the role of political science in civic education

James Ceasar has published an interesting and provocative essay through the American Enterprise Institute entitled “The role of political science and political scientists in civic education.” I disagree with part of it–and with that aspect of Ceasar’s overall thought. He rests a great deal on the idea of a regime (roughly per Montesquieu). The United States is said to have had one regime or deep structure since the founding era, regardless of subsequent changes in policies. The goal of civic education should be to maintain this regime and transmit its values. Political education, on the other hand, aims to transform the regime. Today, “progressivism, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism” are “hostile” to the regime and seek to change it.

I think the American regime has changed profoundly several times and has always been a field of debate about its purpose and values. I see progressivism, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism as just examples of the usual hurly-burly of public debate in the American republic, not threats to it. Today, purist liberatarianism seems to me the most radical challenge to mainstream civic education. I note that Ceasar offers no  examples of progressivism, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism, and I suspect that he would find the actual proponents to be more complex, more varied, and generally less radical than he wants to portray them. Could, for example, a cosmopolitan like Martha Nussbaum or a multiculturalist progressive like Meira Levinson really be described as hostile to the regime?

That said, I cite the paper because I am wholly in agreement that political science ought to be supportive of civic education, and it is not. Ceasar notes:

The current official definition of political science from the American Political Science Association deliberately casts a wide net while avoiding giving undue offense (or providing any focus): ‘Political science is the study of governments, public policies and political processes, systems, and political behavior.’ … Civic education no longer occupies the central place that it did under the Aristotelian conception. The subject is of relatively minor interest in political science today, even allowing for a recovery of some its questions and concerns within the modern subfield known as ‘political socialization.’

Political science aims to be an empirical investigation into institutions and mass behavior, not an inquiry into what citizens should do. Investigating what citizens should do would require a combination of empirical evidence about how the world works, normative theory about how things ought to be, and strategic guidance about how to improve it (given the resources one has). Ceasar emphasizes the study of regimes, describing that as normative as well as empirical. I would agree, except that I am interested in investigating all scales of human action, of which the regime is only one. (Here I draw on the idea of “polycentrism,” developed by Vincent and Elinor Ostrom.)

In any case, I’ll be leading a discussion about the role of political science in civic education at the APSA:

August 29, 2013 @ 8:00 AM
Hilton Chicago

1. Theme Panel: “Power and Persuasion from Below: Civic Renewal, Youth Engagement, and the Case for Civic Studies,” Aug 30, 2013, 4:15 PM-6:00 PM
Chair: Peter Levine, Tufts University. Participants: Paul Dragos Aligica, George Mason University; Carmen Sirianni, Brandeis University; Karol E. Soltan, University of Maryland; Filippo A. Sabetti McGill University; and Meira Levinson, Harvard University


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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.