Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education

Teaching America coverTeaching America is a new book organized and edited by David Feith with chapters by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Senators Kyl and Graham, former Education Secretary Rod Paige, “Instapundit” Glenn Reynolds, and more than a dozen other authors. I contribute the last chapter, “Letter to Persident Obama: A Policy Approach for the Federal Government.”

As might be expected, the chapters are richly diverse. There are implicit debates about, for example, the centrality of factual knowledge versus democratic skills or values. (Which values are desirable is also a running question.) Some authors are upset that the government takes too little responsibility for civic education, while others are more concerned about the dangers of indoctrination.

I’m not sure how consistent my policy recommendations are with the preceding chapters of diagnosis and critique. I argue that we already require civic education–with a strong focus on concrete facts about the American political system. As a result, students don’t perform badly on tests of that material. But we tolerate vast gaps in civic knowledge and skills by socioeconomic status, and many of our courses and curricula are ineffective at boosting active, responsible, independent citizenship. Thus the important functions of government are to invest in innovation and evaluation and to develop new forms of assessment that encourage students to collaborate and deliberate–not just record their individual knowledge on a test. Two specific proposals for assessment are worth trying: (1) requiring students to show what they can do on a computerized, game-like simulation of a social problem, and (2) asking students to record the opportunities for civic learning that their schools make available to them.