Tug of War: The Right Wants Schools to Inculcate Civic Values. So Does the Left. Which Is Why the Public Schools Should Avoid Civic Education Altogether

By Murphy, James B. | Education Next, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Tug of War: The Right Wants Schools to Inculcate Civic Values. So Does the Left. Which Is Why the Public Schools Should Avoid Civic Education Altogether


Murphy, James B., Education Next


FIERCE DEBATE OVER civic education in America's public schools has erupted in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Broadly speaking, liberal approaches to civic education have emphasized the need to resist jingoism and to explore why America induces such hatred in certain parts of the world. By contrast, conservative responses to 9/11 have emphasized our national virtues and the need to defend them in times of danger. Conservatives tend to caricature liberal civics lessons as the toleration of the intolerable, while liberals often criticize conservative civics lessons as a knee-jerk brand of patriotism. Yet despite this stark contrast in content, both liberal and conservative advocates continue to insist that civic education in our schools not only impart civic knowledge and civic skills but also shape our deepest values, attitudes, and motivations. My view, briefly stated, is that the attempt to inculcate civic values in our schools is at best ineffective and often undermines the intrinsic moral purpose of schooling.

What is civic virtue, and how does it relate to civic knowledge and civic skills? I define civic knowledge as an understanding of true facts and concepts about public affairs, such as the history, structure, and functions of government, the nature of democratic politics, and the ideals of citizenship. Civic skill is the ability to deploy knowledge in the pursuit of political goals--actions such as voting, protesting, petitioning, and debating. Civic virtues integrate such knowledge and skill with proper civic motivations or attitudes, such as respect for the democratic process, love for the nation, and concern for the common good.

Ideally, it would seem that civic education ought to promote appropriate virtues, not merely knowledge and skills, because without a virtuous motivation, knowledge and skills lack moral worth. After all, civic knowledge and skills routinely support all manner of immoral political conduct--including the use of deception, manipulation, and coercion--all the way to a traitorous betrayal of the nation to its enemies. Yet if civic schooling attempts to inculcate civic virtue, it can lead to the subordination of knowledge to civic uplift. So it is best for public schools to focus on what they do best: the inculcation of knowledge and skills.

Civic Education or Civic Schooling?

For the past half-century, political scientists have been seeking to answer some basic questions about the nature of civic education. For instance, where do citizens acquire their knowledge, skills, and virtues? What role do schools--in particular, high-school civics courses--play in that acquisition? Studies focusing on the learning of civic competence or skills find, not surprisingly, that these skills are mainly acquired not by children in schools, but by adults in churches, labor unions, civic organizations, and workplaces. According to these researchers, schools foster skills not by directly teaching civics, but by encouraging students to volunteer in extracurricular organizations and to participate in student government.

Even if civic skills are not acquired in schools, surely civic knowledge and civic attitudes might be. After all, there is a long-standing consensus among researchers that an individual's knowledge and attitudes are best predicted by his or her years of schooling. After surveying a huge body of literature about the role of education in political socialization, political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Richard Niemi reported a broad consensus that interest in politics, the possession of political skills, political participation, and support for the liberal democratic creed all increase with years of schooling. However, there is no agreement on how to explain the simple correlation between civic virtue and educational attainment. It certainly does not appear that more education by itself automatically produces more political activity.

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