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Social Studies Opinion

The Limits of “Transactional” Citizenship

By Rick Hess — October 04, 2010 3 min read
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Last week, I talked a bit about the results of the new Farkas-Duffett study High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do. (Full disclosure: The study was commissioned and published by my shop at AEI).

Some of the key findings--particularly the fact that public school teachers feel like social studies have been deemphasized in recent years--are unsurprising. Over the last decade, and especially since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, Americans have come increasingly to speak of education as “the new civil right.” This has usefully focused educators, advocates, and policymakers on student achievement and preparing their charges for careers or college, but this healthy emphasis has also come with the unfortunate consequence of devaluing civic education.

From the dawn of the Western tradition, dating back to Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries, education has been regarded as essential to the formation of good citizens and the cultivation of a proper attachment to the state. For America’s founders such as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Thomas Jefferson, one of the main functions of schools was producing democratic citizens. In Rush’s telling phrase, schools should mold “republican machines” who will support and defend their nation.

In recent decades, however, as education has come to be seen as the path to personal and professional advancement, the private purposes of schooling have assumed a heightened import. This is crystallized in President Barack Obama’s oft-repeated goal to ensure that all students are “college- or career-ready” by 2020. As the tangible economic benefits of schooling have become central to policy thinking, the teaching of citizenship has become increasingly peripheral.

When citizenship is spoken of today, it is more and more in a “transactional” sense--with citizenship understood as the basket of skills and attitudes (how to shake hands, speak properly, and be punctual) that will help students attend prestigious colleges and obtain desirable jobs. There was a temporary exception to this tendency following the attacks of 9/11, when politicians, teachers, and parents were briefly awakened to the importance of teaching students their privileges and responsibilities as American citizens. But the enthusiasm for this project soon waned and was quickly swept aside by the increased focus on proficiency and graduation rates.

Americans have entered the twenty-first century--an epoch punctuated by debates over immigration, religious tolerance, and the role of government--with their schools devoting remarkably little attention to the formation of sound democratic citizens. A focus on academic performance, along with concerns about provoking controversy, have in many places demoted talk of citizenship to assemblies, ceremonies, or the occasional social studies lesson.

My hope is that we can set course upon a larger effort to rethink and reinvigorate the civic mission of schools. In doing so, simple pieties presuming that traditional publicly-operated district schools will inevitably do this well--or that virtual schools or private schools do not or cannot serve these public purposes--require a fundamental rethinking. Indeed, this is the precisely the challenge I pose to would-be reformers and “defenders” of public schooling in The Same Thing Over and Over, due out next month from Harvard University Press.

As history teaches us only too well, democracy is not self-perpetuating. If we believe good citizenship matters--if it is not just a means to help students graduate and get good jobs--then we need to actually value it. It should not be justified only in terms of student achievement, but because it is what holds this country together.

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