In Lecture, Philosopher Calls for ‘Civic Education at Every Level’

By Sheppard Ranbom — May 16, 1984 4 min read

Washington--Sidney Hook, the eminent philosopher who is the government’s 1984 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, this week called for the establishment of a national endowment that would make the study of democracy “a required part of instruction on every educational level.’'

Mr. Hook’s remarks were contained in the Jefferson Lecture, delivered here before an audience of invited guests. He will repeat the lecture once more in New York City on May 17.

The Jefferson lectureship, established in 1972 by the National Endowment for the Humanities, carries a $10,000 stipend and is the highest honor conferred by the federal government for outstanding achievement in the humanities. Past Jefferson lecturers have included the novelist Saul Bellow; the historians Barbara Tuchman, John Hope Franklin, and C. Van Woodward; and the psychologist Erik H. Erikson.

Mr. Hook, a former student of John Dewey, is an emeritus professor of philosophy at New York University and a senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

‘New Approach’ to Civics

In an interview last week, Mr. Hook explained the rationale for his endowment idea--which he likened to the National Endowment for the Humanities--and what he called “a new approach to civic education.”

Teaching the basic elements of a free society is necessary, he said, because of the way so many American young people “take freedoms for granted.” But his belief in the need for more and better civic education, he said, stems from the American public’s opposition to the convening of a constitutional convention.

President Reagan and others have called for a Constitutional convention to ratify an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, but thus far not enough state legis-latures have voted to call one.

“The attitude is that if there is a convention,” Mr. Hook said, “we will wipe out the Bill of Rights and destroy democracy.”

“If citizens believe [that we would destroy our freedoms], then they believe that the majority of citizens are either too stupid or too vicious to be entrusted with self-government.”

Students’ Misconceptions

“I’ve found that even on the college level, there are numerous individuals who deplore the inefficiencies of the slowness of democratic government,” he said. “These students say that what we need is to call in experts to make decisions. But when there is rule by experts, one can’t have a free and democratic society,” Mr. Hook said.

Although educators are concerned that students must learn more and become “experts” to keep up with the information explosion, it is education in civics that ultimately helps citizens make decisions that direct society, according to Mr. Hook.

“When you reflect on it, you realize that no important human problem is purely technical,” he said. “If you listen to different experts, even they don’t always agree. In the last analysis, you have to use your judgment.”

The kind of civic education Mr. Hook advocates is “something different from the cut and dried, boring recital of administrative details and charts of government organizations” that constituted the traditional program in civics when he was a student and teacher, he said during the interview.

“The emphasis would be on a free society and on its value system,” he said. The curriculum would analyze such topics as “tolerance of differences, respect for persons, and obligations to the past.” Americans must remember those “who have sacrificed to make the present freer and more secure,” he said.

Mr. Hook said the endowment he advocates should work to improve curriculum and training in civics “the way the National Science Foundation works for science education or the National Endowment for the Humanities works to improve the humanities. The curriculum can be presented imaginatively, without jingoism or chauvinism,” he contended.

Jefferson’s Faith

Thomas Jefferson’s “faith in the process of education to guide, strengthen, and defend this free self-governing society” from internal and external dangers was one of the greatest legacies of the philosopher-statesman, Mr. Hook said in his lecture.

Jefferson, he said, “provided the rationale for the systems of public education that developed in the United States after his day, especially for instruction going beyond the fundamentals of literacy--reading, writing, and the arts of calculation.” He also developed a curriculum that was based on science and history, “to strengthen faith in a free society and safeguard it from the corruptions of human ambition and power,” Mr. Hook said.

But today, the scholar added, schools are not as successful in their efforts “to inspire loyalty to the process of self government” through instruction in the sciences and humanities as they would be if they sought “to develop that loyalty directly through honest inquiry into the functioning of a democratic community, by learning its history, celebrating its heroes, and noting its achievements.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1984 edition of Education Week as In Lecture, Philosopher Calls for ‘Civic Education at Every Level’