Civic Education: Can Public Schools Teach Good Citizenship?

By Macedo, Stephen; Finn, Chester E., Jr. | Education Next, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Civic Education: Can Public Schools Teach Good Citizenship?


Macedo, Stephen, Finn, Chester E., Jr., Education Next


DECLINING VOTER PARTICIPATION AMONG the young. Persistently low scores on national civics and history assessments. High-school graduates who can't find Iraq on a globe.

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These are just some of the symptoms of civic education gone awry. To some observers, they suggest that efforts to teach students the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in democratic life are at best ineffective. Others believe that the schools are simply not trying hard enough. And still others question whether public schools should even be involved in shaping students' civic values.

To some degree, education will always be civic in nature. But where should the lines be drawn? Who should determine what will be taught? And how can the nation ensure that students emerge with an understanding of their country's history and most cherished values?

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crafting Good Citizens

AMERICANS ARE RIGHTLY CONcerned that schools are not providing students with the knowledge and habits necessary to be good citizens. With the notable exception of volunteer activity, every form of civic engagement among the young has declined. About half of those aged 18 to 29 voted in the 1972 presidential election. By the 1996 election, however, the share had dropped to less than one-third. While 58 percent of college freshmen polled by UCLA in 1966 considered it important to keep up with politics, only 26 percent thought so by the end of the 1990s. Even though young Americans are more educated than ever before, they pay far less attention than previous generations did to traditional news sources like newspapers and network television. And few of them use new media such as the Internet to replace traditional sources of news about world events.

In response to these trends, increasing attention is being paid to civic education in the schools. But strangely, at a moment when the schools seem capable of becoming a bulwark against civic disengagement among the young, a rising chorus of skeptics is casting doubt on the whole enterprise of civic education. In practice, they charge, civic education is ineffective and potentially harmful. The materials used in social studies courses, where most schooling about the political process occurs, are too often built on a foundation of moral relativism, cynicism toward received traditions, and, as Chester Finn puts it, "Undue deference to the 'pluribus' at the expense of the 'unum.'"

Critics also question the very idea of government-sponsored civic education, arguing that it threatens basic principles of intellectual freedom. It would be far better, they say, to leave the teaching of values to parents, churches, and private schools. Thus we would avoid the sorry spectacle of government's promoting some values at the expense of others.

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So how should we assess civic education as public policy? Let's consider three fundamental questions:

* Is it true that civic education makes no difference or even undermines students' interest and participation in civic life?

* Have the efforts to promote civic engagement been sufficient to conclude that the experiment has failed?

* Are the differences in values among Americans truly so vast that it will be impossible to develop a reasonable public consensus on the goals of civic education?

The answers to each of these questions, I will argue, give us substantial reasons to doubt the skeptical position on civic education. However, I am not at all sure that those who wish to eliminate civics from the public schools care much about finding out the facts. Their interest in maligning civic education may stem from a desire not to improve the content of public schooling but to undermine public institutions altogether.

Does Civic Education Work?

It is important, first, not to exaggerate what schools can accomplish in this sphere.

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