One and a Half Cheers for More Civics Education

Commentators on both left and right advocate renewed emphasis on civics at both the high school and college level. As with everything, the devil is in the details.

First, sure, I think every state should adopt laws similar to Texas, which requires students attending government-funded colleges and universities to take six hours of political science. The courses much include “consideration of the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the states, with special emphasis on that of Texas.” While I commend the spirit behind the law, I occasionally also refer to the law as “The Political Scientist Full Employment Act.” Given the glut of political scientists on the market these days, it is a wonder that the American Political Science Association hasn’t tried harder to reach across the ideological divide to create a common political front to push every state to adopt similar laws.

Yet while classroom teaching in civics might be better than nothing, the epitome of republican citizenship is taking responsibility, both individually and collective, for republican education. Indeed, evidence of the weakness of our republican culture is just how easily the discussion glides from the need for republican education (Yes!) to the conclusion that high schools and universities need to take up the slack. (Yes, but . . .)

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Columbia University’s Roosevelt Montás motivated his argument for renewed civics education by quoting Abraham Lincoln:

The most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, is to ensure that “every man may receive, at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.

From this Montás asks, “Why have we failed to deliver on Lincoln’s modest requirement? What prevents faculties from ensuring that students become better informed about the founding principles of the American republic?”

But wait. While I’m entirely in sync with the spirit animating Montás’s argument, in point of fact, the American education system already delivers exactly what Lincoln proposed. To wit, that everyone be literate enough to “be enabled to read” history, and so value American institutions. Lincoln advocated education in schools with an eye to literacy. The literate person would then pursue civics education outside of school.

To be sure, at the time Lincoln wrote education often ended at the eighth grade. Universal high school tacked on an additional four years to the 19th Century norm. But this is not without its risks for republican education. Delegating civics education to schools can set up a sort of educational moral hazard, in which we personally underinvest in continuing our individual republican educations because we ticked the “civics” box in high school and (perhaps) college as well.

Of course, the reason schools picked up civics education in the first place is because, if left to ourselves, too few of us invest in our own republican education. Is this simply a matter that republican education generates positive externalities, so, as with other activities that generate positive externalities, optimal provision often requires government subsidy? Or is rational underinvestment itself the evidence of the collapse of republican character in the U.S., and its replacement with instrumental rationalities hostile to republican society? Whatever the answer, despite modern-day resources, such as the Online Library of Liberty, older communal activities like Chautauqua meetings (and even “Hegel clubs” in the American Midwest) have largely disappeared in today’s “bowling alone” culture.

Secondly, disagreement also exists about the ends civics education should pursue. This disagreement is usually papered over by the common label of “civics education.” But advocates advance at least two distinct complaints about the failure of civics education in the U.S. The different complaints point to different types of civic education.

Perhaps the best known indictment of civics education in the U.S comes in the form of listing obvious things we think students should but don’t. Typical are items clicked off recently in The Atlantic:

  • Only about 20 percent knew that James Madison was the father of the Constitution, while over 60 percent gave the title to Thomas Jefferson.
  • More than 40 percent of college graduates did not know that the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress.
  • Roughly half of college students could not correctly state the length of the terms of members of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

(As a side note, I’ve never quite gotten the bit about naming Madison “the father of the Constitution.” I’m fine with giving him the nod as father of the Bill of Rights, and I am second to none in recognizing him as a critical player at the Constitutional Convention itself. But giving him the honorific of “father of the Constitution,” to me, exaggerates beyond appropriate proportion his personal significance as a member of a community of constitutional framers.)

Similarly, a separate article lamented that “more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. Education Secretary John King said only a third of Americans could identify Joe Biden as the vice president or name a single Supreme Court justice.”

I do not in the least pooh pooh the importance of fact-based knowledge. But however important, fact-based civics knowledge is different than understanding constitutional principles and philosophy. For example, knowing that U.S. House members are elected for two-year terms and U.S. Senators are elected for six-year terms is important. Simply at a practical level it’s important that voters know the terms of the different offices to which they elect candidates.

Still, the knowing precise facts of how many years House members and Senators serve seems to me to take a back seat to understanding the constitutional reasons for variation across the two chambers in term lengths. And for the difference in number in each chamber, etc. So, too, while it’s important to know who serves on the Supreme Court, it’s just as important, even more important, to know its purpose, and how that purpose has changed and evolved over the centuries.

It’s easy to say that students should know both the facts and the principles; current events as well as constitutional history and underlying philosophies. They should. But it’s a different thing to say that students can and should learn it all in the classroom.  A single semester course meets for around 40 hours. The equivalent of one workweek. Even with homework assignments and a two-semester sequence, time is a constraint. There is of necessity opportunity costs and tradeoffs in what a formal course can provide.

This brings us back to Abraham Lincoln’s dictum about schools “enabling” education. This stands in contrast to a common expectation today that schools deliver education. The former underscores schooling merely as the starting place for education. The latter, too often, views the classroom as the venue where one’s education begins, and concludes. So, sure, we need civics education in the schools. But more importantly, we need to recover a culture in which schooling “enables” republican education, but in which the most important sources of education occur outside of the classroom.