Civic Education: can public schools teach good citizenship?

Civic Education: can public schools teach good citizenship? – Forum

Stephen Macedo

DECLINING VOTER PARTICIPATION AMONG the young. Persistently low scores on national civics and history assessments. High-school graduates who can’t find Iraq on a globe.


These are just some of the symptoms of civic education gone awry. To some observers, they suggest that efforts to teach students the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in democratic life are at best ineffective. Others believe that the schools are simply not trying hard enough. And still others question whether public schools should even be involved in shaping students’ civic values.

To some degree, education will always be civic in nature. But where should the lines be drawn? Who should determine what will be taught? And how can the nation ensure that students emerge with an understanding of their country’s history and most cherished values?


crafting Good Citizens

AMERICANS ARE RIGHTLY CONcerned that schools are not providing students with the knowledge and habits necessary to be good citizens. With the notable exception of volunteer activity, every form of civic engagement among the young has declined. About half of those aged 18 to 29 voted in the 1972 presidential election. By the 1996 election, however, the share had dropped to less than one-third. While 58 percent of college freshmen polled by UCLA in 1966 considered it important to keep up with politics, only 26 percent thought so by the end of the 1990s. Even though young Americans are more educated than ever before, they pay far less attention than previous generations did to traditional news sources like newspapers and network television. And few of them use new media such as the Internet to replace traditional sources of news about world events.

In response to these trends, increasing attention is being paid to civic education in the schools. But strangely, at a moment when the schools seem capable of becoming a bulwark against civic disengagement among the young, a rising chorus of skeptics is casting doubt on the whole enterprise of civic education. In practice, they charge, civic education is ineffective and potentially harmful. The materials used in social studies courses, where most schooling about the political process occurs, are too often built on a foundation of moral relativism, cynicism toward received traditions, and, as Chester Finn puts it, “Undue deference to the ‘pluribus’ at the expense of the ‘unum.'”

Critics also question the very idea of government-sponsored civic education, arguing that it threatens basic principles of intellectual freedom. It would be far better, they say, to leave the teaching of values to parents, churches, and private schools. Thus we would avoid the sorry spectacle of government’s promoting some values at the expense of others.


So how should we assess civic education as public policy? Let’s consider three fundamental questions:

* Is it true that civic education makes no difference or even undermines students’ interest and participation in civic life?

* Have the efforts to promote civic engagement been sufficient to conclude that the experiment has failed?

* Are the differences in values among Americans truly so vast that it will be impossible to develop a reasonable public consensus on the goals of civic education?

The answers to each of these questions, I will argue, give us substantial reasons to doubt the skeptical position on civic education. However, I am not at all sure that those who wish to eliminate civics from the public schools care much about finding out the facts. Their interest in maligning civic education may stem from a desire not to improve the content of public schooling but to undermine public institutions altogether.

Does Civic Education Work?

It is important, first, not to exaggerate what schools can accomplish in this sphere. After all, families are the primary socializers in our society, and the mass media shape children’s attitudes in pervasive ways. We cannot expect schools by themselves to transform apathetic, self-absorbed consumers into active and engaged citizens. Nevertheless, the best available evidence suggests that teaching students about current events, the political process, and how to get involved can make them more willing and able to practice good citizenship.

Consider the findings summarized in an excellent recent report, The Civic Mission of Schools, issued by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement:

* Formal instruction in the key elements of American history and the nation’s governmental structure and processes is a crucial building block of civic education.

* Active discussion of current local, national, and international events should be incorporated into the classroom, especially issues of interest to young people. This can improve students’ critical thinking and communication skills and promote the discussion of political issues outside the classroom.

* More than 80 percent of high-school seniors are already participating in some form of volunteer activity, which is one bright spot in the civic landscape. Nevertheless, more could be done to link community service with classroom instruction as well as other civic and political activities.

* Extracurricular activities have long been known to contribute to students’ tendencies to become and remain civically engaged, even after decades have passed.

* Giving students a voice in the management of the classroom and the school may well increase civic skills and attitudes.

* Participating in simulations of democratic institutions may increase students’ political knowledge, skills, and interest, though the data are not conclusive.

Despite these benefits of civic education, it turns out that the skeptics are already getting their way in many respects. Until the 1960s, it was common for high-school students to take as many as three courses in civics, democracy, and government. Today, however, most students take only one government-related course. According to the Carnegie report, social studies courses also appear to be in decline. Community service is widely encouraged in high schools, but it is too often separate from the rest of the curriculum. Meanwhile, the singular focus of high-stakes testing on students’ math and reading scores largely ignores civic knowledge. Likewise, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) offers a civics assessment only once every ten years. This sends the signal that civic education matters very little.

If public schools are failing to teach civic knowledge, it is at least partly because they are not trying. To simply throw up our hands and say that public education agencies should now withdraw from civic education seems nothing short of perverse.

Uncommon Values?

The critics’ answer is that even if civic education does work, it is simply not a role that the state should undertake in a free society–or at least in a diverse society such as ours, where there are vast disagreements over political and moral values.

But do our differences make it impossible for us to arrive at reasonable consensus standards on the goals of civic education? To my mind, the answer is no. In fact, the nation has already developed reasonable national standards for the teaching of civics. The NAEP standards read:

Twelfth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should have

a good understanding of how constitutions can limit the power of

government and support the rule of law. They should be able to

distinguish between parliamentary systems of government and those

based on separate and shared powers, and they should be able to

describe the structure and functions of American government. These

students should be able to identify issues in which fundamental

democratic values and principles are in conflict–liberty and

equality, individual rights and the common good, majority rule and

minority rights, for example, and they should be able to take and

defend positions on these issues.

On the 1998 NAEP civics exam, just 26 percent of high-school seniors qualified as “proficient.” This is because the standards are genuinely demanding and because, as already noted, the schools are not making an adequate effort to teach civics. If anything, the NAEP civics standards, like the national standards formulated by the Center for the Study of Civic Education (a project in which I participated), might be criticized for being somewhat old-fashioned. Nevertheless, they are good mainstream standards, establishing an appropriate base of civic knowledge and competence that should be attained by all children. The same is true of the NAEP standards for the teaching of U.S. history. These standards do not emphasize indoctrination at the expense of critical thinking. On the contrary, the history standards say things like: students “should be able to communicate reasoned interpretations of past events, using historical evidence effectively to support their positions.” What do critics find so bothersome there?

Critics rightly point to serious flaws in some guidelines offered for the teaching of social studies. The National Council for the Social Studies–the main professional organization in this field–has put forth guidelines that are less concerned with students’ basic knowledge of civics and history than with encouraging students to develop a “personal perspective” so they can make “choices.” Of course there are good and bad standards and practices for civic education. So why can’t critics chip in and promote the good standards? It would be deeply unfortunate for them not to do so based on the misguided conviction that the whole enterprise of civic education is wrong in principle.


Education and Indoctrination

But what of the “Orwellian” paradox of the government of a free people dictating political values in the name of civic education? In the pages of Education Next, James B. Murphy has argued that all education should aim to instill only academic and intellectual virtues–the love of learning and the critical pursuit of truth–and that this is incompatible with efforts to inculcate particular convictions such as “my country is good” (see “Tug of War,” Research, Fall 2003).

The assumption here seems to be that civic education will inevitably devolve into indoctrination–an assumption that is typically backed by some admittedly objectionable statements found in one social studies curriculum or another. However, most civic educators properly distinguish between empty propaganda and genuine education. To the extent that civic education involves teaching students about the structure of their government, the workings of the political process, and the issues that are debated in the public sphere, there is nothing essentially “Orwellian” about civic education or public schooling.

What of Murphy’s argument that schooling should promote only intellectual virtues like love of learning, not moral values or other political virtues? This proposal has the twin defects of being impossible and unattractive. Civic education is inseparable from education: no teacher could run a classroom, no principal could run a school, without taking a stand on a wide range of civic values and moral and political virtues. How could you conduct a classroom without taking a stand on gender equality? Are you going to treat boys and girls the same or not? Are you going to treat all religions in a tolerant manner? Do you care equally about the education of rich kids and poor kids? It would be nothing short of bizarre for schools to confine themselves to promoting only “academic” or “intellectual” virtues while leaving aside democratic virtues such as basic equality of concern and respect for all people. Important moral and political values constrain and shape the way we conceive of and advance the intellectual enterprise.

Education and indoctrination are indeed two very different things, but to describe classroom learning as “academic” or “intellectual” as opposed to “civic” misses the extent to which our conception of learning is infused with democratic values. It is quixotic and misguided to think we should, or even can, get civic education out of the schools. Civic education is not only legitimate; it is inescapable. All education, properly undertaken, has a civic element.

Chester Finn’s solution for the potentially indoctrinating effects of civic education is to allow parents to choose which schools–and thereby which civic traditions–they want for their children. But indoctrination is wrong in any school, whether public or private, secular or religious. Perhaps, however, the skeptics are not interested in civic education that teaches children about government and politics and encourages critical thinking about the major issues of the day. The argument that private schools are best equipped to deliver civic education may be driven by a different conception of what the term includes. It is sometimes argued that a robust civic and moral education requires the teaching of values and virtues about which parents disagree. Because a robust education is necessarily controversial, it can happen only if parents can choose schools that reflect their personal moral and religious convictions.

This argument is worrisome. It certainly throws the whole distinction between education and indoctrination out the window. Indoctrination is antieducational whether it is undertaken by the government or by parents and churches. Parents already control much of what children learn. It may be that schooling would improve if parents were able to exercise more choices, but in the absence of common standards and accountability for the teaching of required subjects like civics, I would worry about whether nonpublic schools could be trusted to fulfill our aims for public education. The public has not only a right but also a responsibility to ensure that all publicly funded schools educate according to reasonable public standards.

The Persistence of Public Education

Previous research has shown that Catholic schools apparently do a better job than public schools of producing active and engaged future citizens. However, the “Catholic school advantage” with respect to civic education does not carry over to all private schools. Indeed, while the evidence is thin, it suggests that evangelical schools promote higher levels of civic engagement but also greater intolerance. In any case, enthusiasm for school choice should not lead us to ignore the importance of either civic education in public schools or public standards for civic education in all schools.

The fact is that we are not walking away from public schooling. The voucher revolution shows no sign of happening. The current system serves the interests of many if not most Americans, especially suburbanites removed from the problems of inner-city neighborhoods and schools. Therefore, we ought to think about how public schools can do a better job of promoting civic engagement. It makes no sense to simply trust private markets, private communities, or private choices to deliver on such an important public goal.

As publicly funded school choice expands incrementally–as I believe it will and (if properly regulated) should–there will need to be an increased focus on public standards and accountability for civic education. The public has a basic and legitimate interest in regulating what is taught in all publicly funded schools. And it is very hard for me to see how civic education–knowledge of how the political process works and of the major events and conflicts in American history–does not count among the essential branches of a child’s education. In addition, the idea of civic education is popular with young people as well as adults–strong majorities of young people favor making civics classes mandatory in middle and high school. The extensive experience of other nations with publicly funded school choice also suggests that public dollars will inevitably be accompanied by extensive public expectations and regulations.

For all their admitted flaws, civic education courses and other school-based programs to promote civic engagement can and do make a positive difference. Moreover, research on civic education has expanded in recent years and become more sophisticated–we have begun to figure out what works. Meanwhile, good mainstream consensus standards for civic education have been articulated. These standards no doubt could be improved, but they have earned and deserve a reasonable bipartisan consensus. We have no reason for cynicism about civic education. Advocates of school choice should embrace the opportunity to demonstrate that private schools can do a good job at civic education, and common standards and testing are the only way to do so.

But do conservative critics care about civic education? The Bush administration came into office arguing for a renewed national commitment to service and citizenship (a fact that suggests civic education is not as ideologically contentious as critics charge). National service and volunteerism were keynotes of the president’s 2002 State of the Union Address, following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. National service and civic education programs were reorganized, under an impressive leadership team, as the USA Freedom Corps. The White House called for a major increase in spending on service and programs for civic education. And where did all these noble efforts go? The current budget calls for a massive cut in the national service spending in order to help pay for tax cuts. So it’s all a question of priorities.

In the end, critics of public schooling and civic education–and there is much to criticize–need to decide whether to join the efforts to fix what’s broken or to continue simply trashing public institutions.

faulty Engineering

The diversity of values within American society renders public schools ill-equipped to produce the engaged citizens our democracy requires

EVERY SOCIETY CREATES MECHANISMS FOR TEACHing its young what they must know to become contributing citizens. Yet in a liberal democracy such as the United States, the proper ordering of those mechanisms is beset by paradox: if free citizens are to rule the state, does the state have a legitimate role in shaping their values and beliefs via its public schools, universities, and other institutions?

Because Americans insist that government is the creature of its citizens, we are loath to rely on state decisions and institutions to instruct our children in how to think, how to conduct themselves, and what to believe. After all, civic education may sound like a good idea in theory, but in practice public schools could even do harm in this realm. Some educators harbor worrisome values: moral relativism, atheism, doubts about the superiority of democracy, undue deference to the “pluribus” at the expense of the “unum,” discomfort with patriotism, cynicism toward established cultural conventions and civic institutions. Transmitting those values to children will gradually erode the foundations of a free society. Perhaps society would be better off if its schools stuck to the three Rs and did a solid job in domains where they enjoy both competence and wide public support.

However, a free society is not self-maintaining. Its citizens must know something about democracy and about individual rights and responsibilities. They must also learn how to behave in a law-abiding way, respecting basic societal norms and values. Thus all educational institutions, especially primary and secondary schools, would seem to have an obligation to help transmit these core ideas, habits, and skills. Indeed, we fret when we learn of schools that neglect this role–the more so in a dangerous world where attacks on American values and institutions (and people) make it more important than ever to rear children who understand and prize those values.

One of the more effective debating points scored against voucher plans, for example, is the charge that “Klan schools,” “witchcraft schools,” and “fundamentalist madrasas” will qualify for public subsidy while imparting malign values to their pupils. Yet should government define which values are sound? And how is that different from an Orwellian regime of authoritarianism and theocracy? A fine dilemma indeed.

Standards and Civics

Our quandaries grow more vexing still as the standards movement transfers key decisions about the content of education from local neighborhoods and communities to distant policymakers in state and national capitals.

Under federal law, every state must now have statewide standards in reading, math, and science, and nearly every state has also developed standards in social studies and other important areas of the school curriculum. Social studies standards typically focus not only on history, geography, economics, and government, but also on citizenship, social norms, and the like. Here, for example, is the opening of New Jersey’s description of its “core curriculum content standards for social studies”:

Citizen participation in government is essential in forming this

nation’s democracy, and is vital in sustaining it. Social studies

education promotes loyalty and love of country and it prepares

students to participate intelligently in public affairs. Its

component disciplines foster in students the knowledge and skills

needed to make sense of current political and social issues. By

studying history, geography, American government and politics, and

other nations, students can learn to contribute to national, state,

and local decisionmaking. They will also develop an understanding of

the American constitutional system, an active awareness and

commitment to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, a

tolerance for those with whom they disagree, and an understanding of

the world beyond the borders of the United States.

A worthy aspiration indeed, yet one that is rarely attained. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that U.S. schools have failed even to impart basic information to children about their country’s history and how its government and civil institutions work. For example, just 26 percent of U.S. high-school seniors attained the “proficient” level on the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam. Just 11 percent reached that level on the 2001 assessment of U.S. history. (Fifty-seven percent scored below the “basic” level on that assessment.)

If young people don’t know that their state has two senators, don’t understand the separation of powers, cannot explain the causes of the Civil War, and have difficulty distinguishing the New Deal from a poker game, what chance is there that they are acquiring–from the schools, anyway–“an active awareness and commitment to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship”? Is it not imperative for schools to establish a solid foundation of basic knowledge on which values, attitudes, and behaviors can securely rest?

Outside the Classroom

There’s good news, too, but of a perverse sort: the very limits of schooling–both its ineffectiveness and the relatively small place it occupies in children’s lives–leave ample room for other influences to work on youngsters’ civic values and behavior. Parents, neighbors, churches, scouts, girls and boys clubs, the media–all play a significant role in sculpting children’s understanding of the world around them. America has a vibrant civil society that does a decent job of forging good citizens even if the schools don’t. That’s why so many young Americans do obey the law (if not necessarily the speed limit), do volunteer, do help old people across the street, do serve valiantly in the military, and so forth.

But we also know that many young Americans don’t vote, don’t read the newspaper, don’t serve their communities, and show dwindling interest in current affairs. Worse, there is the huge problem of young people whose lives are influenced mainly by gangs, street culture, hip hop, and the worst of movies and television. These young people lack good role models at home and have few ties to civil society.

Which brings the problem into clearer focus. Let me recap. First, we are ambivalent about the role of the schools in teaching citizenship. Second, U.S. schools don’t do a very good job today, either on the cognitive side or on the attitudinal and behavioral side. Third, though nearly all children suffer from the schools’ shortcomings on the cognitive side, many fare reasonably well when it comes to the behavioral aspects of citizenship, thanks to other healthy influences in their lives. Fourth, young people without such influences are doubly victimized by the schools’ failings–because they have little with which to compensate, either in acquiring knowledge or in forging decent civic values.


The Pitfalls of Civics Education

Can this knot of problems be untangled and solved? Many are trying. Innumerable foundations, commissions, state initiatives, and federal programs are now seeking to renew civic education in American schools. But solutions run headlong into a series of barriers. Four of these seem especially troublesome.

* First, efforts to develop a civics curriculum are snagged by a basic truth about America: beyond a narrow core of shared beliefs (honesty, tolerance, obeying the law), Americans hold strong but often divergent views about the values they want their children to acquire and about the role of teachers and schools in inculcating those values. It may, therefore, be impossible for the publicly operated schools of a society that is so diverse to do a good job of forging citizens. Consider the challenge of deciding what experiences constitute “service learning” for high-school students in jurisdictions where this is now expected as part of a civics class or social studies curriculum. Does volunteering in one’s church qualify? In an abortion clinic? Bringing coffee and donuts to grateful GIs at the nearby military base? Leading a protest against military action? When adults heatedly disagree about the value of such activities, how can a democracy’s public schools decide on their proper role in the lives and education of the young?

Fierce watchdog groups constantly scrutinize the public schools for signs of religiosity. Activists pressure schools to redefine “civic education” in terms of influencing public policy and engaging in political activity–while giving short shrift to being a good parent, dependable neighbor, and conscientious member of the nongovernmental institutions that compose civil society. And everybody gangs up on textbooks, which are afflicted by hypersensitivity to the possibility of bias or controversy. This baleful influence comes from both the left and the right.

Hence much gets omitted from class materials and much of what remains has been sanitized to the point of banality. This has the effect of depriving schools and teachers of many of the stories, books, poems, plays, and legends from which children might best learn the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, hero and villain, patriot and traitor. Moreover, the fear of being criticized by pressure groups encourages curriculum writers and textbook publishers to make their instructional materials value-free from the outset.

* Second, within the field of civics education, a battle rages between those who believe that the schools’ responsibility is mainly cognitive (imparting specific knowledge to children) and those who insist that youngsters’ behavior and attitudes are what schools should work on. It’s one thing to explain the role of voting in a democracy, for example, but quite another to help young people acquire the habit of voting or internalize a sense of obligation that they must vote. For many civic educators, these habits, beliefs, and dispositions matter more than “book learning.” For example, a recent Carnegie Corporation report, The Civic Mission of Schools, offers four takes on “competent and responsible citizens.” The first of these says such citizens are “informed and thoughtful,” which can mesh with a cognitive view of the school’s role. But the other three–“participate in their communities,” “act politically,” and “have moral and civic virtues”–are harder to instill through conventional books and teaching. They rekindle old debates about the propriety and competency of schools’ intruding into people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Recall that, in the 1980s, a number of states poked into students’ values and behavior through what was termed “outcomes-based” education. This began innocently and earnestly, as a logical response to the era’s focus on school results rather than simply inputs. As it spread to include pupil attitudes, actions, and ideologies, however, many people balked at what they saw as government imposing patterns of behavior and thought on children under the guise of mandatory academic standards. For example, the Minnesota state board of education proposed in 1991 that high-school graduation should hinge on students’ contributing to “global communities” and the “economic well-being of society,” understanding the “interdependency of people,” and “working cooperatively in groups.” Rightly or not, some parents and religious leaders held that these smacked of socialism and one-worldism, if not Marxism, and that the state had no business imposing such things on its young people. The upshot was that most jurisdictions pulled back to the more strictly cognitive domains.

* Third, there are the limits of schooling itself. Between birth and age 18, a typical young American spends just 14 percent of waking hours beneath the school roof. That’s barely enough time to cover reading, writing, and arithmetic well, much less to offset the harmful influences that may be at work on children during the other 86 percent of their lives. In response, one may want the school day or year to lengthen, and many good schools, especially those serving disadvantaged students, have striven to enlarge their portion of children’s lives. But the overwhelming majority of schools start at about 8 a.m. and end around 2 p.m. Moreover, they are in session for only half the days in the year. Nor do children go near a public school until the age of five or six. How large a share of responsibility for shaping tomorrow’s citizens is it practical for those schools to shoulder?

* Fourth and finally, the civic and pedagogical values of many educators differ from those of many parents. Faithful to “progressive” traditions and postmodern beliefs, too many education school professors signal to future teachers that they should abjure firm distinctions between right and wrong. Nowhere is this more evident than in the social studies–the part of the curriculum that is commonly held responsible for civics education.

The man in the street probably supposes that social studies consist mainly of history and civics, leavened with some geography and economics. At the end of a well-taught K-12 social studies sequence, one would expect young people to know at least who Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were, why World War II was fought, how to find Italy and Iraq on a map, and what “supply and demand” mean.

If that were so, school-based social studies would contribute to the forging of citizens, at least on the cognitive side. But that’s not what animates the experts who rule this field. They are more concerned with imparting multiple “perspectives” to students, as described in a position paper of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS):

Students should be helped to construct a personal perspective that

enables them to explore emerging events and persistent or recurring

issues, considering implications for self, family, and the whole

national and world community. This perspective involves respect for

differences of opinion and preference; of race, religion, and gender;

of class and ethnicity; and of culture in general. This construction

should be based on the realization that differences exist among

individuals and the conviction that this diversity can be positive

and socially enriching.

One may or may not find these to be valid goals for social studies, but it’s reasonably safe to say that, as a framework for civics education in particular, they will stir dissent from American parents, voters, and taxpayers. Thus a clash is inevitable between what we can term the social studies view of civics and the popular view. Indeed, such a clash has been under way for decades. “During the 1930s,” writes New York University scholar Diane Ravitch, “one national report after another insisted that social studies should replace chronological history and that young people should study immediate personal and social problems rather than the distant, irrelevant past.”

Diversity in Civics Education

Can education reformers overcome these four barriers and place American schools on a sure-footed path to effective civics education? I think not, at least not through top-down reform strategies that emphasize uniform school practices, and certainly not as long as the real pressure for performance and accountability centers on reading and math.

There is, however, another possibility for strengthening civics education. It is to be found in the reform strategy known as school choice. Besides its other strengths, school choice sidesteps one of the big obstacles to better civic education: it accommodates the divergent views and priorities of ethnic and religious groups, parents, and educators, and allows them to tailor the approach to civics that they favor for their children rather than settling for awkward efforts at lowest-common-denominator consensus. Parents who decide that a given school’s approach is not right for their daughters and sons are free to make other selections.

The accompanying risk is balkanization: discordant approaches to civic education as one school emphasizes Athenian values while another stresses those of Sparta. In response, choice proponents cite evidence that private school students are more civically engaged than their public school peers. They remind us that government-operated schools are doomed to do a lackluster job in this area. And they note that, as long as states retain the authority to establish core academic standards for all public schools, they have the opportunity to mitigate curricular balkanization, even in such fractious fields as social studies.

Although certain forms of school choice (tax credits, some voucher programs) abjure state academic standards and tests, others (such as charter schools and public school choice) normally take them for granted. Hence if the state–or other cognizant authority–can get its civics standards right, can attach decent assessments to them, and can steel itself to insist that student performance in this field “counts,” it will go a considerable distance toward infusing both standards-based and choice-based education reform with a decent possibility of making a difference in this field.


But those are enormous ifs. All the aforementioned obstacles in society and within the education profession impede any large political unit (such as a state) from attaining consensus about what should be in its civics standards–much less tying an enforcement regimen to them. Today’s pressure to boost math and reading achievement makes it less likely that the requisite political energy and resources can be mustered on behalf of a field like civics. The fractures within social studies and the ambivalence of parents will tend to deter public officials from even trying very hard. Moreover, the aspects of civics that can be spelled out in academic standards and accurately assessed through statewide tests are almost entirely cognitive: well worth learning, to be sure, even a necessary precondition for successful adult life, but not exactly what people have in mind when they say that schools should forge “responsible citizens.”

In the end, we may need to accept the fact that the school’s–and the state’s–role in this domain is simply limited: by its meager portion of children’s lives, by its pedagogical weakness, by the absence of political and intellectual consensus, and by the modest capabilities of state standards and tests. We may do well to acknowledge that the solemn duty of readying young people for successful participation in adult society depends at least as much–and perhaps quite a lot more–on what happens to them when they are not in school.

–Stephen Macedo is a professor of politics and director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

–Chester E. Finn Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and senior editor of Education Next. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Peter Berkowitz, ed., Never a Matter of Indifference: Sustaining Virtue in a Free Republic (Hoover Institution Press, 2003).

Stephen Macedo wonders if critics of civics truly care about public institutions

Chester E. Finn Jr. wants diversity in civics education

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