activist forms of civic education are traditional

(Washington, DC) One of my refrains is that we have not recently invented the idea that students can learn to be citizens by practicing citizenship. That is a traditional concept, rooted in Aristotle, de Tocqueville, Mill, and other theorists, but, more importantly, built on deep and continuous experience in schools.

In 1915, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Education (the forerunner of today’s Department of Education) formally endorsed an approach called “community civics.” The Bureau’s guide for teachers named “action … as the end of all good citizenship and of all good teaching.” The guide drew the implications for pedagogy: “A lesson in community civics is not complete unless it leaves with the pupil a sense of his personal responsibility and results in right action.” As an example, students might make an

appeal … to public officials …, as, for example, in regard to the establishment of a playground. But such appeals should be made under proper supervision. The good citizen should be able to write a courteous letter to the public official. Practice in writing such letters should be given to pupils, preferably relating to actual conditions observed by the pupils, or containing practical suggestions by them.

Moreover, the manual advised, “It is sometimes desirable for the class to undertake a special piece of work of direct use to the community.” In an elaborate real example that the manual described, students were concerned about the impact of a snowstorm on their city, learned about the ordinance that required homeowners to shovel, and noted that many residents were out of compliance. The students considered various responses, including “speak[ing] personally to offenders,” but decided that would be “slightly officious and perhaps offensive to older citizens.” Finally, they created a paid snow-shoveling service that they offered to seniors.

If this example sounds like service-learning, plus social entrepreneurship, with a dose of “action civics,” that’s because it is. And it was the official recommendation of the federal government in 1915.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.