Category Archives: advocating civic education

what does the word civic mean?

I use the word “civic” every day. It is in the title of my college (The Tisch College of Civic Life) and the major that I direct (Civic Studies) and in the names of many topics and fields that I work on, from civic education to civic media.

But what does it mean? In my own mind, “civic” has certain associations and resonances, although I rarely articulate them. During a recent conversation with colleagues, I realized that most don’t hear the same meanings I do. I don’t blame them; there is no agreement about the definition, and the word has been used in many ways. I’ll turn to its history below.

Today, some people hear in the word “civic” a disciplinary intention, an effort to draw a boundary around respectable and approved behaviors (the “civic” ones). Sometimes it is almost synonymous with “civil.” In turn, “civility” sometimes means almost the same as “politeness.” People may use “civic” to identify approved behaviors, or else they may oppose the word as too restrictive and controlling.

Others want to make the word strictly empirical, rather than a value-laden adjective. Then “civic” may refer to a list of activities, from voting to marching in a protest–regardless of the participants’ values and goals. For example, a march would be civic whether the marchers were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Mussolini’s Brown Shirts. (But if we take this approach, why are certain activities on the list, and others not?)

I’d like to make space for a more inspiring use of the word that has deep historical roots. My dictionary-style definition would go something like this:

Civ’-ic. adj. 1. Of or pertaining to a group of relatively equal self-governing people. Hence, 2. virtues, values, or skills for self-government, e.g., civic courage, civic knowledge. 3. Assets belonging to or created by self-governing people, e.g., a civic forum. 4. Activities or other phenomena related to self-government, e.g., civic engagement, civic dialogue, civic education.

By a “self-governing people,” I mean to include all the citizens of any republican country, but not only such groups. A town or city within a larger country can have self-governing power. So can a voluntary association or even some kinds of firms; and they may be self-governing even if the states in which they operate are authoritarian. Thus, institutions of various types and scales can be civic.

The history of a word helps explain how it has accrued its diverse definitions and resonances.

The English word “civic” derives from Latin civicus, which primarily refers to relations among fellow members of the same city. In turn, the classical city (the polis or urbs) was self-governing: not usually egalitarian, but quasi-autonomous and governed by a deliberative assembly. So civicus always had echoes of a deliberative forum.

“Civic” enters the Romance languages to translate Latin texts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the very first use in English (1542) refers specifically to the ancient Roman oak-leaf-and-acorn garland awarded to men who had saved fellow citizens in war.

A kind of garland was its only meaning in English until the time of the Commonwealth, when Parliament overthrew the monarch and declared a republic. During this period, the Company of Mercers of the free city of London put on a pageant entitled “Charity Triumphant,” parading a female allegorical figure through the streets of the city. Edmund Gayton (“considered a hack writer” and then imprisoned for debt), published a long descriptive and celebratory poem about this pageant, including the sentence, “I cannot here set forth the reason of the late extinguishing these Civick Lights, and suppressing the Genius of our Metropolis, which for these Planetary Pageants and Pretorian Pomps was as famous and renouned in forraign Nations, as for their faith, wealth, and valour.”

Gayton probably deserves his obscurity, but he does seem to coined the word “Civick” in one of its important senses: “of, belonging to, or relating to a citizen or citizens; of or relating to citizenship or to the rights, duties, etc., of the citizen; befitting a citizen” (OED).

In his time, the English were enthusiastic about self-governance and the ideal of a commonwealth, itself a translation for “republic,” meaning the good that a people makes and owns together. Of course, this was also the period of Puritan self-governance in New England and the invention of important activities that we now naturally call “civic”: town meetings, local elections, and civic education, which Massachusetts had required in 1642.

Just one year later, in 1656, Blount’s dictionary defines “Civick” as “pertaining to the city.” Since then, one of its meanings has always been akin to “urban,” as in “Civic Center” for the name of a city’s convention hall. But I think that “the city” had a different original meaning. Now we think of large, dense municipalities. Originally, an urbs or polis was any autonomous community. For instance, the whole Massachusetts Bay Colony was meant to be a City on the Hill.

By 1747, “civic” was used to modify “virtue.” By the end of that century, the word “civique” (with similar associations) had become influential in France. According to the Constitution of 1791: “The Civic Oath (le serment civique) is: ‘I swear to be faithful to the Nation to the law and to the king and to preserve with all my power the Royal Constitution, decreed by the National Constituent Assembly for the Years 1789, 1790 and 1791.‘”

Across the Channel, Edmund Burke denounced the French revolutionaries who would overthrow traditional values and institutions, including religion. He added:

These enthusiasts do not scruple to avow their opinion, that a state can subsist without any religion better than with one; and that they are able to supply the place of any good which may be in it, by a project of their own—namely, by a sort of education they have imagined, founded in a knowledge of the physical wants of men; progressively carried to an enlightened self-interest, which, when well understood, they tell us will identify with an interest more enlarged and public. The scheme of this education has been long known. Of late they distinguish it (as they have got an entire new nomenclature of technical terms) by the name of a Civic Education.

Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

According to the OED, this was first use of the word “civic education” in English. It referred to a radically republican, secular, and patriotic project to which the author, Burke, was hostile. To bring civic education to England would be “the most dangerous shock that the state ever received.”

Thus the first English use of the phrase “civic education” was a denunciation. Yet the ideals that animated the French Revolution–self-governance, commitment to the common good–have deep resonances in England and the USA.

By the way, the word “civics” is a noun, in my opinion: short for “civic education.” It is often used adjectively in the phrase “civics education,” but I think that’s a grammatical mistake. In any case, “civics” is strictly American, and its first attested use is in the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1885: “Henry Randall Waite, Ph.D., president of the American Institute of Civics, was the next speaker… The use of the word civics for political science was explained.”

In short, “civic” has many meanings, but some of the oldest and most recurrent ones refer to a republican ideal: concrete communities of people should decide and act together and develop the rules, values, resources, and habits necessary to succeed.

how have political science and k-12 civics diverged?

It’s risky to generalize about k-12 civics. In the USA, there are no national standards for civics, state standards tend to be incoherent and not firmly enforced, and textbooks divide the market. Some teachers in some classrooms present highly critical accounts of US politics. Others are committed to American exceptionalism and celebratory narratives. The whole woke-to-MAGA spectrum is represented.

Many k-12 teachers try to avoid adopting positions in the classroom by presenting only hard facts about the constitutional process or by organizing deliberative discussions in which many perspectives are honored. Yet even an ostensibly neutral approach must reflect choices about the most important questions, topics and themes.

It is also risky to generalize about the discipline of political science, which encompasses more heterogeneous subfields than most disciplines. Whole subcultures of political scientists strike me as pro-regime, while others are radical. (See this post for some observations about the balkanized profession.)

But I’d still tentatively hypothesize that the center of gravity in political science stands apart from the center of gravity for k-12 civics, especially if we look at mass-market textbooks and state standards documents for evidence about civics. And I’d suggest that these are the three main gaps:

  1. Political science has haltingly recognized a wider range of perspectives on American political history and institutions, giving more attention to women and people of color as political thinkers and critics. That has meant more attention to critiques of the US system, but also alternative ideals and visions of progress. Again, this generalization ignores woke high school teachers and conservative or traditionalist political science professors, but I’d still venture the generalization.
  2. Political science has widely embraced versions of the New Institutionalism. I have written a primer on that movement, but in essence, it finds that institutions rarely operate as intended because they have their own logics and incentives. This means that it is unlikely that the US government would work as its authors planned. James Madison was an early and brilliant institutionalist who designed constitutional provisions to prevent certain kinds of corruption and failure. But the New Institutionalism has vastly expanded the list of threats, and few political scientists would argue that the US Constitution’s design addresses all these threats in a satisfactory way. Much of the high school curriculum is designed to teach students why the framers designed our system to work as it does. Many political scientists would emphasize that it does not, and could not, work as intended but rather faces serious perils. By the way, here I am not referring to intended “features” of the original Constitution, such as white-male dominance. I am referring to unforeseen “bugs.”
  3. Political science has experienced the behavioral revolution. Human beings evolved to make decisions without full consideration of relevant facts and information, employing heuristics and biases and rationalizing our biases with cherry-picked reasons. It’s common in civics curricula to present a model of the citizen as an independent thinker who decides on the best policy and chooses the candidates who come closest to those views. At least according to political scientists like Achen & Bartels (Democracy for Realists, 2016), this model is a myth. Citizens inevitably join up with large groups and vote to demonstrate loyalty to their groups.

The solution to this gap is not to move k-12 civics all the way to the center of gravity of professional political science. For my taste, the professional discipline is too cynical, not sufficiently normative or interested in problem-solving. Exposing students to cutting-edge political science is unlikely to make them more active and efficacious citizens. A big dose of New Institutionalism plus Behaviorism could kill anyone’s interest in politics unless the insights of those movements can be combined with some creativity and optimism.

At the same time, to ignore the findings of modern political science is increasingly untenable. We need new combinations.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; the New Institutionalism, deliberative democracy, and the rise of the New Right; on teaching the US Constitution; is our constitutional order doomed?; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; and constitutional piety.

discuss impeachment in high school–but not only impeachment

As impeachment dominates the headlines, many social studies teachers are assigning it as a topic of discussion and analysis in their classrooms. That is appropriate. Since students and their families are already discussing impeachment, it is a great “hook” for teaching about the US Constitution and the media.

Students should learn how to analyze the issues of the day, and impeachment is a leading current example. If young people learn to make sense of impeachment—to understand the rules and institutions, select reliable news sources, and assess diverse opinions—they will be able to process current events for years to come.

The impeachment debate is also an opportunity for discussion in classrooms. A moderated conversation can model respect for facts and alternative views much better than the polarized and often superficial debates in the national media. As such, it can impart skills and values that are in scarce supply today.

On the other hand, the immense attention given to impeachment reflects deficits in our civic life. Although impeachment may be one good topic of discussion in a social studies classroom, it should not be allowed to dominate or convey the impression that all politics is like impeachment.

Many Americans perceive politics as being a struggle between powerful politicians in Washington, DC. Impeachment is a perfect example of this kind of politics.

Local and state-level journalism is near collapse; about half as many people work in newspaper newsrooms today as in 2008. But the national news media still draws huge audiences, particularly for commentary on national issues. Impeachment is just the kind of issue that plays best on cable news.

Americans identify strongly with political parties and often seem to act like fans of one party against the other. Impeachment is polarized on partisan lines, with almost all Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

National political leaders increasingly resemble celebrities—none more so than the current president, who was a celebrity for forty years before he ran for office. He is at the heart of the impeachment case.

Finally, the issues that draw the most attention are often the ones that give ordinary citizens the least to do. Impeachment is basically a matter for 535 members of Congress and the President and his staff. For everyone else, impeachment might be one factor that influences their vote in 2020, but most voters have already made up their minds for or against Donald Trump.

My Tufts political science colleague Eitan Hersh describes “political hobbyism” as “consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following …,  by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating.” He cites survey evidence that political hobbyism is extremely common, consuming two hours of every day for millions of Americans. Impeachment is a perfect issue for political hobbyists: every day’s headlines offer new fodder for opinions and emotions, but there is little actually to do. I would add that political hobbyists love to forecast elections and predict the results of today’s news, not to change the results by organizing. (I know this from personal experience, having some unfortunate hobbyist habits myself.)

The factors that make impeachment the dominant news story today—partisan polarization, a national storyline, celebrities, limited expectations for citizens, and appeal to political hobbyists—also prevent other issues from receiving the attention they deserve.

For example, last week, in the city where I live (Cambridge, MA), a new council was elected. The main issue was affordable housing, which had divided the previous council. This issue matters to students in Cambridge schools. Some come from families that face rising rents and could be forced out of town by gentrification; others could see their families’ wealth diminish if more affordable housing is built. Reasonable people who care about affordable housing disagree about the best solutions. The debate is heated and polarized, although not partisan in a city dominated by Democrats.

Each vote really matters in this local election with 22 candidates and only about 20,000 voters (about 24% of adult citizens). And there are other ways, apart from voting, for residents of all ages to influence the city’s housing stock. People can volunteer to build homes with Habitat for Humanity or bike to work instead of driving to address the parking shortage.

Yet the Cambridge council election received little coverage. No one has published an analysis of the impact of the recent election on the main issue, affordable housing. Even if social studies teachers in Cambridge Public School wanted to focus on the council election and the issues at stake, there would be no professional journalism they could assign as readings.

With these considerations in mind, I would make the following recommendations.

Social studies teachers should address impeachment, if only because teenagers will discuss it anyway, and students should be challenged to apply rigorous thinking and reliable information. But impeachment should not be the only issue they discuss during this academic year. It would be wise also to select other issues that are more local or otherwise offer more for students to do. These issues may also be less polarized or less partisan than impeachment.

While discussing impeachment, teachers should raise not only detailed issues about rules and processes in the US Congress but also broader and deeper questions: What is the rule of law? Why is power separated among branches of government? What does “due process” mean in a criminal trial, and should similar norms apply in impeachment?

An issue that interests me is the role of judgment in politics. Impeachment is not the straightforward application of law, because the Framers intentionally gave Congress the power to decide what should count as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Cynics would say that if impeachment is not determined by law, then it is simply an exercise of power by partisan politicians, who will demonstrate bias and vote according to their political self-interest. But can responsible politicians exercise judgment (as opposed to bias), and what does that look like?

Impeachment is an opportunity to understand the intentional design of the US Constitution and the principles that undergird it, such as separation of powers. Studying impeachment may therefore increase appreciation for the Constitution. At the same time, an intellectually serious study of impeachment raises critical questions about our founding documents. What should we conclude from the fact that no president has ever been impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate? Or the fact that the last president to be impeached, Bill Clinton, saw his popularity rise and paid no tangible price? Is impeachment useful?

More generally, are checks and balances working now that the parties are fully polarized, with no conservative Southern Democrats or liberal northeastern Republicans ready to vote with the other party? The Framers objected to the very idea of parties and might have expected a polarized two-party system to destroy their design. As the late Juan José Linz of Yale noted, no other system with a separately elected president and legislature has survived when the branches belong to different parties. Are we heading for dysfunction?

Finally, impeachment is a topic for deliberative discussion in classrooms that can impart worthy values and skills. But whether and how it works for deliberation may depend on context.

Given the deep polarization of the American public, students in some classrooms may hold unanimous opinions either for or against impeachment. In those cases, teachers should introduce alternative perspectives through readings and other sources. One goal is to break down stereotypes about the other side in the national debate. Liberal students should understand that not all opponents of impeaching President Trump are his enthusiastic supporters; some have concerns about the process. And conservative students should learn that some proponents of impeachment are conservatives who are concerned about the rule of law.

In other classrooms, opinion may be split, and then it is important to create a context for thoughtful, respectful discussion—deliberation more than debate. As national leaders model point-scoring, name-calling, blatant partisanship and self-interest, selective application of facts and principles, and mutual disrespect, we should expect more from our students.

American civics versus socialism?

Announcing his reelection campaign, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) made two claims about civic education:

1) “What’s at stake in 2020 is nothing less than a choice between American civics and socialism,” Sasse said. ‘”Those are the stakes.”

2) Sasse drew a direct connection between American teenagers not knowing civics and the fact that polling data today suggests that nearly 40% of Americans under 30 believe the First Amendment might be harmful.”

Sasse also quoted Reagan to the effect that “freedom is always one generation away from extinction. [It] is not passed along in the bloodstream—it has to be taught.” The main theme of his reelection launch was civics, at least according to his website.

The Post’s Jennifer Rubin thinks this is just another example of a Republican politician debased by Donald Trump. She calls Sasse’s speech a “pathetic spectacle” and thinks he should know better. Perhaps, but my style is to take people seriously, and Sasse is generally a serious thinker.

Besides, he is not alone in arguing that countering a socialist revival (presumably embodied by a few junior members of the House of Representatives and a presidential primary candidate) is a reason to restore civic education. Such arguments will affect those of us who work for civics, changing the political context for our efforts.

We also confront claims that what is at stake in 2020 is nothing less than a choice between American civics and Donald Trump. One (or conceivably both) of these arguments might be right, but both raise partisan sensitivities in their opponents and thereby complicate the politics in state legislatures and elsewhere.

We can all agree with Sen. Sasse that principles of freedom must be taught and that low support for the First Amendment is troubling. The most alarming evidence of decline comes from Yascha Mounk, although I raise some doubts about his study here.

The General Social Survey has asked Americans whether various categories of people “should be allowed to speak.” The trends have generally risen over time. Americans have never been consistent supporters of the First Amendment, but they have generally become more willing to tolerate various categories of disfavored speakers. In 2019, Knight found that 58% of college students favored legally permitting “hate speech.” Perhaps this result reflects too little support for the First Amendment, but a similar proportion of adults in 1994 wanted to permit speech that (merely) offended another ethnic group. I think free speech requires constant attention, but I don’t see evidence of decline.

The controversial part of Sasse’s statement is not his support for the First Amendment or other civil liberties. It’s his contrast between “American civics” and “socialism.” That contrast raises the question of what those two categories mean. Sasse seems to suggest that support for the First Amendment and socialism are incompatible, but that is definitely not true; there is a long tradition of socialists who have also been strong supporters of free speech.

“Democratic socialism is committed both to a freedom of speech that does not recoil from dissent, and to the freedom to organize independent trade unions, women’s groups, political parties, and other social movements. We are committed to a freedom of religion and conscience that acknowledges the rights of those for whom spiritual concerns are central and the rights of those who reject organized religion.”

Where We Stand,” Democratic Socialists of America

On one view, socialism is about economics, and it’s a matter of degree. Perhaps the metric is the proportion of GDP managed by the state (between 15% and 25% in the USA ever since 1955). The US is more socialistic than it was in 1900 and a bit less so than Germany is today. But then one must decide whether the political economy established by the New Deal and the Great Society–since it is somewhat socialist–is compatible or not with the ideas that we should impart in “American civics.”

James Ceasar has distinguished between “civic education,” which by definition supports a regime, and “political education,” which aims to change the regime. For him, the educational reforms of the Progressive Movement, multiculturalism, and global education are three examples of political, not civic, education, because they have aimed to change what he identifies as the American regime. (Here “regime” doesn’t have a negative connotation; it just means the core features of a political order.)

My question is why our regime must be defined by the dominant constitutional theory of 1900. I’d read our current regime as (more or less) a multicultural welfare state, in which case an education that promotes the American regime should favor those values. Education that aims to delegitimize the welfare state is political, not civic, in the 21st century. It is a form of politics with a reactionary intent. Maybe the education that John Dewey and other Progressives promoted was political in their own time, but because they won victories as political reformers, now their ideas have become the civic ones (in Ceasar’s sense)–the ideas that bolster the present system. And if the present system is partly socialist, then “American civics” is partly socialist.

On a different view, socialism is something that we have never seen in America. It refers to policies that are more radical than, say, Social Security or the Environmental Protection Act, because these laws have passed constitutional muster and have become part of the American tradition. Some socialists would concur that Social Security and the EPA are not socialistic to a satisfactory degree; they want a lot more. (But such people are scarce in the USA.)

Sometimes in this debate, people say that students should learn to prize “limited” government. I would only observe that governments that are avowedly socialist can be very careful about limits–constitutional, legal, and democratic. The Scandinavian democracies are excellent examples. They endorse the idea of the Rechtsstaat (a government under law) even as they tax and spend at relatively high rates.

Moreover, the limits set by the US Constitution can be compatible with much more socialism than we have today. No one disputes, for example, that Congress has the constitutional authority to raise income tax rates by a lot and to spend a lot more on social welfare programs. So limits per se aren’t really the issue; the question is what policies we should choose.

A third view might be that civic education, properly understood, encourages students to be less individualistic, less acquisitive, and more concerned with the common good than they would be otherwise. Therefore, it may strengthen support for the kinds of policies that strong conservatives like Sen. Sasse would call socialistic. In that case, civics and socialism are not opposed; they go together. To argue this point well, I think you would have to define “socialism” very broadly, so that it encompasses Great Society liberalism, Christian and other faith-based communitarianism, and mild social-democratic reforms as well as more radical proposals.

On yet a different view, students should not be taught any substantive political views in public schools. Schools should be committed to impartiality and should respect the individual rights of students to form their own opinions. (Impartiality is also a safeguard against the regime’s propagandizing in its own favor.) Students should learn about socialism, libertarianism, constitutional originalism, feminism, critical race theory, environmentalism, and other doctrines and should be equipped to make their own choices.

The problem here is that schools inevitably impart values, and probably should instill the values that create and sustain a fundamentally decent regime. Even studying a range of political ideologies reflects a political stance (some form of liberalism). So, if we must teach values, then are the values of democratic socialism opposed to the legitimate American regime, or part of it now, or better than the regime–or is this all a matter that students should debate?

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that socialism names a basket of policy options that have been part of the American political debate since the 188os and that students should critically assess as part of their civic educations. They may also reflect on the other traditions, apart from socialism, that have animated the American left. And certainly they should understand and asses various forms of conservative thought. The values that Donald Trump represents have equally deep (or deeper) historical roots in America, but some of his values are contrary to the fundamental aspirations of the regime and should be marginalized in “American civics” worthy of the name.

See also civic education in the year of Trump: neutrality vs. civil courage; Bernie Sanders runs on the 1948 Democratic Party Platform; the Nordic model; What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?

how to improve the civil society of a school

Students learn to be citizens by joining, forming, leading, and influencing extracurricular groups in their own schools. A school’s whole array of groups is its “civil society.” The number, diversity, reach, purpose, vitality, and interconnection of these groups is important for youth development, generally, and for civic education, in particular.

Discussing this topic with teachers this morning, I received an excellent question. How should we encourage all students to participate? What should we do about the fact that 9th-graders sign up for many groups but membership trails off fast? How about the students who are too busy because they work? And what about the kid who wears headphones all day and just doesn’t want to connect?

I think I began my reply with two caveats. First, I don’t know how to motivate teenagers nearly as well as teachers do. And second, some kids really may face serious barriers to membership, no matter how hard you try to include them.

That said, the challenges of a school’s civil society are like those of any civil society. Like teenagers, adults exhibit different degrees of commitment. They drop out when they lose interest or as a response to disagreements. Many free-ride, staying in a group to get its benefits without doing a fair share of the work. Some work extra hard and well but aren’t noticed.

Addressing these problems constitutes Alexis de Tocqueville’s “art and science of association.” It’s never easy but there are good practices. Impose regular penalties for non-contribution but make initial penalties very light so that they are actually enforced and violators can recover easily from being penalized. Keep a clear and public list of who belongs and who doesn’t and clarify what constitutes membership versus exit. Rotate responsibilities. Incorporate low-cost methods of monitoring compliance, such as sign-in sheets. Implement efficient mechanisms for conflict-resolution. (For these principles, see, among other sources: Ostrom, Elinor. “Design principles and threats to sustainable organizations that manage commons.” Santiago, Chile, March. 1999.)

Learning these practices is a core task of civic education. We traditionally learn them only from experience, but it is possible to learn some of them from texts and discussion. Students who learn to lead groups are better placed than any adults to actually generate viable groups in their own schools. Thus I would recommend teaching strategies for recruitment and group-management explicitly, and then encouraging student leaders to be primarily responsible for the vitality of their own civil society.

See also a portrait of American teenagers’ out-of-school life; and class disparities in extracurricular activities.