Category Archives: advocating civic education

the humanities as civic education

Heads bent over copies of the same text, young people discuss how the author presents matters of high moral import. Their teacher is a facilitator who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates reading with attention and care.

This is how I was introduced to college, through the Directed Studies “great books” program at Yale in the 1980s. Similar methods persist and are being revived at institutions like Stanford, which has recently enacted a Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement.

The approach dates back at least to 14th-century Italy, when Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis became the name for a curriculum and pedagogy designed mainly for future political leaders. We might render his phrase (from Pro Archia 2:3) as the “studies appropriate for making people humane or urbane.” Gradually, a humanista became the word for a tutor–often a layman–who helped gentlemen read literature, history, and moral philosophy in order to become eloquent and virtuous. This is the origin of the “humanities,” a word that has been closely associated with notions of civic leadership and civic virtue.

I appreciate this humanistic style of civic education and would support using it more widely. By the way, there is no good reason to restrict the assigned texts to a portion of the world labeled “The West” or to label the curriculum “Western Civilization” (using a phrase that’s not very old). Texts can come from anywhere, although it makes sense to choose traditions or dialogues that extend across time. For example: from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Or from the Republic to al-Farabi to Utopia to Rousseau to the Communist Manifesto to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, this version of humanistic civic education conflicts with several other plausible educational theories.

One rival idea is that the humanities are cumulative research programs that benefit from specialization. On this account, we don’t want a person who wrote a thesis about Plath to teach Plato. Plato should be taught by a scholar who knows Greek, the original context, and the recent literature and its interpretive problems. Reading texts from across time and space is amateurish. It extracts the texts from their contexts and teaches students that they are free to form opinions without doing much homework.

Another rival idea assumes that citizenship is really about addressing current social problems. In that case, the most important intellectual skill is understanding and applying relevant empirical information. Instead of reading Plato or Plath, students should create literature reviews of recent social science and learn how to assess abstracts, methodology sections, and results critically. Quantitative skills become more important; interpreting texts, less so.

A third idea is that people should prepare for responsible civic engagement by learning a set of concepts. We can debate the list, but it might include separation of powers, opportunity costs, social stratification, and habeas corpus, among (many) others. Maybe students won’t remember long lectures or textbook assignments about these topics, in which case a more engaging pedagogy would be more effective. But the point is to transfer such concepts to the learners.

A fourth idea is that civic learning must be deeply experiential because it is primarily about interpersonal relationships, practical knowledge, and an appreciation of one’s specific communities. It cannot come primarily from books. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey are famous proponents of the idea that we should learn the arts of citizenship from civic engagement outside the classroom.

It’s tempting to endorse all five of these ideas, but they trade off, especially given limited time and resources.

See also: core curricula without the concept of the West; “The world wants the humanities”; the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)–from 2013;

Civic Education in a Time of Democratic Crisis

I enjoyed an online conversation yesterday with David Campbell from Notre Dame, Paul Carrese from Arizona State University, Linda Darling-Hammond from the Learning Policy Institute, Kent McGuire of the Hewlett Foundation, and Na’ilah Suad Nasir from the Spencer Foundation. We discussed research collected in the current volume of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, on the topic of “Civic Education in a Time of Democratic Crisis.” Several articles in that volume feature recent insights from the National Academy of Education’s Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse report and the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap.

The conversation addressed such questions as these: What new understanding of civic education is presented in the ANNALS volume, and how is this vision relevant to our current political environment? What are some recent shifts in civics standards and requirements? What can we learn from the learning sciences about pedagogies for civics? What does all this mean for teacher education?

I also thought that members of the audience pushed us to consider some valuable questions, such as whether it’s right to use “crisis” language to describe democracy or civic education in our schools (or both).

introduction to public policy for undergrads

This semester, I’ll be teaching an introductory course on public policy for Tufts undergraduates. I want them to learn some of the concepts and vocabulary that are prevalent in graduate schools of public policy, government agencies, and think tanks. I’m not trying to sell them on these concepts, a few of which I personally happen to dislike. We’ll learn to use them and assess them critically.

I also want to develop the civic skill of making policy choices under conditions of uncertainty, when there is a legitimate controversy about what is best. I recognize that some students may not want to make such decisions or be complicit in the institutions that make them. For example, on the first day of class, when we discuss what the UK government should have done about national exams during COVID, students may say that they wouldn’t participate in such decisions because they wouldn’t serve in the UK Department of Education or preside over a system of high-stakes national exams. I welcome such existential reflections, but I think that examining specific policy choices can actually clarify the roles that we feel comfortable playing. (Also, people who exercise power are not the only ones who can be ethically negligent; so can people who shun power.)

Every Monday, we will discuss a published case: a true story about a decision that confronted real policymakers. I’ve taken most of these cases from the open repositories of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Syracuse’s Maxwell School, with a few from Justice in Schools, the Pluralism Project, and Johns Hopkins’ SNF Agora Institute. I like cases that pose genuine dilemmas, with conflicts among legitimate values and uncertainty about outcomes.

Every Wednesday, we will add a new concept that can enrich our understanding of such cases, such as cost/benefit analysis, equity and equality, rights, rule of law, exit/voice, public engagement in policy, policy feedback-loops, social capital, and more.

Each student will write several research papers about the same chosen topic and then use that research to write a short case that they will present for discussion at the end of the semester. Asking students to write cases is a pedagogy that I have described and recommended before.

See also: calling youth to government service; assigning students to write cases; judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit; etc.

Politics by Other Means: Civic Education in a Time of Controversy

Newly published: Levine, P. (2023). Politics by Other Means: Civic Education in a Time of Controversy. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science705(1), 24-38. Abstract:

After being overlooked in major education debates and policy initiatives for decades, civic education has recently become the topic of highly polarized debates and legislative battles over what and how we should be teaching our young people about the nation’s history. How should racial injustice be discussed in schools? Are schools indoctrinating students? In a robust democracy, controversy about what students should learn is appropriate and desirable, but some of the rhetoric that has dominated the recent discussions violates the deliberative norms that schools should help students to develop. At a time when the public should be carefully deliberating how to educate students, civic education is instead being used instrumentally to win political contests. I present one approach to facing this challenge—the Educating for American Democracy project. This project is not the conclusive answer to the question, “What should we teach?” but rather an attempt to model deliberative values, and I show that it offers important lessons for people and institutions who are attempting to address matters of curricular content.

This article is part of a special issue on Civic Education in a Time of Democratic Crisis and is specifically paired with Paul Carrese’s piece, “Civic Preparation of American Youth: Reflective Patriotism and Our Constitutional Democracy,” under the heading “Finding Common Ground among Progressive and Conservative Visions of Civic Education.” My friend Paul and I represent those two visions, and we discuss the common ground that we and others found.

lessons from the Virginia social studies controversy

In Politico, James Traub offers a deeply reported account of the recent conflict over standards in Virginia, entitled “Virginia Went to War Over History and Students Actually Came Out on Top.”

Standards are official guidelines about what must be taught in public schools. They may influence enforceable policies, such as which textbooks are purchased and what is covered on exams, and hence the experience of students and teachers. Standards for history and civics often provoke the most intense debates, because they address the nature of our society. Although I had no involvement in the Virginia episode, I have been deeply engaged in other efforts to write frameworks and model standards for social studies, and Traub’s account rings true to me.

A very brief summary: under former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the Virginia state department of education drafted new state social studies standards. Before these standards could be reviewed by the state board, Northam was succeeded by Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, whose campaign emphasized his opposition to “woke culture” and “critical race theory.” Youngkin named a new superintendent of public instruction and a majority of members of the school board. With those appointees in place, the state paused and then dramatically rewrote the draft standards, with input from strong conservatives.

Then the board, despite its Youngkin majority, rejected the new draft as biased and error-prone. It stepped in and painstakingly revised the document in ways that satisfied all of its members (including those who had been appointed by Northam) and drew support from outside groups viewed as both liberal and conservative. Traub writes, “The six-month debate was an absolutely terrible experience for everyone involved, yet the standards the board finally approved achieved something almost miraculous: something close to unity.”

As an example of the results, the state board coalesced around this language in the new standards document:

The standards provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage of world, United States, and Virginia history. Students will study the horrors of wars and genocide, including the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing campaigns that have occurred throughout history and continue today. They will better understand the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous peoples, the indelible stain of slavery, segregation, and racism in the United States and around the world, and the inhumanity and deprivations of totalitarian and communist regimes. Students also will study inspirational moments … 

For me, these are the most important general lessons from the controversy.

First, although people bring prior political views into debates about what should be taught, our opinions are highly diverse (not simply left or right), and most of us want students to encounter and assess ideas that we personally do not endorse. Philosophical diversity is valuable because even those of us who want students to encounter a wide range of views may have implicit biases that can be challenged in a discussion. When serious participants who are ideologically diverse try to write good standards or guidelines together, they need not polarize into two camps, or even take predictable positions as individuals.

Debates about content are nuanced and often involve the appropriate balance between social and political history, leaders and popular movements, compelling stories and complexities, and domestic and international affairs. These questions do not necessarily have liberal or conservative answers.

Second, the hot debates are not only about which topics and ideas should be “covered” but also about how to teach. Should all students be required to learn some information, whether it interests them or not? Or should students have a lot of choice about which topics to investigate? Should students encounter highly charged topics–at all ages, only as older teenagers, or at all? Specifically, should public schools confront students with ideas that challenge their sense that they belong and are valued in the school? Does it matter which students are so challenged? Should the emphasis be on skills or knowledge, on theory or practice, and on discourse or action?

Again, these debates do not line up so that there is a right and a left camp. For myself: I believe that all students should be required to confront some information about our past that many will find uncomfortable and that relatively few students would seek out if they could drive all the questions in their classrooms. This position would seem to align me with pedagogical conservatives, except that the same points are being made most forcefully by progressives. For example, The 1619 Project is all about conveying facts deemed essential.

As many have noted, the new Florida African American History Standards basically suggest that no one supported slavery. Florida students must learn “how the members of the Continental Congress made attempts to end or limit slavery” and “how slavery increased … in spite of the desire of the Continental Congress to end the importation of slaves.” Florida students will study white people who were abolitionists, but no one who actually defended slavery. John C. Calhoun is never mentioned, let alone assigned as an author to read. Florida students are supposed to “recognize” the title of Dred Scott as a “landmark Supreme Court case” but do not have to read that decision, which declared that people of African descent could never be US citizens.

I would require students to read racist texts (no “de-platforming” Sen. Calhoun or Chief Justice Taney) and learn specific information. Ron DeSantis defends omitting that information and has ordered that “A person should not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” In partial contrast, the new Virginia standards say: “Students should be exposed to the facts of our past in a content-rich and engaging way, even when those facts are uncomfortable.”

Since these issues have many dimensions and nuances, it should not be surprising to find views shared across political differences. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is generally considered conservative. Commenting on the draft Virginia standards, their reviewers said, “The Dred Scott decision is not noted by name in any of the U.S. history course standards. Its enormous impact should at the least be mentioned here in what is (presumably) the high school course.” Likewise, they criticized the omission of McCarthyism, which “led to the violation of Americans’ rights.” I find myself perfectly aligned with this feedback despite being generally quite liberal as a voter.

Third, even when people’s views are diverse, nuanced, and unpredictable, there can be political advantages to presenting differences as polarized and defining the stakes so that a majority will agree with your own side. Glenn Youngkin waged a campaign against “woke” ideology in public schools. From the opposite end of the spectrum, someone went to a lot of trouble to create a popular meme about innocuous books that the DeSantis administration had allegedly banned, when the state had banned no books.

Actual misinformation is unacceptable, but I’ll mention a closer case. Florida did not pass a bill labeled “Don’t Say Gay.” That name was affixed by Democrats and liberals who criticized the law. The relevant provision says, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.”

I am not sure that the label “Don’t Say Gay” is false, but it simplifies the law in order to drive opposition to it. This mode of political debate is not necessarily wrong or bad. I oppose the actual Florida law and understand why liberals would mobilize people against it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues chose Birmingham, AL as their target in 1963 because they knew they could draw a clear contrast with the racist outgoing police commissioner. King wrote that a nonviolent campaign

seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. … I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

In short, dramatizing differences with one’s political opponent is a legitimate move in a free society. However, onlookers should be aware when this strategy is being used and should assess whether the goals are appropriate, and whether any collateral damage is necessary to accomplish the goals. They should also ask whether rhetoric has strayed from divisiveness into downright falsehood.

Ron DeSantis does not have to wage a rhetorical war against liberal educators; he could choose to deliberate with them, as the Virginia board did. Voters should recognize the choice to polarize an issue for what it is. They should not assume that it is inevitable. The Virginia case shows that another outcome is possible (although not automatically preferable) — people with diverse opinions can come to agreement.

Although politicians can be tempted to polarize, official bodies such as state boards can be equally inclined to present consensus even when they have not quite accomplished it. Above, I quoted the Virginia standards’ aspiration to “provide an unflinching and fact-based coverage” of history, but anyone may each assess whether they offer that. In my personal opinion, the list of “principles” on p. 4 is mildly problematic, presenting the debate between socialism and market economies as closed when I would ask students to think about it for themselves. But I don’t believe that this list matters much. In my view, the presentation of slavery and Black American “accomplishments” in the body of the Virginia standards is appropriate. Overall, the standards seem to take a both/and approach, genuinely including both the crimes and the successes of US history.

The whole document is quite short and general, which is itself a choice, leaving a lot for teachers to decide (for better and worse). Any major commercial textbook series would be compatible with these standards, which means that in many classrooms, the textbook will determine the content. In fact, the most important policy question may be who should decide what is taught–students, teachers, parents, local authorities, state authorities, or publishers? Because of its generality, the Virginia document may actually represent a delegation to the publishers.

See also: two dimensions of debate about civics; “Teaching Honest History:” a conversation with Randi Weingarten and Marcia Chatelain; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; what Americans think about teaching controversy in schools; a conversation with Danielle Allen about civic education; etc.