College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Does Civics Belong in the Classroom?

By Harry C. Boyte & David Randall — January 24, 2017 5 min read
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On January 10th in Washington, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released a report, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics, that charges “the civic engagement’ movement in higher education has taken over American college-level civics education and turned it into progressive political training. The report claims to document “how the term ‘civic’ has been stolen by left-wing activists who smuggle their agenda into colleges under the pretext of wholesome teaching. These activists’ version of civics—the New Civics—trains students to be protesters instead of teaching them the foundations of government—the Old Civics.”

This report raises important questions and levels charges that need to become topics for widespread public discussion and debate. In the spirit of furthering this discussion and debate, Deborah Meier and I invited David Randall, chief author of the report and communications director for NAS, to present his perspective as part of our weekly “Bridging Differences” blog. Here is his commentary.

Dear Harry and Deb,

Thank you for the invitation to take part in your conversation.

I should say for new readers that the National Association of Scholars’ Making Citizens: How American Universities teach Civics has a wide-ranging critique of the New Civics—service-learning, civic engagement, and all allied endeavors in both higher education and K-12 education.

As Harry’s response and Deb’s response confirm, what’s at issue isn’t the accuracy of our description of the New Civics, but whether the New Civics belongs in the classroom. This question in turn rests on three linked beliefs that currently hold too much sway among progressive pedagogues: that our republic is nothing but a democracy, that democracy should pervade education, and that education to democracy entails education to power.

So far as the first contention goes, our republic includes America’s history that has produced Americans’ shared national character, the constitutional order that provides the means for the continuance of our free state—and a complex of mutually dependent animating ideals. Democracy matters—but just as essential are the rule of law, government by consent, separation of powers, limited government, individual liberty, pluralism, self-reliance, free enterprise, and civic virtue.

If any one ideal should be taken as the keystone of our republic, it is liberty—a word that appears in the Declaration of Independence as one of the central purposes of government. Democracy is not even in the Declaration’s text, and it requires laborious exegesis to substitute democracy for liberty as America’s foundational principle. It requires further such exegesis to redefine democracy from “the procedures of representative government” to “equality of resources.” Democracy without liberty, after all, is only majoritarian tyranny. But the liberty that animates America includes the liberty to judge for oneself how to weigh the importance of each of these ideals within liberty’s complex, and the liberty to choose how best to incarnate those ideals in one’s own life.

As for the second contention, it is one thing to say that education should include civic outcomes and another to say that every subject and every educational technique should be bent toward producing those civic outcomes. After all, America is equally dedicated toward the achievement of the apolitical life and pursuit of happiness that accompany liberty in the Declaration, and American education should forward those uncivic outcomes with equal vigor. Education should prepare our children to earn a decent living—for how can the Jeffersonian ideal be sustained without a backbone of the modern equivalents of Jefferson’s self-reliant yeoman farmers? And if liberty should have a pedagogy, the liberal arts are the best framework: they individuate character, equip students to select and pursue a chosen career, and provide them the capacity to work in defense of their own liberty and of their fellow Americans.

But the pedagogy of liberty, if it truly seeks to model liberty, should never seek to subdue all other parts of education. A traditional civics class should take liberty as its keynote, and so should American history—but the rest of our education system will teach liberty best by resisting those ideologues who want to impose civic biology, civic literature, civic watercolors, and so on. And an education keyed to liberty will be able to produce citizens who can question the nostrums of their teachers—including education for democracy.

Finally, there is the idea that education to democracy involves education to power—where power registers the continuing influence of the ideas of Michel Foucault and Saul Alinsky, among others. On the contrary, the end of education is to equip students to engage in the search for truth—to liberate their minds. The capacity to search for truth fosters the capacity to act as a citizen, but our schools should not conflate truth and power. Education to truth teaches students (among other things) to reason about what means and ends they should use in the later exercise of power, and to know that not all realms of life aim at power alone. Education to power may produce political strength—but blind strength, robbed of the capacity to think, the knowledge that the search for truth exists, or the realization that the search for truth should be cherished. Such blind strength promotes neither liberty nor democracy—and is not civic.

There are profound differences between education based on liberty and truth and education based on democracy and power. Our critique of the New Civics isn’t limited to the differences between these paired ideals—but it can’t be explained without reference to them. Our conversation should begin with this sketch of the implications of our divergent ideals.

And ultimately, there is something profoundly wrongheaded in Deb’s phrase “apprentice citizens.” It suggests as a very strong corollary that teachers are “master citizens"—who train students to be led when they are adults by Masters of Citizens. Our educators should not do this. This is not what liberty looks like. Even when you squint hard, it doesn’t look much like democracy.


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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.