Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Challenge to Civic Education

It has been a month since I last contributed to this forum. In that time I have had the great pleasure and honor of joining a group of German and American scholars -- political theorists, political scientists, constitutional scholars, civic educators -- at the annual German-American Civic Education Conference, this year held in Bloomington, Indiana. As always, the conference enlightened and provoked.

I have written many times -- in this blog and elsewhere -- about the importance of civic education. Constitutional democracy, such as we have in the United States, such as they have in Germany -- requires a citizenry not only emotionally tied to the nation (the mistaken idea of citizenship too often held by Americans and, particularly, by pseudo-conservative writers and politicians) but one that understands, accepts, and values a body of principles that both underlie the nation and reflect the characteristics of constitutionalism itself. This body of principles is not static (another mistake made by many) but ever-developing, in precisely the way any live tradition develops through a confrontation of the tradition as handed down and the ongoing deliberation and debate of thoughtful citizens. [Lest I be misunderstood, this does not mean that we in the United States have a "living constitution" in the sense so often pilloried by jurists and (again) pseudo-conservatives.] Constitutional democracy, to thrive, must continually reproduce citizens -- and citizens must not simply be subjects, passively accepting what has been imposed upon them, but active participants in the thinking, speaking, deliberating, and acting in public that characterizes the political realm. These are complicated ideas, and require much more elucidation than can be given here. The main point is that constitutional democracy requires a conscious and active citizenry if it is to persist, if it is not to turn into tyranny and despotism (or, in modern guise, the caretaker administrative state). That is true in Germany as it is in the United States -- indeed, it is a fundamental truth about constitutional democracy no matter where it is established.

My German colleagues are as concerned about this need as are my American colleagues. In both nations, the vast majority of citizens know little about their political system, frequently express negative views about their system and those who take active roles in it, and seem willing to permit political leaders to exercise vast powers that contradict the fundamental principles upon which their constitutional systems rest. In both countries, schools are failing to carry out their fundamental task in a constitutional democracy -- to create educated and thoughtful citizens rather than to reproduce a labor force for post-capitalist economic orders. And so in both countries the need for sound civic education is critical.

In the United States civic education is in danger. The danger comes from those who believe that education should focus on English, math, and science to the detriment of social studies. It comes from a society-wide denigration of politics and a resulting lack of interest in learning about politics -- a lack of interest that means that remarkably few social studies teachers know much about our constitutional system. It comes from members of Congress who see education funding as discretionary, easily and quickly slashed in times of economic stress. It comes from a simplistic anti-earmark fervor that may sacrifice sound civic education programs with proven success to the gods of crass political ideology. It comes from presidential administrations in both parties who target their educational policies on fostering national productive capabilities rather than citizenship (in large part because they do not have a thought-out conception of citizenship, or see its value). It comes from the whole tone of public discussion: one that worries that teachers are overpaid without asking what they do and what they should be doing; one that values economic growth even if it means reduced civic knowledge and involvement; one that believes that education should focus on preparing the student for economic roles rather than political roles; one that denigrates politics because it accepts the reduction of the political to the play of politicians.

The sorry state of the American politics bespeaks the sorry state of our civic education, and from the papers presented at the Bloomington conference it appears as if more and more the state of German politics is coming to resemble that in the United States. If either of us are to thrive as a nation -- not only economically but as a constitutional people -- we must find the will and the ways to invigorate an education designed to produce a citizenry who are (as my friend Will Harris says) "constitution keepers" and "constitution makers." We must imagine and implement an education for a citizenry that will play an active and central part in governing themselves through real deliberation and decision, rather than one buffeted about by the whims of the day and the demagoguery of politicians bent on gaining or keeping power. In both Germany and the United States, excellent curricula for education of constitutional citizens exist and educators continue to hone those curricula and develop new ones. What is lacking, at least in the US, is a critical mass of citizens who will insist on the implementation of these curricula -- let alone politicians who will do so. We find ourselves caught up in a spiral in which our failure to educate citizens has produced a lack of citizens who see a value in educating citizens. The challenge we face in both nations is finding a way out of this spiral before our constitutional democracies begin to circle the drain.


  1. Great blog Kevin!

    Miss you...

    Jayme Neiman

  2. Your blog articles about the demise of civic education are interesting, but why doesn't VBA take an active role and create a link for youth/young adults to learn about the importance of civic involvement?