2 Groups Unveil Detailed Plan for Civics Education

By Debra Viadero — October 02, 1991 6 min read

WASHINGTON--Emphasizing the need to “reintroduce” civics education into the nation’s schools, two national groups last week released a comprehensive blueprint for teaching the subject in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Moral and civic education has all but disappeared from the curriculum,” said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and chairman of a panel that reviewed the new curriculum framework, known as Civitas.

“We’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the economic impact of education and tied it to the engines of productivity,” he said at a press conference here. “That’s understandable but that’s unbalanced.”

The new curriculum is the product of an ambitious, three-year effort by the California-based Center for Civic Education and the Washington-based Council for the Advancement of Citizenship. The two groups brought together nearly 20 national education groups in their $l-million effort and recruited leading scholars to write sections of the 700-page document.

The prominent historians and political scientists who contributed to the curriculum represent a diverse group, ranging from the consumer activist Ralph Nader to Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

Departing from traditional civics-education programs, Civitas espouses a broad view of citizenship that aims both to instill in students the knowledge and skills they need to participate in a “civil society” and to inculcate in them such characteristics of “civic virtue” as civility, open-mindedness, willingness to compromise, and toleration of diversity.

“We believe that civic virtue embraces thinking and acting in such a way that individual rights are viewed in the light of the public good,” the document says, “and that the common good includes the basic protection of individual rights.”

Apathy and Ignorance

The need for civic education has become apparent, the curriculum developers said, in light of increasing evidence in recent years suggesting that young people do not know much about their democratic institutions and do not participate in them.

A 1988 survey by the National Assessment of Education Progress, for example, found that although most young people appeared to be familiar with basic information about the U.S. Presidents, fewer than half could write an adequate description of Presidential responsibilities. Moreover, only 35 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds voted in the last Presidential election, noted John H. Buchanan Jr., president and executive director of the C.A.C.

The curriculum developers also pointed out that political scientists for years have argued that increasing numbers of all Americans feel a sense of apathy or distrust toward government.

“It would be the ultimate irony of modern history,” Civitas observes, “if Americans gave themselves up to self-indulgence, corruption, apathy, or greed just as the rest of world was clamoring for democracy and freedom in the idioms of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln.”

At the same time, the curriculum developers suggested, the growing ethnic diversity of American society has led to bitter divisiveness and growing fragmentation. This is exemplified by widespread conflicts in recent years over the extent to which public-school curricula should focus on the contributions of minorities and non-Western cultures.

“While diversity is increasing, our sense of commonality has diminished,” noted Mr. Boyer, “and we don’t have an understanding about our loyalties to a framework that allow us to come together.”

Seeking ‘Balance’

While civics education continues to be given “lip service” in many states, the subject is often “subsumed under history and geography and almost never treated rigorously,” said Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the C.C.E.

He noted, for example, that the new social-studies framework being implemented in California draws heavily on history.

“There is no attention to jurisprudence, philosophy, government,” said Mr. Quigley, whose organization reviewed nearly 40 social-studies frameworks as it developed the Civitas curriculum.

The subject also appears to be low on the agenda of current federal education-reform efforts, according to the curriculum developers.

Of the national goals for improving education set by President Bush and the governors, only two mention citizenship, and those do so in a cursory way, the developers contended.

For example, the fifth goal, which deals with adult literacy, states: “Every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.”

The National Council of Education Standards and Testing, which was formed to help carry out the goals, has so far focused little attention on ways to test students’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen, Mr. Boyer said. That, he added, “strikes me as a remarkable and discouraging oversight.”

A Broader View

Civitas is not intended to be used as a national curriculum, its developers said. They maintained, however, that the consensus-building process that led to its development--involving dozens of educators from a number of states--is not unlike the standard-setting efforts being called for by some national reform initiatives, such as the New Standards Project headed by Lauren B. Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh.

While Civitas was crafted by consensus, it differs in several ways from traditional civics-education programs.

It deals, for example, with both the formal institutions of government and the informal or “secondary” processes that fuel a democracy.

Such processes might include volunteer work or the efforts of “cyclists urging local government to establish bike trails or volunteer workers trying to change regulations of a public mental-health clinic,” Civitas says. The public-policy roles of public-interest and religious groups, labor unions, the media, and political-action groups are also discussed in the curriculum.

A major aim of the curriculum is to encourage participation in all of the elements of a “civil society.”

“We make a terrible mistake to divide out formal governmental processes and leave out all the other agencies that make it work,” Mr. Boyer said. “A student can see, ‘Hey, working on a neighborhood council is civics,’ and that makes it more believable.”

The document also offers a comprehensive rationale for why civics education should be taught and why schools are uniquely suited to that task.

The report warns of the danger of supposing “that American democracy is like a self-perpetuating mechanism,” and maintains that only schools can provide the “thoughtful, sequential preparation needed” to equip young people for citizenship.

Civitas is also candid about some of the downsides of democracy, including the painstaking slowness of the system of checks and balances.

Widespread Distribution

The Civitas project was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Mr. Quigley said Civitas will be sent to Administration officials, members of the Congress, and participants on federal education-reform panels.

The National Council for the Social Studies will also distribute the document to 9,000 of its members.

In addition, state curriculum directors in four of the largest states have expressed interest in the framework, as have education officials in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe.

Requests for the document have come thus far from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania, officials of the project said.

Copies of “Civitas” are available from the National Council for the Social Studies, 3501 Newark St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016.

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1991 edition of Education Week as 2 Groups Unveil Detailed Plan for Civics Education