Education Opinion

Citizenship as a National Education Goal

By R. Freeman Butts — December 11, 1991 6 min read

By R. Freeman Butts

Public discussions about national goals and standards have swirled around with astonishing momentum for a society whose conventional wisdom has been that curriculum and testing should be left to state and local bodies, not national ones. But something terribly important has been missing throughout the two years these discussions have continued. The dominant public talk about goals has been that the national interest requires higher achievement in five core studies: English, mathematics, science, history, and geography. The emphasis has usually been on math and science to aid America’s economic competitiveness in the world.

Missing has been a pre-eminent recognition that the primary purpose and overarching goal of universal, free, public schooling in the United States is its civic mission, that is, to prepare informed, rational, humane, and participating citizens committed to the constitutional values and principles of American democracy. To be sure, this omission during the early days after Charlottesville led to insertion of several references to “responsible citizenship” in the report of the goals panel. Allusions to citizenship have been repeated but not elaborated upon in America 2000, President Bush’s education plan, and in the first annual report card on the goals. But these rather subdued references have included no apparent effort to define the meaning of responsible citizenship and the role it should play in determining the standards and assessment being discussed.

Even more to the point, those subjects most obviously and most directly related to citizenship--civics and government--are missing from the list of core subjects. Why? Civics and government are usually paired with history and geography as essential civic components of the social studies and are widely required by most state and local authorities.

I do not attempt to explain here why the topic of citizenship itself has been relatively quiescent in public debate over national goals, or why civics/government has not played a larger role in the debate. I simply argue that both concerns should be injected prominently in the report of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing in December, and should be adopted by the goals panel in its further work during the coming decade.

There are some heartening signs, however. Goal 3 of the “National Education Goals Report” of this September is entitled “Student Achievement and Citizenship,” giving ample reason to include civics/government as subjects in which achievement should be assessed, along with history, geography, and English. A conference on improving history and civic education was held in October under the auspices of the U.S Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement. The subject has been brought up several times in meetings of the standards council. One of the most prominent groups at work, the New Standards Project, is proposing to design assessment in a core subject it calls ‘history/geography/civics.” The National Council for the Social Studies will decide in January on a process to develop national standards in social studies. That surely must include civics and government.

Fortunately, there is a publication just being distributed that could aid these developments immeasurably. Is it possible to agree upon national standards for civic education as well as for core studies in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography? I believe it is, and the main ingredients are set forth in “Civitas: A Curriculum Framework for Civic Education.” That 700-page document, released this fall, distills the contributions of a broad-based group of scholars and analysts, including myself, who studied the question over a three-year period. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991).

It is hard enough to gain agreement on standards in any subject. Can it be done in civic education? The answer is yes, if we are clear about the civic knowledge and values that citizens need in order to understand and deal with fundamental and controversial public issues. For example: What is really meant by “separation of powers” or “checks and balances” when Presidential appointments require the Senate’s “advice and consent”? Or what is meant by “federalism” when we debate the federal government’s role in health care, employment, abortion, discrimination, affirmative action, or educational reform?

These issues call upon citizens to refine their knowledge and beliefs about the public good, individual rights, privacy, justice, equality, diversity, truth, and patriotism. Fundamental understanding of such ideas and values gives meaning to the term “responsible citizenship.” The “Civitas” framework deals with all of them.

The knowledge required of responsible citizens today must include study of the underlying values and principles of constitutional government in ways that are appropriate for younger students as well as for required courses in civics and government for older students.

“Civitas” can greatly aid curriculum developers, textbook writers, boards of education, and teachers as they attempt to re-energize civic education in the schools. Developed by scholars, professional educators, and public leaders representing a broad spectrum of views, its goals are to establish a solid scholarly and intellectual grounding of substantive knowledge upon which to base civic education; to propose a common core of civic knowledge, values, and skills needed by all citizens; and to outline a challenging learning environment for students of a variety of backgrounds and beliefs at a time of expanding pluralism.

The three main sections of “Civitas” deal with civic virtue, civic participation, and civic knowledge. Each topic outlines the basic concepts, historical perspective, and contemporary issues that are useful for a variety of approaches in classroom and community. Attention is always focused on citizenship as curriculum developers thread their way through the minefields laid by extremists in the debates over multiculturalism or the central role of Western history. In a more general sense, however, “Civitas” provides an intellectual civic framework with which the serious citizen may view the problems and prospects of democracy at home and in the world.

“Civitas” is the most comprehensive and cohesive effort I have encountered in my experience of 40 years teaching history and dealing with civic education. In the development of the framework, the Center for Civic Education, based in California, mobilized the efforts of scores of talented scholars and educators from all over the country, and the Washington-based Council for the Advancement of Citizenship enlisted the cooperation of the leaders of more than 80 public-spirited national organizations. Both are nonprofit, nonprofit organizations.

We now enter a Presidential-election year with haunting memories of recent elections in which alienated or angry citizens reacted with outbursts of special-interest voting apathy. Young people especially seem to be disconnected from political life. It would be the ultimate irony of the 20th century’s worldwide democratic revolutions if the American Republic should be seriously crippled or mortally wounded by disaffection, corruption, greed, or self-indulgence (as Aristotle predicted for democracies whose citizens abandoned civic virtue) just when Communist dictatorships are collapsing and democratic liberties are being demanded in the idioms of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln.

In next year’s report card by the National Education Goals Panel, citizenship should be at the top of the agenda. I hope there is still time. We dare not let citizenship be given a grade of F or simply be marked “Absent.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Citizenship as a National Education Goal