Liberty Matters

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.