Liberty Matters

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.
Therapeutic Education
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.
Liberal Education
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.