Monthly Archives: November 2005

universities and civic education

A 1911 committee of the American Political Science Association recommended that elementary school students should cooperate with local government agencies or community associations to beautify vacant lots, as a way of learning civic skills. They also suggested that high school students should become critics of their own education and be asked to write papers on topics like these:

“What changes have been made in your high school course of study in the last ten years? … What changes would you suggest in the content and methods of teaching the studies you are taking to make them more useful to you?”

In 1906, a distinguished political scientist recommended that boys be sent to live on empty land near town for several summer weeks. The boys would form a self-governing and self-sufficient “republic” of adolescent farmers and thereby learn democracy. These facts come from Hindy Lauer Schachter, “Civic Education: Three Early American Political Science Association Committees and their Relevance for Our Time,” PS Online (1998).

I’m reading this and other articles to prepare for a meeting that CIRCLE has organized along with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Political Science Association’s Civic Education Committee. The subject is the civic role of universities. We will be looking at statistical studies of the civic effects of college education. So far, however, I have been reading historical papers.

The received wisdom is that American colleges were primarily dedicated to moral and civic education until the early years of the 20th century. As the anecdotes in Schachter’s article reveal, many leading academics favored a highly experiential approach to civic education–both for k-12 students and for undergraduates. However, under the influence of German research universities, the leading American institutions gradually devoted themselves to objective, scientific research and specialized professional training. A 1914 APSA Committee recommended that citizens “learn humility in the face of expertise.” As universities focused on the education of experts, they lost their moral and civic focus (for better or worse). They ceased recommending or implementing the kind of experiential civic education described above.

This is now a fairly standard story. Some of the best recent scholarship complicates it, noting, for example, that there was a powerful civic vision embodied in the new research universities. See William Talcott’s “Modern Universities, Absent Citizenship,” which is CIRCLE Working Paper # 39 (pdf).

political neutrality in schools

In Vermont, an English and social studies teacher gave his students this item in a vocabulary quiz. They were asked to choose the correct word in the parenthesis:

I wish Bush would be (coherent, eschewed) for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, hence insuring him Republican votes. (AP story via Kevin Drum)

In Madison, WI, third-grade students were told to write letters to public officials that “encourage[d] an end to the war in Iraq.” According to the Wisconsin State Journal:

Students were to write a letter a day for 12 days to other students, the state’s U.S. senators and representatives, the president of the United States, and the secretary of the United Nations ‘urging them to press for peace,’ as well as to the media.

If the war did not end in 12 days, the sequence would be repeated.

Parents were asked to provide 10 postage stamps and 12 envelopes.

An alternative assignment was to be provided for students whose parents did not want them to participate.

Before I complicate this issue and discuss some of the subtleties, I’ll give my verdicts. The vocabulary quiz is funny, and it’s good to inject some humor into teaching. Moreover, the teacher is a professional who ought to have freedom of expression and whose every move should not be scrutinized. I wouldn’t support disciplining him in any way; yet I wouldn’t tell that joke myself to a high school class. The risk is too great that there’s a small minority of Republicans among the Vermont students who would be offended by the implication that they or their parents are stupid (not just wrong about some particular issue).

The anti-war letter assignment crosses an important line from civic education to advocacy. It is an illegitimate activity in a public school. Students should discuss the Iraq war and be encouraged to write letters about it. (Letter-writing is a civic skill). But they must be exposed to multiple perspectives and allowed to write their own opinions.

Now for the complexities.

Continue reading


In the National Gallery this morning, I was looking at a Madonna and Child by Antonio Rossellino (I show a detail here). It’s a low-relief sculpture carved about 1475. Look at the pillow at the bottom right, on which the toddler Jesus stands. This is a representation of a squarish object, depicted in linear perspective. To work correctly as a representation, it must be viewed from straight ahead. The marble pillow is also a three-dimensional object. You can look at it from several angles. If you were allowed to take it down off the wall, you could hold it, feel it, slide your finger behind it. It would not be a square but kind of a fat trapezoid. There is something quite strange about a three-dimensional object whose purpose is to look like an object of a different shape if viewed from a particular angle. What shape is it really?