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One and a Half Cheers for More Civics Education

Commentators on both left and right advocate renewed emphasis on civics at both the high school and college level. As with everything, the devil is in the details.

First, sure, I think every state should adopt laws similar to Texas, which requires students attending government-funded colleges and universities to take six hours of political science. The courses much include “consideration of the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the states, with special emphasis on that of Texas.” While I commend the spirit behind the law, I occasionally also refer to the law as “The Political Scientist Full Employment Act.” Given the glut of political scientists on the market these days, it is a wonder that the American Political Science Association hasn’t tried harder to reach across the ideological divide to create a common political front to push every state to adopt similar laws.

Yet while classroom teaching in civics might be better than nothing, the epitome of republican citizenship is taking responsibility, both individually and collective, for republican education. Indeed, evidence of the weakness of our republican culture is just how easily the discussion glides from the need for republican education (Yes!) to the conclusion that high schools and universities need to take up the slack. (Yes, but . . .)

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Columbia University’s Roosevelt Montás motivated his argument for renewed civics education by quoting Abraham Lincoln:

The most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, is to ensure that “every man may receive, at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.

From this Montás asks, “Why have we failed to deliver on Lincoln’s modest requirement? What prevents faculties from ensuring that students become better informed about the founding principles of the American republic?”

But wait. While I’m entirely in sync with the spirit animating Montás’s argument, in point of fact, the American education system already delivers exactly what Lincoln proposed. To wit, that everyone be literate enough to “be enabled to read” history, and so value American institutions. Lincoln advocated education in schools with an eye to literacy. The literate person would then pursue civics education outside of school.

To be sure, at the time Lincoln wrote education often ended at the eighth grade. Universal high school tacked on an additional four years to the 19th Century norm. But this is not without its risks for republican education. Delegating civics education to schools can set up a sort of educational moral hazard, in which we personally underinvest in continuing our individual republican educations because we ticked the “civics” box in high school and (perhaps) college as well.

Of course, the reason schools picked up civics education in the first place is because, if left to ourselves, too few of us invest in our own republican education. Is this simply a matter that republican education generates positive externalities, so, as with other activities that generate positive externalities, optimal provision often requires government subsidy? Or is rational underinvestment itself the evidence of the collapse of republican character in the U.S., and its replacement with instrumental rationalities hostile to republican society? Whatever the answer, despite modern-day resources, such as the Online Library of Liberty, older communal activities like Chautauqua meetings (and even “Hegel clubs” in the American Midwest) have largely disappeared in today’s “bowling alone” culture.

Secondly, disagreement also exists about the ends civics education should pursue. This disagreement is usually papered over by the common label of “civics education.” But advocates advance at least two distinct complaints about the failure of civics education in the U.S. The different complaints point to different types of civic education.

Perhaps the best known indictment of civics education in the U.S comes in the form of listing obvious things we think students should but don’t. Typical are items clicked off recently in The Atlantic:

  • Only about 20 percent knew that James Madison was the father of the Constitution, while over 60 percent gave the title to Thomas Jefferson.
  • More than 40 percent of college graduates did not know that the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress.
  • Roughly half of college students could not correctly state the length of the terms of members of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

(As a side note, I’ve never quite gotten the bit about naming Madison “the father of the Constitution.” I’m fine with giving him the nod as father of the Bill of Rights, and I am second to none in recognizing him as a critical player at the Constitutional Convention itself. But giving him the honorific of “father of the Constitution,” to me, exaggerates beyond appropriate proportion his personal significance as a member of a community of constitutional framers.)

Similarly, a separate article lamented that “more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. Education Secretary John King said only a third of Americans could identify Joe Biden as the vice president or name a single Supreme Court justice.”

I do not in the least pooh pooh the importance of fact-based knowledge. But however important, fact-based civics knowledge is different than understanding constitutional principles and philosophy. For example, knowing that U.S. House members are elected for two-year terms and U.S. Senators are elected for six-year terms is important. Simply at a practical level it’s important that voters know the terms of the different offices to which they elect candidates.

Still, the knowing precise facts of how many years House members and Senators serve seems to me to take a back seat to understanding the constitutional reasons for variation across the two chambers in term lengths. And for the difference in number in each chamber, etc. So, too, while it’s important to know who serves on the Supreme Court, it’s just as important, even more important, to know its purpose, and how that purpose has changed and evolved over the centuries.

It’s easy to say that students should know both the facts and the principles; current events as well as constitutional history and underlying philosophies. They should. But it’s a different thing to say that students can and should learn it all in the classroom.  A single semester course meets for around 40 hours. The equivalent of one workweek. Even with homework assignments and a two-semester sequence, time is a constraint. There is of necessity opportunity costs and tradeoffs in what a formal course can provide.

This brings us back to Abraham Lincoln’s dictum about schools “enabling” education. This stands in contrast to a common expectation today that schools deliver education. The former underscores schooling merely as the starting place for education. The latter, too often, views the classroom as the venue where one’s education begins, and concludes. So, sure, we need civics education in the schools. But more importantly, we need to recover a culture in which schooling “enables” republican education, but in which the most important sources of education occur outside of the classroom.

Reader Discussion

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on November 17, 2017 at 16:48:46 pm

I think every state should adopt laws similar to Texas, which requires students attending government-funded colleges and universities to take six hours of political science. The courses much include “consideration of the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the states, with special emphasis on that of Texas.”

Fine thought, but not sure that students in New York and Hawaii would see the advantages of all the added focus on Texas. One guys opinion, anyway.

More than 40 percent of college graduates did not know that the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress.

Is anyone surprised? I’ve known few Congressmen to evidenced knowledge of this fact. So who demonstrates a greater practical knowledge of government: the person who states that the Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress and believes that Congress actually wields that power, or the person who has neither the knowledge nor the delusion that might flow from it? “[H]e who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.” Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell (1807) (discussing “fake news”).

(I’m reminded of my Con Law prof who told us that it the coursework would be demanding, and that we probably wouldn’t have a lot of spare time for reading extraneous materials such as the Constitution.)

I’ve never quite gotten the bit about naming Madison “the father of the Constitution.” I’m fine with giving him the nod as father of the Bill of Rights, and I am second to none in recognizing him as a critical player at the Constitutional Convention itself. But giving him the honorific of “father of the Constitution,” to me, exaggerates beyond appropriate proportion his personal significance….

By calling him “the father of the Constitution,” all they mean is that he stuck his dick just long enough to really fuck things up. If they had wanted to emphasize his influence, they would have called him the mother of the Constitution.

Education Secretary John King said only a third of Americans could identify … a single Supreme Court justice.

Heck, I can identify two: Kagan and Sotomayor. But I’m not surprised that people wouldn’t pay so much attention to the Justices’ marital status.

And this really illustrates Rogers’s point: To solve this problem, should we ask kids to spend more time in a poli sci class—or on Tindr?

(I’m reminded of the news accounts of when, in the midst of the Lewinski scandal, Gallup asked women if they would be willing to have sex with Bill Clinton. About two-thirds of respondents answered “Never again.”)

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nobody.really
on November 17, 2017 at 16:50:35 pm

More seriously:

[A] separate article lamented that “more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. Education Secretary John King said only a third of Americans could identify Joe Biden as the vice president or name a single Supreme Court justice.”

I do not in the least pooh pooh the importance of fact-based knowledge. But however important, fact-based civics knowledge is different than understanding constitutional principles and philosophy.

I sense people ask fact-based questions, and lament the fact that people don’t know the answers, not because those facts are so important, but as a proxy for things that are important but hard to measure.

After all, how likely is it that a student would grasp the complex theories about the different roles that the House and Senate are supposed to play in representative government, yet not know simple facts such as the length of a legislator’s term? How likely is it that a student would grasp complex theories about the role of the judicial branch in a democratic government, and about the Supreme Court’s role in that branch, yet not know the name of even one justice? Knowledge of the simple facts may not demonstrate much about knowledge of the complex, but ignorance of the simple facts is probably pretty indicative.

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nobody.really
on November 17, 2017 at 19:24:57 pm

"So, too, while it’s important to know who serves on the Supreme Court, it’s just as important, even more important, to know its purpose,"

Never mind the students - it would be nice if the Black Robes understood the purpose of SCOTUS.
I suspect that, lie nobody.really, they had a Con Law book with the type-setters error wherein Justice Marshall is misquoted as saying "It is a Constitution we are exPANDing!!!!!

Of course, it would appear that nobosy's ConLaw book also provided a chapter on Constitutional ANATOMY (or at least the anatomy of a certain Mr. Madison).

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gabe
on November 17, 2017 at 21:06:27 pm

Pleased as I was to not encounter the ruinous word “democracy,” I have no desire to be either civilized or socialized by American civics. Therefore, my continuing message is that American liberal arts needs to reform so as to coach newborns, by community example, unto civic citizenship. Therein, “civic” refers to human connections whose persons collaborate for domestic peace more than for a municipality, a religion, or a society. Collaborating for justice is the work of mature adults unto old age---until they can no longer contribute (Aristotle).

I do not understand, “Or is rational underinvestment itself the evidence of the collapse of republican character in the U.S., and its replacement with instrumental rationalities hostile to republican society?” I report that I do not understand this statement but would like to. However, I’m suspicious of liberal arts and American democracy: nytimes.com/ref/college/collegespecial2/coll_aascu_carr.html (2003).

I understand American republicanism to be rule of statutory law that muddles for civic justice yet could progress much faster. It is belabored and bemused by American theism, which posits that the wealthy need favor---cannot collaborate for civic peace. Civic citizens may collaborate to discover the-objective-truth rather than conflict for dominant rationalization.

For their reasons, university professors suppress the facts: for example, there was 1) British-American colonialism wherein British subjects in this land discovered they were being enslaved to maintain African slaves brought here to benefit the kingdom, 1720-1765, 2) a stated change in style from colonists to statesmen and a declaration of war, 1774-1776, 3) victory and negotiation as free and independent states, 1783, 4) drafting a constitution to ordain and establish a nation predicated on supervision of government by the people in their states who would trust and commit to an agreement: the preamble 1787, and 5) regression to factional (sectarian) Protestantism and Blackstone common law, May, 1789.

The people in nine states, by 2/3 votes in conventions, ratified the preamble and the articles that attend it on June 21, 1788, establishing the nation, the USA. On March 4, 1789, the USA began operation with ten civic states (according to the preamble). There remained three dissident states. By the time the promised, English-style bill of rights was added, the dissident states and Vermont had joined, making a 14 state total, 1791.

I don’t need to go on to explain that the problem with American civics is that it cannot be learned in university, high-school, or any other institution that suppresses the facts. However, the civic citizen can learn it, and now that there is growing awareness of the problem, the Internet provides civic citizens the freedom they need.

I say let liberal arts and social sciences either reform or take a much needed exit. However, do not continue to pay for its self-promotion.

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Phil Beaver
on November 18, 2017 at 05:55:22 am

lt takes three minutes to understand our educational system. George Carlin summarizes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7yzi1I_Zsk

Amazingly, there are still people who believe that the "We have to pay off the people who bribed us, or they will stop bribing us [Lindsey Graham actually admitted this!] Tax Act of 2017" isn't a rape of our Treasury by our oligarchs....

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Trevor Chase
on November 19, 2017 at 09:43:23 am

"The judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. They are construing our Constitution from a co-ordination of a general and special government to a general and supreme one alone. This will lay all things at their feet, and they are too well versed in English law to forget the maxim, 'boni judicis est ampliare jurisdictionem.'" --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, 1820.

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Trevor Chase
on November 20, 2017 at 13:46:00 pm

I take your comment to suggest that no civics education is better than bad civics education and I agree.

Who would want a run of the mill history or political science graduate from any university or college in the West teaching the young civics? Maybe Chairman Mao or Joseph Göbbels but certainly no one else.

The core problem is that Anglo-American history simply has never been taught in secondary schools. The broad outline has been that a bunch of cranky religious fanatics settled New England and destitute indentured servants, their masters and their masters' slaves settled the rest.

A good Anglo-American history syllabus would begin at Bosworth Field, carefully examine what the Tudors wrought and pay careful attention to the rise of Parliament after 1620. It would emphasize the Petition of Right Parliament of 1628 and observe that these Parliamentarians were the ones who obtained the Massachusetts Bay Charter. It would note the period of personal rule and pay careful attention to the Long Parliament and the interactions between the New England settlers and the radically democratic-republican Independent faction in Parliament between 1640-50.

At that point American and English/British history bifurcates and the parallel developments in the Americas and Britain should be pointed out in the context of the events that led to the American Revolution.

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EK

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.