review article: Public-Spirited Citizenship: Leadership and Good Government in the United States by Ralph Ketcham

[From Political Science Quarterly, vol. 131, no. 4, winter 2016-17, pp. 896-7. Text as submitted. The definitive version is available at ]

Ralph Ketcham is a distinguished American political historian and biographer, a renowned educator, and an avid student of political thought from classical to current times. In Public-Spirited Citizenship, the most recent of more than a dozen books, he offers a sweeping narrative about both political science and American politics from the founding era to the present, with a valuable excursion into 20th century East Asia.

His story begins with the civic republican tradition that defined the public good as the purpose of politics, civic virtue as the foundation both of a good society and a worthy life, statecraft as leadership and institutional design to encourage civic virtue and promote the public good, and education as the development of good character along with the skills and knowledge needed for civic life. Ketcham emphasizes that the founders of the American republic were steeped in this tradition.

Civic republicanism never vanished, according to Ketcham’s account, but it suffered a series of blows in the 19th and 20th centuries. The idea of a public good began to seem unscientific and naïve as theories of human nature emerged that emphasized self-interest and irrationality. Education was increasingly defined as the imparting of information and scientific insights about the way things really worked, not moral development or reflection on the public good. Public institutions, too, shifted from deliberative forums to sites of negotiation among organized interests.

The American Political Science Association played a role in that story. Starting in the early 1900s, leading American political scientists decried education that took the form of “sermonizing and patriotic expostulation” (p. 105). The only alternative they recognized was a rigorous, detached, disenchanted study of politics as it was. In keeping with that goal, they advocated specialization and expertise. Political science meant training for professors and technocrats in basically the current system.

Good citizens, Ketcham argues, will not be “’experts’ in the details of government; rather, they must have a disinterested perspective and must ask the proper public question, ‘What is good for the polity as a whole?’ and not [a] corrupt private one” (pp. 33-34). That stance is best cultivated, Ketcham argues, by a broad liberal education that is “profound,” “integrated,” and “radical.” But all those ideals seem naïve to positivist social scientists, who doubt there is anything good for the polity (apart from the aggregation of private interests) and who favor education that is specialized empirical training for the status quo.

The broad outlines of this narrative are not unique to Ketcham, but he has a sharp eye for overlooked aphorisms, incidents, and characters. This book is a treasury of quotations from proponents of civic republicanism and positivism alike. It is also a pageant of character sketches—from Benjamin Franklin in dialogue with Mohawk King Hendricks about good government in 1754, to Fukuzawa Yukichi reflecting on how republican norms might merge with Confucian ideals in Meiji Japan, to Ketcham’s own colleagues at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, who are giving renewed attention to the ideal of “citizenship” that is in their institution’s name.

I concur with the whole story, but I would add that an 18th century account of the public good and civic virtue can’t directly apply today, not only because we must draw from more diverse sources, but also because we have learned hard truths from history, the natural and social sciences, the terrible experiences of the past century—in a word, from modernity. The decline of civic education and civic culture reflects not only a loss of moral commitment but also a profound intellectual challenge that confronts public-spirited citizens today.

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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.