a defense of civic education

James Murphy, a Dartmouth political scientist, wrote an article that was very critical of k-12 civic education in last fall’s Education Next. That journal then published a shortened version of my reply to Prof. Murphy in its winter issue. I don’t blame the editors for abridging my letter, but I’ve copied the whole thing here, because it summarizes the empirical evidence in favor of civic ed. (Click “continue reading” for the full letter.)

In ?Tug of War? (Fall 2003), James B. Murphy argues ?that the attempt to inculcate civic values in our schools is at best ineffective and often undermines the intrinsic moral purpose of schooling.?

Murphy?s first argument relies on the empirical claim that civics classes are ineffective, because they do not ?foster desirable knowledge, attitudes, and conduct.? He cites ?influential research by [Kent] Jennings and Kenneth Langton [which] found that the high-school civics curriculum had little effect on any aspect of civic values.? Here Murphy is referring to a 1968 article that derived its conclusions from asking students just six miscellaneous factual questions. Nevertheless, he claims that ?these and other studies have created a lasting professional consensus? that ?civics courses in particular appear to have little effect on civic knowledge and even less on civic values.?

Murphy concedes that this picture has been complicated by Richard Niemi and Jane Junn?s book Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (1998). As Murphy summarizes their argument, Niemi and Junn ?found that, although the civics curriculum had much less effect on civic knowledge and values than did the home environment, civics courses did make some difference. ? However, as with earlier studies, Niemi and Junn found that civics courses had virtually no effect on attitudes.?

In fact, Niemi and Junn write that ?the evidence points strongly in the direction of course effects? on students? attitudes as well as knowledge. They analyzed the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, which asked only two questions about values or attitudes. Thus the authors recognize that they have little data on attitudes, but there is certainly no basis for skepticism about the effects of courses. On the contrary, courses seem to raise students? scores on the only two attitudes that were measured: confidence in government and belief in the value of elections. ?The magnitude of the differences is substantial.?

Niemi and Junn further cite an extensive body of program evaluations, studies of instruction at all levels, and cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses?all produced after Jennings and Langton?s work of the late sixties, and all arguing that civics classes do help to make young people into knowledgeable, engaged, and/or concerned citizens.

More recently, Judith Torney-Purta?s analysis of the IEA Civics Assessment (given to 90,000 14-year-olds in 28 countries) found that civics instruction correlates with improved civics knowledge, skills, and attitudes, controlling for demographic factors. Likewise, according to The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait (a survey of Americans conducted in 2002), students who reported that their teachers led discussions of politics and government were more involved in their communities and more attentive to the news than other students, again controlling for other measured factors.

In his discussion of knowledge and attitudes, Murphy omits another outcome: behavior. A large literature shows that knowledge is not only good in itself; it is also a necessary precondition of political engagement (voting and other forms of participation). Thus gains in civic knowledge probably lead to higher levels of civic involvement.

All this evidence suggests that, on average, civics and government classes have positive effects. That is an important finding, since civics and social studies courses are being cut, especially at the early grades. One could add that typical civics classes are not as effective as they ought to be, since textbooks and teacher education are considered weak. Thus there is a potential for civic instruction to produce considerably better outcomes than we see today, without utopian change.

Furthermore, Murphy limits his discussion to government and history classes or their close equivalents. There is considerable evidence that other forms of school-based civic education generate lasting changes in attitudes and values as well as knowledge and skills. These include moderated discussions of current events and issues; combinations of community service with academic work (?service-learning?); extracurricular activities (especially student government and school newspapers); appropriate student participation in school governance; and simulations of trials, elections, legislatures, and diplomatic relations.

Earlier this year, many of the most distinguished empirical researchers from political science, psychology, and education considered evidence from program evaluations and massive datasets and concluded that formal instruction in US government, history, or democracy is an effective way to increase students? skills and knowledge. This was one of the conclusions of the Civic Mission of Schools Report, written by more than 50 experts and issued jointly by Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). James Murphy is entitled to dissent from this document, but he has no business claiming that the ?lasting consensus? is on his side.

The Civic Mission of Schools also casts doubt on Murphy?s second major argument against civic education. The proper goal of schools, he says, is to inculcate intellectual skills and virtues, such as ?perseverance, thoroughness, accuracy, intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual impartiality.? He claims that there is no consensus about the content or purposes of civic education; costly battles always break out when schools try to teach political knowledge, habits, and skills. Besides, Murphy argues, it is risky to teach history or government for the purpose of generating a particular kind of citizen. ?The academic pursuit of knowledge will be corrupted if truth-seeking is subordinated to some civic agenda.?

To be sure, there are important and principled disagreements about precisely what and how students should be taught history and government and what makes a good citizen. We should welcome such arguments as part of a discussion of our nation?s purposes and values. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of common ground, as evidenced by the detailed recommendations in the Civic Mission of Schools report. This report was written and endorsed by self-identified liberal and conservative scholars and representatives of such diverse groups as the Heritage Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Education Association.

James Murphy advances an interesting position about the purposes of education and reminds us of the potential tension between teaching the truth and trying to make the right kinds of citizens. However, his reading of the empirical literature is inaccurate and incomplete, and he overlooks a broad consensus on goals. There is much more basis for optimism about civics than he admits.