Antidote for Antipolitics: A New 'Text of Civic Instruction'

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On March 4, 1801, in the wake of "the dirtiest Presidential campaign in American history," Thomas Jefferson in his Inaugural Address sought to repair the political wounds of the ferocious partisan bickering of the 1790's, a partisanship that even descended to physical brawling on the floor of Congress.

Jefferson called upon the people and the Congress to "unite in common efforts for the common good. ... Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. ... [E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists. ... [T]his government, the world's best hope ... [is] the strongest government on earth."

Then, in one long sentence, Jefferson spelled out his view of "the essential principles of our government." He began with "equal and exact justice"; called for "the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor"; and closed with the right to "trial by juries impartially selected." He called these principles "the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction."

Today, in the wake of a 1994 campaign marked by a surly anger directed at "the general government" and at politicians in particular, the "National Standards for Civics and Government," issued on Nov. 15, 1994, at a press conference hosted by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger at the U.S. Supreme Court, can be a powerful educational antidote for our current sour mood of "antipolitics."

The civics standards were prepared by the nonpartisan Center for Civic Education with the consensus of hundreds of scholars, teachers, and public leaders who hold a broad range of political views. In contrast to the criticisms recently leveled at the U.S. history standards, the civics standards were acclaimed in person by, among others, William Galston of the White House domestic-policy staff, Michael Cohen of the U.S. Education Department, A.E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia law school, and Diane Ravitch of New York University. (See Education Week, 11/23/94.)

Written endorsements were made public by Chief Justice Burger, Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, and by officials of such diverse organizations as the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Catholic Educational Association, the California Council for the Social Studies, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of American Publishers, and scores of teachers and administrators across the land.

Drawing heavily upon "Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education," a companion volume published in 1991, the civics standards set forth as clearly as possible what all citizens need to know if they are to understand and become rationally committed to the fundamental values and principles of American constitutional democracy. As hard as they may be to achieve, these civic values and principles should be core elements of study from earliest schooling through higher education.

It will not be easy, but a gigantic effort must be launched to counteract the superficial political opinions of citizens now molded by TV attack ads, by radio squawk-talk, and by organized floods of faxes--what the New York Times reporter Michael Wines has called the "electronic din" of a "500-channel democracy." The public is so easily influenced by negative campaigning because they know less than they need to know about what government is and should do. The only long-term hope of revivifying a cynical electorate is serious and sustained study and learning of basic principles of constitutional democracy like those invoked by Jefferson.

The civics standards call upon all students (appropriate to their grade levels from kindergarten through high school) to study seriously five fundamental questions: What is government and what should it do? What are the basic values and principles of American democracy? How does the government established by the Constitution embody the values and principles of American democracy? What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs? What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?

Schools as well as government are being blamed for the decline of traditional values, character, and family in the face of rising crime, violence, drugs, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. All sorts of politically and religiously inspired proposals are being made to remedy these threats to American civilization.

The historic purpose of families and religious groups is, properly, to instill in their youths the particular personal and moral values that those groups favor. But ever since Jefferson himself led the way in Virginia in 1779, the historic purpose of universal public schooling has become, properly, the study and promotion of the common civic values of constitutional democracy: the public good, freedom of individual rights, justice, equality, diversity, truth, patriotism.

The national standards for civics and government recall American education to that civic mission in ways that will enable citizens to cope with the modern world of the 21st century. They in effect provide us with a new "text of civic instruction" to achieve our national education goals for all students in all schools.

What other hope is there for Republicans and Democrats to become "brethren of the same principle"? In a democracy, a healthy electorate is the only sure cure for ailing politicians and government. That's why the electorate needs a reinvigorating and reenergizing civic education.

I am glad that the national education goals now include the "challenging subject matter" of civics and government as a core study for all students in grades K-12 (Goal 3). But I also believe that civics and government should be included in the "challenging subject matter" of pre-service teacher education and continuing professional development (Goal 4). That would enable all teachers not only to teach "an increasingly diverse student population" but also to promote the cohesive values and principles underlying American constitutional democracy, no matter what their specialized teaching fields may be.

This means that all of the national and state groups now at work to improve the accrediting of institutions and licensing and assessment of teachers should emphasize the civic foundations of education as one of the major objectives by which all teachers are prepared for Goal 4. For example, standards are now being developed by a task force of the Council of Chief State School Officers, by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, by the new National Commission on Teaching and America's Future and by the New Professional Teacher Project of the National Council for Accreditation of Teachers (See Education Week, 11/11/94 and related story ).

All of these agencies should be paying greater attention to the civic foundations of education. Only in this way will all teachers be enabled to prepare all of their students for "responsible citizenship" as proclaimed in Goal 3. Only in this way will lasting success in educational reform be achieved and reforms in teacher education connected with certification and accreditation (as intended in Goal 4).

In a society increasingly divided between those who preach religiously based moral values and those who prefer secular-based moral values, all teachers need to learn about, as well as exemplify, civic-based moral values. This divisiveness has shown itself specifically in the widespread controversies over the U.S. history standards. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)

However this controversy may turn out, it is clear that the history standards have given us Pluribus and the civics standards have given us Unum. Somehow, together, history and civics must be endowed with the necessary time and the scholarly quality in the school curriculum that will enable the Republic safely to survive.

In other words, all teachers, as well as teachers of civics, government, and social studies, need better grounding in the challenging knowledge set forth in "Civitas" and in the "National Standards for Civics and Government."

As for the study of civics and government itself, the sweeping changes in the recent elections at the federal, state, and local levels were often based on a protest against government itself and promises to reduce and limit government. This provides a unique window of opportunity for the study of civics to shed its historic perception as the most boring of school subjects and become one of the most important and "challenging" subjects in the K-12 curriculum as well as in the liberal arts, in teacher education, and in the professional-development programs by which teachers are prepared.

And there is a still wider political dimension to the usefulness of the national civics standards. In a November column, the syndicated Washington Post columnist David Broder called attention to the civics standards as a school-based effort to achieve the participatory goals of several grassroots citizenship movements: the National Civic League's "Alliance for National Renewal," the Bradley Foundation's "New Citizenship Movement," and the American Civic Forum's "Call for a New Citizenship."

The civics standards have come at just the right time to bridge a possible gap between these community movements and the schoolrooms. In the long run, one cannot succeed without the other.

In sum, if community participation is genuinely to promote the democratic values and principles of constitutional democracy, it must be linked (1) with the civic knowledge and values that students acquire in schools through "Civitas" and the national civics standards, and (2) with the civic knowledge and values that teachers acquire in their liberal-arts and professional preparation.

Vol. 14, Issue 17

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