space to cultivate self-governance in the modern classroom? What haven’t we tried?
Deliberative and Dialogical Pedagogical Practices
We haven’t tried designing our learning environments to promote the skills and dispositions at the core of democratic education: self-governance.
Many of those interested in democratic education focus on the knowledge component. The pedagogical practices of the classroom, however, can create a living democratic experiment for students to experience the skills and dispositions of democratic self-governance. There is indeed value in guiding students to the understanding and practice of logic and reason. But rather than abandoning the practical, experiential, and participatory form of education being advocated in this paper so far, these practices can be the very means of developing the capacities Gutmann is concerned about. In general, a genuine “Socratic” approach to education can join these two goals. Socratic education is polyvocal. It allows for practice of deliberative conversation, in which participants have equal power, and when reasoning is modeled and lived, it invites the practice of reasoning, problem solving, understanding, tolerating, and evaluating the claims of authority. Two pedagogical approaches that fall under this broadly “Socratic” category are deliberative and dialogical.
- Deliberative pedagogy is designed around deliberation that involves thoughtful and reasoned discussion aimed at making collective decisions. In the educational context, deliberative pedagogy encourages students to engage in structured discussions on relevant civic issues. It emphasizes the importance of evidence, reasoned argumentation, and open-mindedness. Deliberative practices cultivate the capacity to analyze complex problems, weigh competing values, and arrive at informed conclusions.
- Dialogical pedagogy centers on the exchange of ideas and perspectives among students and between students and educators. It fosters a collaborative learning environment where diverse viewpoints are respected and explored. Dialogical practices promote active listening, empathy, and the ability to engage in meaningful conversations. These skills are vital for democratic participation, where diverse perspectives must coexist and influence policy decisions.
Deliberative pedagogical practices give practice space to democratic skills and values. Dialogical practices serve similar functions to direct instruction in introducing knowledge domains, but add the layer of genuine social exploration that is necessary for democratic practices. What would our cultural landscape look like if every class, every discipline, embedded these pedagogies into their curriculum? What skills and dispositions would result? How would students think about themselves, those around them, and ultimately their role in free and civil society?
Civic Education is a wicked problem
Civic education has multifaceted challenges within our contemporary educational landscape. Davenport illuminated many: Marginalized Curriculum Status, Inadequate Time Allocation, Politicized Content, Educator Preparedness. It is what is called a “wicked problem.”
To say that civic education, and education generally, is a wicked problem is to say that it is impossible to “solve.” There is no single solution. Because of its complexities, attempting to solve for one concern inevitably reveals new concerns. There is no one solution, especially in a market of ideas as remarkably open as the history and civics education landscape across the country
Not Just the Classroom
As Davenport rightly notes, schooling is only one influence on children: culture, community, and family have an even stronger influence.
It is not just in the classroom that skills and dispositions towards self-governance are cultivated. It is essential that we re-integrate young people into public life so that they can have the experiences independent of their school and family cultures that are paramount for their development and preparedness for their future roles as responsible citizens. When young people engage in part-time jobs, internships, or volunteer work, they not only enhance their professional skills but also foster a sense of self-reliance and independence. Being a part of public life exposes young people to diverse perspectives and societal issues that naturally engage their attention and interest. Through involvement in community activities, student government, or volunteering, they gain a deeper understanding of the challenges their communities face. This first hand exposure encourages empathy, social awareness, and a desire to actively contribute to positive change. Participating in activities beyond the home helps young people develop crucial interpersonal and communication skills. They learn to collaborate with diverse groups of individuals, resolve conflicts, and express themselves effectively. These skills are not only vital for personal growth but also essential for constructive engagement in public discourse and decision-making processes. This kind of involvement nurtures their civic engagement, encouraging them to take an active interest in local and national issues that will contribute to the betterment of their communities and the advancement of society as a whole.
As scholar Gert Biesta describes in his book Learning Democracy in School and Society
“The desire for democracy does not operate at the level of cognition and therefore is not something that can simply be taught. The desire for democracy can, in a sense, only be fuelled. This is why the most significant forms of civic learning are likely to take place through the process and practices that make up the everyday lives of children, young people and adults and why the conditions that shape these processes and practices deserve our fullest attention if we really are concerned about the future of democratic citizenship and the opportunities for democratic learning in school and society.”
The real solution then, is to create environments at every layer of society where young people can practice the art of association in their everyday lives, making schooling only one component of varied and dynamic communities that young people engage with. And there are a lot of researchers working on supporting young people as they navigate citizenship in modern society and those who are about the future of democracy. I recommend looking into the work of Dr. Peter Gray, Dr. Jean Twenge
, the Educating for American Democracy
Research Taskforce led by Dr. Joe Kahne
, the work of Dr. Diana Owen
, Dr. Peter Levine
, Dr. Diana Hess
and many more!
Democratic education is a continuous and urgent task for all of us, whether we are educators, parents, citizens, or leaders. It is quickly becoming a vast field at the intersection of educational philosophy, educational psychology, pedagogy, political science, economics, and more. There is much work to be done.
Davenport opened with Ben Franklin walking out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The story goes that someone yelled, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?!” and Franklin replied, “A republic...if you can keep it.” It may be apocryphal, but Dewey understood something similar when he wrote in The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy, “democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” Perhaps this paper will assist us all in our endeavors to be midwives to a better future.
Civic Education is Not Enough
David Davenport has reported about the woeful state civic education in this country, with the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test showing that only 22%
of American 8th graders are “proficient” in U.S. government and civics and only 13%
are proficient in U.S. history. Adults fare a little better, with 47% able to name all three branches of government, according to the Annenberg Public Policy
survey. For Davenport, the decline in civic knowledge is due to the increase of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects at the expense of civic education in our school system; and when civic education is taught, its content is politicized, as in the New York Times 1619 Project
The result is that Americans possess a low level of civic knowledge. This is alarming, as Davenport correctly observes, for if liberty and republicanism are to survive, its citizens must be civically educated, as has been argued from the American Founders
to contemporary scholars
. With an uninformed citizenry, trust in government is eroded
, voter turnout and civic participation declines
, and young people fail to understand the differences in political ideologies
But before we revitalize civic education in this country, we need to take a step back and ask: What is the purpose of education itself? In the West, there have been three answers: civic, therapeutic, and liberal. The aim of civic education
is to cultivate good citizenship; the aim of therapeutic education
is independence, freedom, and self-discovery as determined by oneself; and the aim of liberal education
is to make one free from utilitarian concerns to contemplate about the highest things.
By illuminating the relationships among civic, therapeutic, and liberal education, I will show that a renewal of civic education is dependent upon one of these two. Before we start requiring NAEP tests in other grades or promote non ideological readings of primary texts to revitalize civic education (both of which I support), we first need to determine how civic education fits in the larger landscape of American educational pedagogy and theory. Once we understand that, we can cultivate an “informed patriotism” in our citizenry.
American Civic Education
Civic education transpires in all kinds of regimes, but it is especially important in democracies. Whereas totalitarian regimes indoctrinate their citizens—citizens are expected not to question or critically examine the political doctrine they have learned—republics require an informed and active citizenry. These citizens are expected to question and critically examine the political doctrines they have learned to direct their republics to make adjustments that circumstances or principles demand. For example, the pre-World War II American public sentiment of isolationism was reevaluated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the American government’s repudiated of slavery because this institution was contrary to the Declaration of Independence’s maxim that “all men were created equal.”
What makes the American regime noteworthy is that the Founders tried to reduce the need for citizens to be virtuous because they had observed republics had collapsed for a lack of civic virtue. While it is true—as Davenport noted—that Founders like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams called for the expansion of civic education in the new republic, they also did not want to make the survival of the republic solely dependent upon it. They wanted the federal government to withstand the various vices that, to quote Madison, are “sown in the nature of man
.” The features of the new constitution—such as checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and elections—would ensure the new republic’s existence. Instead of aspiring to citizens who possessed the virtue of a Socrates
, Madison believed that republics should be designed for people of moderate virtue, where the expansion of factional interests would serve as a check on others to prevent any one party from seizing absolute power.
With these lowered expectations for civic education, schools would be entrusted to teach citizens. Initially schools were not publicly funded and were restricted to white males who could afford the fees. The central educational debate of this period was between those like Noah Webster
who saw education as a tool for developing a national identity and those like Jefferson
who believed liberal education was a means for safeguarding individual rights against the state. In the nineteenth century, public education was publicly funded and widely available. Education was modeled after Horace Mann’s
“common school” where children from different backgrounds would be educated together. The aims of these schools were to cultivate loyal citizens by teaching students the machinery of government and loyalty to America and its republican ideals.
Today students learn civic education as civic knowledge in their government or civics course. They learn the structure and processes of government as well as the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The content of civic education is determined by state standards that provide a framework for what must be taught from kindergarten through high school. In addition to formal instruction about American government, alternative forms of civic education have emerged, such as service learning, action civics, and civil discourse. Service learning
is when students incorporate their experience from service into their academic work; action civics
is when students participate directly in the political process; and civil discourse
is when students learn how to talk and listen to other people about common political problems.
The recent manifestations of civic education—such as service-learning, action civics, and civil discourse—emphasize student experience over civic knowledge. This push back against civic knowledge was advocated by John Dewey
in the twentieth century who argued that student experience should be the basis of civic education. According to Dewey, schools should prepare students for democratic participation by introducing them to real problems instead of academic exercises and even have students make decisions that directly affect the daily operations of the school itself. Student government and student newspapers are examples of this Deweyan ideal as are the pedagogical practices of service-learning, action civics, and civil discourse.
The origins of this student-centered experiential pedagogy can be traced back to the eighteenth century and the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
who emphasized the distinctive nature of a child’s mind and argued that it should develop naturally. Starting with the premise that human beings are naturally good and that society has a corrupting influence upon them, Rousseau believed that children were closest to humankind’s innate natural goodness and therefore should be educated through their own experiences. They should have the freedom to learn what to do for themselves, for true happiness resides in their desires for independence, freedom, and self-discovery. Children are not told what to think but are to draw their own conclusions because of their explorations. The result for Rousseau—and Dewey as a follower of Rousseau—is a responsible democratic citizen whose self-love is derived from moral considerations rather than competitive ones.
An even more optimistic account of human nature can be found in the works of Paulo Freire
whose Marxist and post-colonial theories laid the foundation for the critical pedagogy movement. Like Dewey, Freire thinks that knowledge comes only from students’ experiential encounters with the world. However, students live under a false consciousness of the “oppressed” from the structural powers of society, including schools. Only when students recognize their oppression and overcome it through action and reflection will they be liberated. It is only then students can participate in a civic education of “true dialogue” with other people.
Freire’s critical pedagogy is the logical outcome of Rousseau’s belief that human beings are naturally good and Dewey’s theory that experience should be at the center of education. What they share is a therapeutic approach to education that emphasizes students’ own inward experiences and outward projects of political liberation. Given that these pedagogies undergird the civic education of service-learning, action civics, and civil discourse, it should be no surprise that these activities tend to be progressive in content and action.
Rousseau’s, Dewey’s, and Freire’s optimistic view of human nature runs contrary to that of the American Founders who held lower expectations. One’s view of human nature therefore will determine whether experiential learning—like service-learning, action civics, and civil discourse—or civic knowledge is the most effective way to teach civic education. Ideally one could employ all these pedagogical practices in the classroom. But, as Davenport points out, the inclusion of STEM and other content in schools makes adding even more content without lengthening the academic year pragmatically impossible.
One of the biggest obstacles to civic education is the threat of the state. Instead of teaching students to question and critically examine political doctrine, they are indoctrinated into what they should believe. Genuine exploration of what constitutes American citizenship is replaced by state propaganda. Aristotle recognized this problem in The Politics
when he stated that “the excellence of the state is of course caused by the citizens’ excellences and their share in governance.” Thus, one of the purposes of education, perhaps its primary one, is the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellence in citizens who, in turn, will improve the political regime. In other words, the regime exists for the education of its citizens rather than education existing for the sake of the regime.
Recognizing that the state does not have a monopoly over excellence or knowledge, Aristotle rejects a civic education that merely parrots clichés about the goodness of the regime. The state must recognize that standards of excellence and sources of knowledge exist outside of itself—in civil society, for example—and consequently teachers of civic education should consult these sources to better the state. For example, this country at one time codified segregation, but when civil right leaders looked outside the state for the principle that all citizens should be afforded equal rights, they then persuaded their fellow citizens of this and forged a better regime.
The source of knowledge and excellence outside the state is liberal education
, which aims to make one free from utilitarian concerns to contemplate the highest goods. According to Aristotle, these two poles of human life—the pursuit of leisure
and of political ends—define not only our education but also our very human existence. The demands of the political community to which we belong are not easily reconciled with the idea of liberal education. Echoing Aristotle’s distinction between the good person and good citizen, John Adams
wrote to John Quincy in his letter that summed up this relation between liberal and civic education: “all the End of study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.”
This tension between liberal and civic education is permanent but necessary and beneficial. The contemplation of the highest goods does not transpire in a vacuum, and the state does not possess a monopoly over civic knowledge and citizenship. Unlike therapeutic education which appears to be at odds with civic education, liberal education contributes to civic education to cultivate an “informed patriotism” in citizens. Liberal education teaches American citizens to question and critically examine what they are taught by looking outside the state for other sources of knowledge and excellence—whether that is in civil society, abroad, or in the great works of past thinkers. Civic education by itself is not enough to cultivate a robust citizenry. To have a truly great civic education is to have a liberal one, too.
Civic Education: More or Better?
If I were looking at the three papers responding to my essay on civic education as opinions submitted by Supreme Court justices, I would say one (Mark Schug) joins me in my opinion (with helpful elaboration) and the other two (Rachel Davison Humphries and Lee Trepanier) have filed concurring opinions. That is, we all agree that civic education is essential to liberty and democracy, and that it is performing well below par and needs improvement. Those concurring, as I understand them, would seek a deeper pedagogical basis for improving it, rather than the more immediate solutions I propose.
We know that how one looks at a problem and its solutions often depends on one’s own expertise and perspective. As the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So, I should have clarified that I am a policy person, seeking to address what governments—especially state governments and school boards—can and should do. And in my view, we face a crisis and therefore some kind of immediate action is called for.
I note that people work on public policy problems on at least three levels: politics, policy and philosophy. Politics is the superficial, the quick and dirty, often contentious, and too much of civic education has now become political. I have tried to go a step deeper and suggest some policy changes that could make a difference, especially in assuring civic education throughout the grade levels. My critics would go deeper still to the underlying philosophy of civic education, or even of education itself. All well and good, but as a policy person who sees the house burning down, I would start elsewhere with a ladder and some firehoses.
Jeffrey Sikkenga, head of the Ashbrook Center, and I have completed a draft of a book: A Republic If We Can Teach It: Fixing America’s Civic Education Crisis. Our back-and-forth conversations as coauthors reflected the same tension and debate we see here. I felt the greatest need was for MORE civic education and he argued for BETTER. Of course, we need both, just as we need both educational philosophers and policy people working on the problem.
I am all for better civic education, and certainly memorizing dates and events is a far cry from the sort of civic education we need. Clearly it is right to say that what we are trying to create is better citizens, not just test-takers. I am a big fan of Ashbrook’s emphasis on teaching primary documents in history and civics, engaging students in the great ideas and conversations. As in all education, the question needs to be not just what a student has learned but what she or he has become.
I am less persuaded, however, that the place to start when the house is on fire is debating the shape of the rebuilt house. It reminds me of the 300 scholars and experts drafting “Educating for American Democracy” to improve civic education in 2021. The “roadmap” they produced was so full of twists and turns that it could hardly be turned over to schools for practical adoption.
While we debate the shape of an improved civic education, we need to make certain there is room in our schools and curricula to teach civic education at all. As long as there is little to no civic education in elementary and middle schools, with fewer than 10 states requiring as much as a year of it in high school—and some not requiring any—that is the place to start. With the federal government spending 5 cents per student per year on civic education and $54 on STEM education, that is a policy problem to be addressed. At the present moment, my biggest fear is too little civic education to sustain a democracy.
How Did It Get This Bad? Reflections on Davenport, Trepanier, and Davison Humphries
Lee Trepanier presents a concise and insightful summary of key philosophers of education including the thoughts of John Dewey, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Paul Freire as he traces the decay of interest in promoting traditional civics knowledge. He effectively explains the tension between liberal education and the threat of the state when it comes to civics knowledge.
Rachel Davison Humphries expands our thinking about civic education by explaining a more comprehensive perspective contained within democratic education encompassing skills and dispositions. I especially appreciate the quote from Amy Guttman which states that the core democratic values of “liberty, opportunity and mutual respect are not self-evident or self-perpetuating. They must be carefully taught or else opposing values – authoritarianism, plutocracy, intolerance, bigotry, and hatred – will dominate our societies.” I couldn’t agree more.
Trepanier, Humphries, and I agree with David Davenport’s assessment of the “sad state of civic education today,” Today we are witnessing an even more divided nation, with rising levels of anti-Semitism not seen in this country for decades.
The question arises: how did it get this ugly? A glimpse into the history of the social studies curriculum provides some insight. Up until the early part of the twentieth century, what today is known as social studies was the study of chronological history. History was a fundamental subject in every grade. Elementary students delved into the stories of famous individuals, episodes in history, national holidays, legends, myths, and stories. Most high schools offered courses in ancient history, European history, and American history in a four-year sequence.
So, what changed? The demise of history begins with the 1913 Committee on Social Studies, commonly known as the American Historical Association's Committee on Social Studies. The purpose was to improve the quality of social studies education in schools. The term “social studies” was unknown before this time. The report emphasized the importance of teaching history, geography, and the social sciences to promote critical thinking and civic engagement. It advocated for an integrated approach to social studies. History lost its dominant role in the curriculum.
At the time, history was criticized as being useless and out of touch with the current needs of society. There was growing interest in the emerging social sciences such as sociology. Pressure mounted to eliminate separate subjects from the curriculum. Only the most useful subjects for students should be included. Student-centered teaching approaches were promoted, and teacher-directed instruction was severely criticized, even ridiculed.
The influential 1918 Cardinal Principles report of the National Education Association further marginalized traditional subjects like history, civics, and geography. These subjects were minimized because they did not align with progressive theorists' vision of child-centered education and the creation of a new social order.
James Leming succinctly captures this shift:
“By reconceptualizing the social studies curriculum as interdisciplinary and focusing its goals on social change, education theorists of the era hoped they could break the grip of cultural tradition with its emphasis on rugged individualism and ensure that the curriculum would instead serve to advance a more collective social order.”
The emergence of influential progressive views in social studies is evident in Harold Rugg's junior high school textbook series, "Man and Society," developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Rugg, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, aimed to replace traditional courses in history, geography, and civics. The series, which critiqued free markets, unfair income and wealth distribution, class conflict, and imperialism, sold over 600,000 copies and was read by five million students between 1920 and 1940.
From the 1940s onwards, there was pushback against Rugg's work, and numerous movements have influenced the social studies curriculum since. Nevertheless, Rugg's legacy to displace traditional subjects like history, geography, and civics is unmistakable.
David Davenport calls for specific actions to promote better civic education, including actions by state legislatures and local school boards. He also recommends the expansion of NAEP testing in government and history to include more grade levels. Improving teacher training is also critical although it is highly unlikely to happen within existing, highly politicized college and university schools of education.
We have curriculum materials that can be used to improve traditional American civics education. In a report by David Randall
for the National Association of Scholars, an evaluation of several prominent resources is provided, including materials from the Bill of Rights Institute, Hillsdale College, Core Knowledge, Jack Miller Center, and others.
Finally, government actions are uncertain, slow, and not nearly effective enough. This presents a significant opportunity for private philanthropy to support organizations that develop civics and history curriculum materials and offer training for teachers. As suggested by Davenport, it is time for "all hands on deck."
Earliest Learning and Civil Society
I am honored to take part in a conversation with these esteemed scholars. I thank Mr. Davenport for inspiring us and Mr. Trepanier and Mr. Schug for their thoughtful contributions. Their historical overviews clarify the nature of the challenge we face. The pivotal question is: where do we go from here?
In my initial essay, I underscored the imperative of creating environments that empower young people to practice the habits of self-governance within formal education, recognizing this as a foundational element for cultivating a resilient civil society. In this post, I would like to add some additional thoughts on the importance of creating such opportunities beyond the classroom and give an example of one such opportunity the Bill of Rights Institute
and I have created for this purpose.
The late economist Steve Horwitz, in his paper "Cooperation over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism
," delves into the contemporary challenges posed by modern parenting and culture with a focus on children’s play. Horwitz persuasively argues that limiting opportunities for unsupervised play obstructs the development of crucial skills necessary for fostering cooperative, tolerant, and non-coercive approaches to problem-solving. The risks associated with the absence of such skills are profound. Without the skills needed to cooperate among themselves, young people will depend on others to govern their interactions. Stifling informal spaces where creativity and cooperation are learned is likely to lead, in turn, to a coarsening of human social life. In order to create opportunities to practice these skills, we must reevaluate parenting and schooling to fortify the foundations of democracies.
Exploring the pedagogy of education for civil society, economist Andrew Humphries
continues the conversation. His theme is restoring Alexis de Tocqueville’s call for "the practice in the art of association
," echoed by Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, which has been regrettably sidelined in favor of easily measurable and testable content knowledge within the classroom. In a forthcoming essay, Humphries highlights a concerning decline in the development of essential capacities, attributing this trend to the rise of helicopter parenting and a shift towards lecture-style instruction at the expense of diverse forms of learning. He examines 19th-century experiments in civic education that might be able to generate ideas for how to resist the current trend, most notably, the fascinating history of Junior Republics, where youth completely ran independent cities
as part of an explicitly civic project.
It is imperative for young people to explore civic virtues, to collaborate, and to cooperate within their communities. In response to this imperative the Bill of Rights Institute has initiated a national civic engagement contest, called the MyImpact Challenge
, to complement the virtue-rich resources it has made available over the past twenty years.
Dr. David Bobb, President of the Bill of Rights Institute articulates the institute's commitment to fostering civic engagement through the MyImpact Challenge in a recent article on The 74
. This nationwide contest, launched in 2022, inspires students to conceptualize and execute service projects (government, charitable, or entrepreneurial) in their communities. Crucially, these projects are designed to connect with constitutional principles such as liberty, equality, and justice, thus providing a tangible link between civic action and the foundational values of democracy.
There are some today who malign "action civics" and see all action and service learning as indoctrination. There is a proper concern that young people today are being taught to act and protest rather than learn. It is absolutely essential that young people be taught to have a strong measure of humility regarding the traditions they inherit and to learn about the world before trying to change it. But taking away agency from young people throws the baby out with the bathwater. Putting people in seats and talking to them is insufficient to meet the needs of a democratic society. The decline in associational life must be met with a conscious response. Clubs and the roles of responsibility they foster, and youth organizations and activities that encourage young people to exercise virtues outside of the home are needed.
The diverse array of projects undertaken by contestants in the MyImpact Challenge—from food drives to disaster preparedness training, from environmental conservation efforts to entrepreneurship training, from organizing art festivals that support mental health to constitutional awareness campaigns—shows the multifaceted nature of principled civic engagement and the many opportunities young people have to practice the skills Tocqueville admired about American democracy--skills that are being lost.
As we contemplate the invaluable insights of past thinkers and the contemporary reflections of our esteemed scholars, the imperative for practicing the principles of self-governance from the earliest stages of life becomes undeniably clear. A flourishing democracy demands a holistic approach that equips the next generation with the skills and virtues necessary to navigate the complexities of civic life. Through initiatives like the MyImpact Challenge and the unwavering dedication of many organizations, we are not merely addressing a present need but sowing the seeds for a future where cooperation and the true spirit of freedom are the cornerstones of our society.
The Next Step in Renewing Civic Education
David Davenport’s “Liberty and Civic Education” has provoked robust and thoughtful responses from Mark Schug and Rachel Davison Humphries that are worthy of reflection. Both responses complement each other, with Schug focusing on civic knowledge and Humphries examining civic practice. In this essay I will explore how each of these perspectives provides pathways of renewing American civic education.
Schug speaks of the flawed curriculum in current civic education as inspired by Howard Zinn’s 1980 book A People’s History of the United States
. Even though inaccuracies and the selectivity of facts have been highlighted in the work (such as in Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn
), Zinn’s book still continues to resonate with high school educators, influencing curricula like the New York Time’s
1619 Project and the Zinn Education Project, the latter which provides lesson plans, newsletters, conference, and other activities to support the “people’s history.” The good news, according to Schug, is there exists alternative curriculum material that teachers can adopt to improve civic education: Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope
, the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum, and the educational programs offered by organizations like the Ashbrook Centre.
This corrective response to a “people’s history” is sorely needed and provides students a civic knowledge of American history and government rooted in a traditional and patriotic view of the country. However, this is only the beginning of renewing American civic education. What is further required is a revitalization of liberal education—contemplation about the highest things free from utilitarian concerns—so a critical perspective can be cultivated in students about the faults and flaws in the country. The discovering of these imperfections does not necessitate one to repudiate the founding principles and fathers of America; rather, when taught civics, students can learn to be both patriotic and reflective of their country. The founding fathers need not be placed upon a god-like pedestal, nor should they be characterized as racist and misogynistic. Albeit difficult, a needle can be threaded between these two ideological viewpoints in both a civic and liberal education.
Humphries examines the values and skills that students should acquire in civic education to support democracy. One of the key values to be taught in civic education is self-governance: active citizenship, critical thinking, responsible decision-making, and conflict resolution. Students acquire these skills not by civic knowledge but by engaging in a pedagogy that is deliberative (e.g., thoughtful and reasoned discussion) and dialectical (the exchange of ideas and perspectives among people). The absence of civic knowledge among our students is a great problem, how we can create an environment so students can practice self-governance is perhaps even more paramount.
Humphries’s emphasis on praxis
complements Schug’s concern with the theoria
of civic education. Both are required for students to be responsible, informed, and engaged citizens. One of the obstacles to recovering a pedagogy of civil discourse (or, to use Humphries’ categories, deliberative and dialectical) is that service learning and action civics are the most popular forms of praxis
in American civic education. The former is when students incorporate their experience from service into their academic work; the latter is when students directly participate in the political process. In and of themselves, there is nothing troubling about these two types of pedagogies; in practice, they are usually aligned with left-wing or Marxist
ideologies. While one could attempt to reclaim a neutral ideological perspective for service learning and action civics, more productive efforts could be focused on civil discourse, where students learn how to talk and listen to other people about common political problems, since this pedagogy is comparatively new and relatively remains ideologically untouched.
The marriage of civics knowledge that is traditional and patriotic with the practice of civil discourse that is deliberative and dialectical is a path forward for renewing American civic education. But such a renewal also requires liberal education to teach students to look outside the state for other sources of knowledge and excellence. Thus, the renewal of civic education is part of a larger movement to recover education itself. This will demand the work of everyone—academics, administrators, high school teachers, students, parents, civil organizations—to undo the damage that has been inflicted on education in America. Davenport, Schug, and Humphries have shown us the first steps of how this recovery can happen.
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