Category Archives: advocating civic education

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.

should US kids learn they have a democracy?

The New York Times’ Dana Goldstein reports a “bruising political fight” over Michigan’s social studies standards, in which one of the questions was whether to describe our government as a democracy or a “constitutional republic,” as some conservatives prefer.

This is a familiar debate, previously held in states like Texas and Georgia. I’ve received messages and comments questioning my expertise on civic education on the ground that I sometimes ignorantly describe the US as a democracy, when it is actually a republic.

Goldstein offers what looks like a definitive, expert resolution:

mainstream historians, political scientists and legal scholars say that the United States is both a representative democracy and a republic — and that there is no contradiction between those terms.

A democracy is government by the people, who may rule either directly or indirectly, through elected representatives. A republic is a form of government in which the people’s elected representatives make decisions.

I think these definitions are fairly arbitrary. Both words have been used for more than 2,000 years in a dizzying variety of ways. The People’s Republic of China doesn’t select its representatives through contested elections. I suppose we might claim it isn’t a genuine republic, but the very first state to claim that title was Rome, whose legislature was hereditary. The first states to call themselves democracies (some of the Greek cities) used a wide variety of methods of governance, including awarding offices by lottery and consulting oracles.

“Republic” has Latin roots, and if you use etymology to determine meaning, then its core idea is the public good–an important domain (sometimes translated as “the commonwealth”) that is public rather than private property. This idea is incompatible with monarchy, which presumes that the state is one person’s property. Therefore, removing Elizabeth II as the titular monarch of Australia would convert it into a republic without really changing how Australia is governed. Developing the idea more fully, we might emphasize the importance and nobility of the public sphere and public life–republican virtues. Conservatives should be cautious about this direction since republicans, from renaissance Italy to Maoist China, have often been hostile to private wealth. The res publica and bonum commune are opposed to private interests.

As for “democracy,” it has Greek roots, and its etymology is power for the people. For some, that means one person/one vote, but that logic has been disputed. For Dewey, it meant active involvement in all sectors of life: science, art, the family, industry. For Soviet apologists, it meant the dictatorship of the proletariat (= the people) through a vanguard party until the state could be abolished entirely. For Bonapartists, it means that voters should anoint a unifying leader in a plebiscite to prevent domination by factions.

It’s true that the word “democracy” often had a pejorative ring until the later 19th century. For many authors, it meant something like mob rule. But they did not consistently equate it with direct, popular rule. In fact, Jefferson used the word “republic” precisely for that form of government:

Indeed, it must be acknowledged, that the term republic is of very vague application in every language. Witness the self-styled republics of Holland, Switzerland, Genoa, Venice, Poland. Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say, purely and simply, it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican, in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action of the citizens.


— Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816, emphasis added

So when people tell you that the Founders created a republic because they feared “government by its citizens in mass,” they are certainly not remembering Jefferson.

“Ah,” you say, “but what about Madison? Jefferson didn’t write the Constitution or even like it very much. The authors of the Federalist Papers prevailed in its design, and they liked republics rather than democracies.”

Indeed, Madison defended checks on direct, popular rule to protect against factionalism, and his thought remains compelling. But look at what Madison wrote in 1834:

[1] no Government of human device, & human administration can be perfect; [2] that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best Govt. [3] the abuses of all other Govts. have led to the preference of Republican Govt. is the best of all governments because the least imperfect. [4] the vital principle of Repub: Govt. is the lex majoris partis, the will of the majority; [5] if the will of a majority can not be trusted where there are diversified conflicting interests, it can be trusted no where because such interests exist every where ..


— James Madison to Unknown, re majority governments
Dec. 1834 (emphasis added)

So there we see James Madison defending “the will of the majority” and the “law of the larger part,” and calling it republicanism.

For me, the bottom line is that we should stop treating this as some kind of fact that we should impart to youth. What is a democracy, what is a republic, what kind of government we have, and what kind of government we should have are live issues about which thoughtful and learned people disagree. Kids should be welcomed into the conversation.

See also:every Republican president since 1901 has insisted that the US is a democracy; do we live in a republic or a democracy?

School and Society in the Age of Trump

John Rogers and the research team of Michael Ishimoto, Alexander Kwako, Anthony Berryman, and Claudia Diera have produced a landmark study entitled “School and Society in the Age of Trump,” based on their survey of 505 high school principals and follow-up interviews of 40 principals.

The principals offered evidence about five challenges that confront schools at this moment: 1. “Political division and hostility,” 2. “Disputes over truth, facts, and the reliability of sources,” 3. “The crises posed by opioid addiction,” 4. “Vulnerabilities associated with threats of immigration enforcement” and 5. “The perils and frequency of gun violence.”

The report explores the frequency of these issues in various types of school: those with predominantly students of color, racially-mixed schools, and schools with mostly white students; schools in Trump, anti-Trump, and politically mixed communities; and schools in different regions of the country. Principals were also also asked how their schools respond. For instance, do they communicate the importance of respecting new immigrants? Do they discipline students for uncivil or demeaning behavior?

All the results make sense, but they are not always immediately intuitive. For instance, derogatory remarks about other racial/ethnic groups are more common than derogatory remarks about immigrants, and both are most common in predominantly white schools, but far from absent in the other schools. (See below.)

Principals are also most likely to report disciplining students for insensitive remarks in mostly-white schools, but they are much less likely to talk with their students about the importance of respecting immigrants in the mostly-white schools.

Many principals report proactive responses, such as meeting with student groups to ask for their help in promoting civility and respect or meeting with parents for similar purposes. But those responses vary greatly. Sixty-two percent of principals serving mostly youth of color met with parents for this reason, versus 37% of principals in mostly white schools.

It’s common today for parents to challenge the information or news sources that teachers assign or for students to reject assigned sources. The frequency of those events doesn’t differ dramatically depending on the schools’ demographics (although I imagine that the sources that are distrusted differ).

According to the report, “A little more than a quarter of principals report they have restricted topics or information sources in order to diminish the flow of unreliable or contentious information.”

A different kind of stress comes from the opioid crisis. It is worst in predominantly white schools but definitely present in racially-mixed schools and those that serve mostly youth of color.

Rogers and colleague write that “Sixty-eight percent of the principals we surveyed report that federal immigration enforcement policies and the political rhetoric around the issue have harmed student well-being and learning, and undermined the work of their schools in general.”

Students across the board are fearful of gun violence, but more so to the degree that their students are people of color.

These challenges vary by demographics and region, but I’ll show a final graph about politics. The opioid crisis is most widely reported in Trump country. Political division is also more often reported there than elsewhere, but by small margins. In Trump country, far fewer principals report immigration enforcement as a challenge for their students. (That is either because of where most immigrants live or because of problems of under-reporting in Trump districts, as Rogers notes.) Untrustworthy information is seen as a challenge everywhere, to about the same degree, but I am sure that what counts as untrustworthy varies.

These are just some snapshots from a rich and compelling report.

Civic Education: Is There Common Ground?

[The video just plays the introduction. Here is a link to all the separate talks.]

This is the video from a panel at the American Federation of Teachers’ Albert Shanker Institute on Wednesday. The panelists are: Leo Casey, Executive Director, Albert Shanker Institute, Jessica Marshall, co-author, “Let’s Go There: Making A Case for Race, Ethnicity and a Lived Civics Approach to Civic Education;” doctoral candidate, Northwestern University; former Director of Social Science and Civic Engagement for the Chicago Public Schools, Robert Pondiscio, Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Joe Rogers, Director of Public Engagement and Government Affairs, Center for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University, and me. The moderator is Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, Assistant to the President for Educational Issues, American Federation of Teachers.

I thought the panel reflected some real diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and opinions, yet we managed to stay focused on a common question: Is there common ground for civic education? My colleagues offered many important insights. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that common ground is available so long as we focus on the vessel into which the content of civics is poured: the need for courses, prepared teachers, funding for materials, etc. Once we begin to discuss how America should be presented to students, disagreements inevitably–and appropriately–arise. Content is the question that excites the most popular interest and concern, from a range of perspectives, and it must be addressed. But we don’t really know to what extent the content of robust civics programs would differ if they developed in more conservative and progressive communities.