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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Civic Education and Civic Knowledge

At The American Interest, our colleague George Thomas writes:
In the same way that global concerns have been integrated into the curriculum, colleges and universities might re-integrate, so to speak, courses in American history, politics, literature, and culture that speak to American civic life. Many in higher education will think that civic education is the province of primary and secondary education, or that it smacks too much of sentimental patriotic attachment at odds with the rationality at which higher education aims. Yet civic education can be integrated into liberal education in ways that are good for both education and democracy. Courses on the features of American liberal democracy can be taught in what William Galston dubs an “investigative” rather than “inculcative” manner. Such a mode would “adopt the American regime as its point of departure while problematizing it as an object of inquiry.” Courses that focus on American history and civic institutions would introduce students to essential concepts—liberalism, democracy, rights, representation, equality, separation of powers, federalism, the rule of law, administration—and how they have played out over the course of American history. But they would also invite students to think critically about these different issues. Civic knowledge is essential to thoughtful civic participation—whether the matter at hand is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, immigration, the place of religion in public schools, same-sex marriage, or Congressional redistricting.

Knowing the history and principles of the American polity is a first step in thinking about and applying political principles to contemporary issues. Grasping the historical antecedents of many contemporary issues may well elevate contemporary democratic discourse. This also includes criticizing pieces (or the whole) of American democracy. Studying our country, we will find that its great champions have often been its most stringent critics, pointing out how it has failed to live up to its promise. Think of Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony. And even as “investigative” civic education seeks to instill civic commitments, it is a reasoned project that can be situated within a broad liberal education. Courses in the history of political philosophy and the history, culture, and languages of other countries would also be useful features of civic education. Indeed, a course in comparative constitutionalism may be the most illuminating way to study America insofar as it brings to light both what is unique and what is universal within American democracy. As Seymour Martin Lipset has argued, “it is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.” The study of America could complement and deepen liberal education, including the global perspective many colleges view as essential to education in the 21st century.