Resuscitating Civic Education: What does being a good citizen require?

February 11, 2012

Defining Ideas:

According to a new report issued by the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan wants to reboot civic education and upgrade it for the twenty-first century. The future of democracy depends on it, he argues. But the key to improving civic education today is not to make it more like a video game or a summer camp, as Duncan wants to do. It’s to equip students with the tools to sort out the political life unfolding around them. The problem today is not merely that students don’t “know enough” facts. It’s that they lack the basis for forming and holding opinions. And without opinions—ultimately, opinions about the common good—politics will always seem a distant chore best left to others.

Good citizens do things: they speak out, they vote, they volunteer, they organize. But to do those things well, citizens need to know things. Civic action requires civic knowledge.

This might seem so elemental as to need no defense. After all, an ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by propaganda and the seductions of flattering and over-promising politicians. Only when citizens are knowledgeable are they empowered to resist the self-serving machinations of ambitious elites and act in their own interests. Only a knowledgeable citizenry can preserve its freedoms.

This is why the persistent evidence of citizen ignorance is so hair-raising. Surveys show that almost half of Americans, for instance, think the phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” appears in the United States Constitution (actually, it is from The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Speaking of Communists, almost half of Americans believe that Communist Party members cannot run for president. Three-quarters of the population think the Constitution guarantees a high school education.

Before we jump too quickly to the conclusion that citizens are ignorant about basic Constitutional facts, we should consider whether surveys might be crude and ultimately misleading measures of what citizens know. After all, Marx’s pithy definition of justice captures a truth larger than communism. And any “card-carrying member” of the Communist Party would, practically speaking, be ineligible for high office simply because the public would summarily reject such a candidate.

As for an education guarantee, in fact all citizens are required (by the states) to be educated, and there are firm restrictions on the employment of children. So practically speaking, we have something akin to an education guarantee. Besides, the specific phrases and various articles of the Constitution are not much read outside of law schools and the federal courts, and it might be understandable if good citizens, in the hurly-burly of daily life, mistake a few specifics.

But when we turn away from these questions to questions about current events, the evidence of widespread ignorance is sometimes so plain that it cannot be explained away. To offer just a couple of examples, an astonishing 80 percent of the public cannot name either of their state’s senators. Just after the 2004 presidential election, 58 percent of Americans had heard little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act, which gave the federal government new surveillance powers to fight terrorism and had been the subject of many months of debate and discussion.

Most can name the judge on The People’s Court and the judges on American Idol even if they cannot name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. And many people can name all five members of the animated Simpsons family, even if they cannot name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. People are not stupid—only ignorant about politics.

The sorry state of civic knowledge tells us something about the meaning of citizenship in contemporary America. Knowledge is almost always connected with action: we learn by doing, and we learn for the sake of doing. By contrast, the kind of factual knowledge tested in surveys is memorized propositional knowledge, disconnected from the activities of both citizenship and daily life. In the course of ordinary events, citizens are not called upon to name the three branches of government, or the five liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.

What citizens are asked to do is (on occasion) to vote. They may, of course, do more—they may petition, organize, demonstrate, or run for office. But these activities are not what most citizens characteristically do. For most, who juggle the demands of jobs and hobbies and friends, the activity of citizenship begins and ends with voting. And voting, important though it is, does not seem important enough or demanding enough to motivate most citizens to become knowledgeable about politics.

For most, the act of citizenship begins and ends with voting.

Many have long hoped that the franchise alone would activate the full powers of citizens and stimulate them to become intimately informed about public issues. But these hopes have never been realized. Voting simply does not seem to be enough to motivate citizens in general to become informed. One school of political science called “rational choice” has argued that it is irrational for citizens to vote, since the individual payoff of voting depends on that person’s vote changing the outcome of the election, and the probability of that, in a large electorate, is virtually nil. This theory, of course, overlooks the fact that for many, voting has symbolic and expressive importance—it can be fun, and it is also a duty.

But perhaps the theory captures something true about voting at the same time: one individual’s vote by itself is not very powerful, and the instrumental importance of voting is slight. So it would make sense if many voters did not bother to become terribly well-informed.

Citizenship can ask for more, and when it does, it teaches more. Take, for instance, the civic education that former Supreme Court Justice David Souter received as a boy while accompanying his parents to the annual town meeting in Weare, New Hampshire. On Souter’s telling, the meeting’s moderator taught the young would-be justice about the essence of fairness, not with definitions or lectures, but through the fairness with which he conducted the meeting. Souter also learned something about federalism. Watching the adults of the town make decisions about roads and schools and local public buildings, he grasped, even before he could explain it, the idea that some things were reserved for towns, some for states, and some for the nation.

“Because I and other kids my age who went to the town meeting had these experiences simply by sitting there, watching what was done and listening to what was said,” Souter says, “by the time we got to the ninth grade and actually took a required formal course in civics, it wasn’t all that hard to catch on to what was being taught.”….

Read it all.

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