The Role of Political Science and Political Scientists in Civic Education

By Ceaser, James W. | AEI Paper & Studies, August 2013 | Go to article overview

The Role of Political Science and Political Scientists in Civic Education


Ceaser, James W., AEI Paper & Studies


Civic education in America today is widely said to be in trouble. Whether the concern is primary and secondary education (K-12), where national civics tests show that only a quarter of 12th graders score at a level considered proficient; higher education, where requirements in core American history and government courses are being rapidly abandoned; or adult education for immigrants, where communities and businesses have fallen woefully short in providing English language and civics instruction, all signs point to a failure in imparting the basic knowledge that contributes to good citizenship. (1)

We cannot say for sure if things have gotten worse than they were in the past, but leaders and educators today are certainly worried. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, now active in promoting civic education, recently noted, "We have a terrible problem on our hands." (2)

Although not alone in expressing alarm, members of one profession can perhaps lay special claim to a proprietary interest in this problem: political scientists. Practitioners of political science in ancient Greece first identified the concept of civic education, and political scientists to this day continue to produce some of the most significant commentary and scholarship on the subject.

In studying a major area of public policy, analysts sometimes examine the set of relations that exist among a body of knowledge, an organization, and the provision of a key social function. Applying this model to the case at hand, this essay will look at the discipline of political science, the profession of political science, and the provision of civic education. Each term, though familiar, needs to be considered more carefully.

The Discipline of Political Science

Political science is the oldest of the social sciences, dating back to classical Greek philosophy, in particular to Plato and Aristotle, who launched the first investigations into the full range of political phenomena. The practical subject matter of political science for Aristotle has aptly been characterized as "knowledge of the varieties of regimes and of the things that create, support, preserve and destroy them." (3) For the classical thinkers, this empirical focus went together with a more speculative and normative inquiry, known as political philosophy, that considered the nature of political things and the standards for judging better and worse regimes.

Citing these facts about the origin of political science is of more than an antiquarian interest. It is a reminder that a continuing body of thought in the West has helped some to analyze and understand political affairs and influenced how people conceive of the world of politics. Much of the terminology used in analyzing politics has been either defined or refined by political science, and the discipline has helped to focus inquiry on the purposes and ends of political life.

Today, most in America probably associate political science with the organized profession found in departments in universities and colleges. But long before these institutional embodiments, many notable thinkers, such as Montesquieu, David Hume, and Alexis de Tocqueville, were consciously adapting, revising, and developing the science of politics.

No nation owes more to political science than does the United States. Some of the nation's most influential founders took their intellectual bearings from the discipline. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton refer explicitly to "political science" or "the science of politics" in The Federalist, while John Adams celebrated "the divine science of politics." (4) These men relied extensively on political science in crafting America's form of government, and all of them are now counted as major contributors to the development of the discipline.

By the same token, political science is deeply indebted to America for both its prestige and influence. …

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