civics and consensus

As someone who has worked for more than 20 years on the nitty-gritty of civic education in schools and colleges (the details of state standards, curricula, textbooks, measures, tests, etc.), I welcome prominent calls for more attention to this topic. The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens by the senior diplomat Richard Haass looks like a worthwhile example. I look forward to reading this book after seeing a pre-release article in The Atlantic entitled “Why We Need Civics: We’re failing to teach what it means to be American.”

But I would like to register a qualm about the basic thrust of the argument, at least as it’s presented in The Atlantic. Haass offers the example of Passover, when Jews reinforce their “collective identity” by retelling a short story that has explicit lessons. Haass thinks that US citizens must do something similar. “America is organized around a set of ideas that needs to be articulated again and again to survive.” His book will no doubt say more about exactly what these ideas are, but the article suggests that they are facts about the structure of the US Constitution and a positive view of that system.

I definitely feel the appeal of a collective ritual in which all my fellow citizens affirm what I believe most strongly. Similarly, I like the idea that after death, we will all meet our Maker and have revealed unto us the truths that I happen to hold right now on earth. The problem is that we actually disagree, and I could well be wrong.

To me, our main civic deficit is not a failure to teach certain basic facts about the political system. Haass underestimates the amount of time students are already required to spend studying these topics, because he only counts state-required courses entitled “civics” or “US government.” Students also study American history at several grade-levels, addressing the topics he mentions in his article. State mandates for civics courses are valuable–I have helped to work for them–but the difference in students’ knowledge between states with and without those mandates is small (Kawashima-Ginsberg & Levine 2014). We must address other dimensions of the problem.

I think our main deficit is that we do not disagree well. We will always hold conflicting views, not only about routine matters like how to allocate public money, but also about such fundamental questions as what defines us as a people, what to make of our history, and whether our current constitution is well designed. In a free and diverse society, people will hold sharply divergent views about such matters and should care enough to articulate them. However, current debates are polarized and distorted in damaging ways.

Disagreeing well is a high bar. It requires values, but they are values like empathy, responsiveness, respect, and humility-plus-conviction that are demanding and whose exact implications are themselves highly debatable. It is often a good and hard question whether a given statement deserves respect.

Disagreeing well also requires facts, but they are not mainly facts about the basic structure of the US Constitution. Ideally, deliberating citizens know history, statistics, economic principles, the tenets of world religions, natural science, literary representations of society, and many other topics.

On one hand, this means that civic education is all of education–not just a course. Democracy demands richer, more challenging, and more effective teaching of all subjects. On the other hand, we must actively respect fellow citizens who don’t demonstrate much of the knowledge that one can gain in schools. There are other kinds of knowledge (often derived from life-experience). More importantly, all of our fellow citizens have a non-negotiable right to participate in politics and cannot be excluded because of things they don’t know. The higher we set expectations for civic education, the more we risk disparaging many of our fellow citizens. Survey measures of adults’ knowledge of US government usually produce low scores (and that has been true since the dawn of survey research), but so do surveys of public knowledge of health, science, economics, and most other topics. We must be willing to participate with fellow citizens who cannot pass exams.

Therefore, improving civic education is a complex and permanent task. To be sure, it deserves more overall attention, which is why I welcome books like The Bill of Obligations. If nothing else, they contribute to the perennial debate about what kind of a country we are. However, the way forward is not to enact a single new course that reflects a specific view of what everyone should believe. That is a way of imagining a conclusion to our basic debates, when we should be trying to encourage and enrich such discussions.

Source: Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kei, and Peter Levine. “Policy effects on informed political engagement.” American Behavioral Scientist 58.5 (2014): 665-688. See also: the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; college students’ civic knowledge “appalling” … in 1943; putting the constitution in its place; two dimensions of debate about civics; and The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

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.