(Chicago) According to the official definition of the American Political Science Association, “Political science is the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior.” In other words, it is a generally impersonal and positivistic investigation into how certain kinds of processes (labeled “politics”) actually work. It is not a discussion of what you and I should do to make the world better.
This modern definition may seem obvious but it reflects a shift. In 1901, President Arthur Hadley of Yale had argued for “political education” that would enhance the motivations, virtues, skills, and knowledge that people needed to be good citizens. He wrote, “A man may possess a vast knowledge with regard to the workings of our social and political machinery, and yet be absolutely untrained in those things which make a good citizen.” But by 1933, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins announced, “‘education for citizenship’ has no place in the university.”
This shift at the university level also had implications for how we teach children and adolescents. From the 1920s through the 1960s, most high school students took courses entitled “civics” or “problems of democracy” that investigated the students’ role in community life and how they could address public problems together. The assigned textbooks tended to address the students as “you” and invited consideration of what you, the citizen, should do. Both courses have now almost vanished from the curriculum, but a third class, “American government,” remains highly prevalent, reaching nearly 90 percent of all high school graduates. This course mimics college-level political science in its impersonal treatment of institutions and processes.
At times, the APSA has actually been hostile to forms of civic education that are normative and concerned with the role of citizens. A 1971 report by argued that the job of political education was to provide “knowledge about the ‘realities’ of political life.” According to this report, most high school civics teachers imparted “a naïve, unrealistic, and romanticized image of political life which confuses the ideals of democracy with the realities of politics.” Understanding and teaching the realities of politics would be another apt definition of mainstream political science.
I think the impact on k-12 civic education has been harmful. And the APSA’s definition implies a misguided view of politics that distorts even the most advanced scholarship in the discipline. My colleagues and I are using the phrase “Civic Studies” to describe a nascent discipline that would put citizens back at the center and combine empirical, normative, and strategic analysis. The flourishing of Civic Studies would have consequences for civic education at the k-12 level. It would reorient political science and the other social sciences. And it would connect academic work to global movements for civic renewal. Continue reading