Time Is Right for Renewal of Civic Education, Conferees Assert
Stanford, Calif--Educators meeting here this month agreed that the time is right to revitalize the teaching of citizenship in the nation's schools and the place to begin is with the training of teachers.
In the current national effort to restructure education, "too little attention is being paid to the primary purpose of free, universal, common schooling--which is to prepare informed, rational, and humane citizens for participation in a democratic public," said R. Freeman Butts, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace of Stanford University, in an introduction to the conference. Mr. Butts was chairman of the invitational meeting, which attracted 60 participants from 50 organizations.
He pointed out that the intellectual climate in universities and colleges may now be more hospitable to such ideas than it has been for many years. And the momentum, he said, is also picking up within schools of education.
"We believe that this is a particularly good time," Mr. Butts maintained, "for renewed discussion of the historical ideas and values of American citizenship; a re-examination of the role American educators should play in shaping the civic knowledge, values, and skills of their students; and the civic preparation that educators need to enable them to better prepare their students in elementary and secondary schools to become more effective and responsive citizens."
The two-day symposium, "Civic Learning in the Education of the Teaching Profession," was co-sponsored by the Hoover Institution, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Kettering Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Stanford School of Education, and several national education organizations.
Much of the meeting focused on the issue of how to prepare instructors to teach civic education.
"The role of the total school in educating young people to be more effective and responsible citizens has been consistently overlooked in the preparation of teachers and school administrators," said James P. Shaver, associate dean of research at Utah State University's college of education.
Only in social studies, he said, has there been a "long-standing commitment to citizenship as a central objective and at least token efforts toward preparing teachers to prepare their students to be better citizens."
Mr. Shaver suggested that education-school students be required to take a number of general social-science courses or that several courses in colleges' social-sciences departments be designed specifically for prospective teachers.
"The traditional boundaries of disciplines may have to be violated,'' Mr. Shaver argued. But he noted that "courses designed to help teachers see the relevance of the social sciences to civic competence can still be faithful to the goals of liberal education."
Across the Curriculum
James M. Banner, senior associate at the Council for Basic Education, also argued that prospective teachers should be taught to incorporate civic education across the curriculum so that it is not assigned to its own specialized "ghetto."
Civic education "lacks clarity, shared intention, and concreteness,'' he said. "Civic education threatens to become to the curriculum what the Democratic Party among our political institutions and the public schools among our social organizations have already become: the vessel that bears all our expectations and, in bearing them, shatters."
And he pointed out that civic education "is dependent on the professionalization of teaching. ... Teach-ers, rightly prepared, hold in their hands the power to reinvigorate civic life."
But in order to do so, Mr. Banner said, teachers must be given control of their work. "Much of the discussion of civic education today is fueled by the illusion that, once we decide what is best to do, the best will be done," he said. "But that is not so. To teach of the rights and obligations in a nation like ours is the most sensitive and important responsibility that a teacher must discharge."
Teachers, Mr. Banner said, must be trusted with setting and policing their own standards, must be encouraged to learn as well as to practice, and must be able to see themselves as knowledgeable and skilled experts.
Role of Humanities
On the subject of how the humanities can aid the civic education of teachers, Donald Warren, professor and chairman of the department of education policy, planning, and administration of the University of Maryland, asserted that the humanities disciplines should not limit their contributions to helping train teachers.
The humanities departments, he said, should contribute content for civic education by developing curricula that deal accurately with political pluralism and dissent.
Mr. Warren stressed the importance of not separating content and pedagogy in civic education. "Several recent manifestos on public schools, 'A Nation at Risk' being chief among them, favor this ironically dysfunctional approach to promoting academic excellence," he said. "If we commit this error in civic education, we will ensure its failure as an educational effort."
Loss of Constituency
At least one participant sounded a pessimistic note regarding the prospects for upgrading the quality of civics teaching.
"With the wholesale vocationalism of higher education, predictably, has come the loss of a constituency for liberal studies generally and the humanities in particular," said Christopher J. Lucas, professor of education studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Teacher-education programs, Mr. Lucas said, "typically give only cursory attention to humanistic studies. The pressure to squeeze in still more technical professional courses with an already overcrowded curriculum is apt to increase, not diminish, with the passage of time.
"The result, of course, will be another generation of educator-technocrats," he argued.
Bob Beyers is director of the Stanford University News Service.
Vol. 04, Issue 13