Civic Education– One More Time

In a recent essay, Robert Reich asked a supremely important question: how do we educate for the common good? His answer echoed my own belief–reiterated constantly on this blog and elsewhere– that we need to do a much, much better job of civic education.

Reich began

I think about those 19 children who were murdered in their classroom on Tuesday, and feel the need to go back to basics — to the common good. Given the the difficulty of enacting sensible laws to reduce gun violence — which reflects in part the deepening split between Americans who believe in democracy and those who are throwing in their lot with Trump authoritarians — the question I keep coming back to is: what can we can do to rekindle a sense of common good?

One of the most important initiatives would be to restart civic education in our schools.

Reich anticipates the nay-sayers, who will undoubtedly point out that our public schools are under a fierce and unremitting  attack from the Right, putting  school boards, educators, and students “in the crosshairs of culture warriors.” But he suggests that– paradoxically– “this might be exactly the right time to push for civic education.”

Why is the time right? And why does Reich link civic education to the common good? What’s wrong with the status quo?

Among other things, the essay points to what is a hot-button issue for me: the widely-accepted belief that education is basically a consumer good–that it is indistinguishable from job training.

Today, most people view education as a personal (or family) investment in future earnings. That’s one reason so much of the cost of college is now put on students and their families, and why so many young people graduate with crippling college loans. (When education is seen as a personal investment yielding private returns, there’s no reason why anyone other than the “investor” should pay for it.)

As regular readers of this blog know, that equation of education with an investment in future earnings drives me absolutely up the wall. Not only is genuine education a far broader benefit to the individual, it is–as Reich writes–a public good that builds the capacity of the nation to govern itself.

Franklin and America’s other founders knew how easily emperors and kings could mislead the public. The survival of the new republic required citizens imbued, in the language of the time, with civic virtue. “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other,” Jefferson warned. But if the new nation could “enlighten the people generally . . . tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

Reich traced the history of public education, and the civic motivations of those who insisted upon its importance:

The person most credited with founding American public schooling, Massachusetts educator Horace Mann, directly linked public education to democracy. “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people,” he wrote, “must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” Mann believed it important that public schools educate all children together, “in common.” The mix of ethnicities, races, and social classes in the same schools would help children learn the habits and attitudes of citizenship. The goal extended through higher education as well. Charles W. Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, believed “the best solution to the problem of national order lay in the education of individuals to the ideals of service, stewardship, and cooperation.”

The essay concludes with what Reich calls the six elements of civics education. I particularly liked numbers 5 and 6:

Such an education must encourage civic virtue. It should explain and illustrate the profound differences between doing whatever it takes to win, and acting for the common good; between getting as much as one can get for oneself, and giving back to society; between seeking personal celebrity, wealth, or power, and helping build a better society for all. And why the latter choices are morally necessary.

Finally, civic virtue must be practiced. Two years of required public service would give young people an opportunity to learn civic responsibility by serving the common good directly. It should be a duty of citizenship.

A concerted emphasis on civic virtue might eventually change the nature of America’s social incentives, which now are disproportionately weighted toward rewarding greed and celebrity. And–again, as regular readers know, I have long been an advocate for a year or two of mandatory public service.

As Reich concedes, there’s no guarantee that improving and focusing on civic education will lead to more civil and informed discourse, or make us more able to enact sensible legislation.

But it sure couldn’t hurt.


  1. Seems there’s the easy way… the classroom….

    and the hard way……on the battlefield.

  2. There is also a profound civic lesson underway that premiered last night with the superbly choreographed January 6th Committee Hearings. Politics aside, the hearings opened with strong evidence of the intentional subterfuge of the Constitutional mandate for a civil transfer of power answerable only to the will of the people and the election outcome.

  3. I like the idea of mandatory civic service, or military service as an option, and it could be used to forgive debt incurred for college or trade school for those who need it.

  4. After reading James’ post, I could not resist responding to his support for interim military or alternate service. I did both. After high school, I went to voluntary military service and then after college, served in Africa in the mission field for $50 per month plus room and board. It was an essential “reset button” experience in young adult development just as important to finishing higher education before “settling down” to a life vocation. Whether citizen soldier or global citizen missionary, truth bearing on what matters most to civil affairs was an intensive part of training. The citizen soldier piece was engagement with US Army Civil Affairs: General Douglas MacArthur’s innovative ‘fifth division’.

  5. Yes. Well, all the philosophizing is great…and accurate…and necessary.

    Gregg, I lived and worked just a few miles from Yellow Springs – once upon a time when I lectured at Wright State University’s medical school. Antioch was, and perhaps still is, an island of progressive thought in a sea of backwardness. Did you see where Ohio just passed a law permitting teachers to carry guns into classrooms full of children. Brilliant.

    BUT – you knew there was a “but”… Teaching civics is crucial; I think most of us agree with that. BUT before any of that civics instruction starts being worthwhile, QUALIFIED educators must be placed in those classrooms instead of football coaches. The kids cannot learn about our culture, our government and our history without being fully engaged in the subject matter. Coaches tend to gloss over those things and teach by video; I’ve seen that virtually everywhere I taught in Colorado and Texas…especially Texas.

    Of course, other core courses are all too populated with coaches who, for all the good they do, are NOT sufficiently qualified to teach them. As a science teacher, I actually found myself instructing those coaches – well-meaning though they were – on some of the basics of the course being taught. I don’t mean to imply that I have all the answers, but some of them are self-evident.

  6. I could not agree more. I have long thought one year of required service would benefit young people in planning their future and by providing new experiences. Civic responsibility and public good are two important benefits.

    Unfortunately, Republicans in Florida have chosen to subvert and propagandize civics education. A law passed in 2021 will have conservative thought centers within three of our universities come up with patriotic civics education.

    Reference from WUSF:
    “According to the rule, traits of a desirable citizen include respect for “the military, elected officials, civic leaders, public servants, and all those who have defended the blessings of liberty in pursuit of the common good, even at personal risk.”

    The rule also requires that students be taught “how political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to preserving the United States constitutional republic.”

    ‘The rule, which centers in part on teaching students about characteristics that make an “upright and desirable” citizen, is the culmination of legislation passed by state lawmakers earlier this year.”
    I have no doubt that their definition of upright and desirable citizen is very different than mine. It seems they want to truly indoctrinate our children, Which is unsurprising since this is what they accuse our schools, both K-12 and higher learning, of doing. It’s all projection. They accuse others of doing what they want to do. Just like packing the court.

    I see no other endgame here than a desire to destroy public education. So not only will we be lacking true civics education that encourages students to investigate candidates and participate in the process fully, we will have broken public schools for those with the least among us while others flee to private education. It sounds dystopian, but we already have a teacher shortage. Laws passed this year add further pressure on teachers to be wary of what they say to a student with gay parents or how they instruct students about the Civil Rights movement for fear a parent will make a complaint with the full force of the state backing them.

    A robust, non-partisan, non-ideological civics education is key for K-12 students. Unfortunately, at least in Florida, we are heading the other direction. And it is frightening.

  7. Civics education needs to be updated just as history needs to be updated, NOT rewritten. Can civics classes today explain, prevent, avoid, or end what we are dealing with today which is beyond politics as anything more than naming the opposing factions? Bennie Franklin, as a Black man, his lived a life in danger since the day he was born; Liz Cheney is now in the same life in danger situation due to disagreeing with her former Senate political affiliations. She has joined the “enemy” to save democracy and this nation; she is working against those trying to save their own asses and their jobs.

    The gun issue will NOT be resolved by the “bipartisan” committee because they are ignoring the two main problems; full background checks and the sale of assault weapons, which were developed for the military, to the general public. Take a step back and look at the full picture; the primary targets of the mass shootings are Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQs and they will not face that racism and bigotry are the basis for killing and the white victims are usually just expendable like the civilian victims in any war. The 2nd Amendment and mental health are cover ups for the real problems; has racism and bigotry ever been taught in civics classes or will it ever be?

  8. Sheila; you blog listing disappeared this morning from my Favorite Places. I can type your name in “quick find” and access it. I tried to add it back into Favorite Places from your E-mail but it says it is already on the list. Will try to find other solutions but a strange situation. Your daily E-mail comes up, as many Democratic posts do, with the option of “safe” or “may be a danger due to a different E-mail address”. Maybe you son has an answer; I don’t want to lose your blog.

  9. It’s interesting that we so often find ourselves discussing education and service. They are both necessary to a free society, but each is incomplete on its own. That should be reason enough to require both.

  10. Obviously, anything positive is better than nothing! That being said, “safe civics” – which omits dealing with class issues, racism, sexism, gay/lesbian/trans phobias and how fear and deliberate divisions of people are issues today and have been issues for centuries – will not “be enough”. I’m doubtful -that even if we get more “civics” – much will be so limited that it will be token.

  11. Yes, as always, civics education is a good solution offered by Robert and Sheila. An overall well-educated populace is preferred to ignorance unless you want to manipulate the citizens.

    The problem is, as Einstein pointed out in 1949, we’ve already lost the democratic republic our Founders crafted/envisioned. As Jefferson noted when he drafted the foundational documents, a free press is absolutely essential. A free press would hold the public servants accountable to the people who elected them. It’s why the free press was referred to as the Fourth Branch of Government or the Fourth Estate.

    How long did our free press last? Did it last longer than our public servants?

    It doesn’t matter which institutions sold out to the oligarchy because as Einstein pointed out, they were all gone in 1949. It’s only gotten worse since. Einstein even recommended a fix for public education but we ignored him.

    In the UK, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary (similar to our Secretary of State) is proposing a law that journalists and whistleblowers who hold the government accountable which wittingly or unwittingly helps a foreign government shall serve a life sentence in prison.

    It’s already that way in the USA. So much for the free press holding our government accountable. This ensures propaganda prevails and will further erode all confidence in our institutions. If the people are too ignorant to understand the Assange case and what it means for the Western world, I have no hope at all for our future. None.

  12. Well Sheila; I tried entering you using the heart option in the upper right top of the blog, found your name near top of Favorite Places list, with a heart next to it, before the alphabetical list where it has been for years. I won’t question it; glad to have you back on my list however they list it.

    Your daily E-mail comes with that warning because you changed your E-mail address but it is only some of the Democratic addresses that post the warning.

  13. required civil service is a requirement, how about make it valuble,in the students eyes. instead of required. though you will have to fight wall streets need for bodies into economic slavery to produce. Robert Reich alone should be a must read daily. his site of small digestable vids on current affaris and opinions should be a course in any grade school.. making a diffrent voice to the economy and how to voice for the good. seems the need also is understanding the diffrence in being in debt and a living wage. many a ad today tells of how well you can upgrade a credit score(with little app that tracks yoir privacy),while little is said about not being in debt, by having a living wage. as Mr Reich often shows the diffrence, imagine how that would translate to a healthier lifestyle and mental thought. I often push his site in conversation with da trumpers i work with. as such conversations usually start with a slant on any liberal thought at the time. civic education was a grade in my school when i was 6, and up til i left for california in 1971. never seen that grade score after that. the northeast area of the U.S. must have been ahead of the school districts i went to in 1968, in Norfolk Va, and calif in 1971. each time i was moved up a grade in those mid year enrolments. seems when you look at the rating of various states education, southern states lack severely in the bottom. imagine if you brought everyone into a living wage society how much the local economy would expand.
    when i talk with others about that, the backlash from southeners abounds. my answer, well, you put them there. you support poverty and ignorance, real cool eh? sad to witness the poverty Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana produce. drive the back roads and see shacks,and people mulling around,and no answers from the state or local officials,just more justifiable loses. id like to see jimmy swaggart come bearing answers to them..naw,hed fly over them with his private jets,and empty his,,you know…

  14. Clearly, we prefer to amuse ourselves to death rather than to be educated. I don’t think that education is even possible when students of every age aren’t in any way motivated to learn because the screens in our lives have taught us that we no longer have to be and can instead while away our time viewing dancing images from imaginary realities. Give a child of any age a choice between a playground and a classroom; their pick is a foregone conclusion.

  15. The League of women voters; lists or explains civics as the study of the theoretical, political and practical aspects of citizenship, as well as its rights and duties. It includes the study of civil law and civil code, and the study of government through attention to the role of citizens as opposed to external factors in the operation and oversight of government.

    CivX Now; lists an 11th grader who states; “educated decisions are the entire basis of American government. If we don’t have education, what’s the point in giving us choices?”, discusses various aspects of Civic education.

    Law, American bar association. Nuf said!

    We the people; education on constitutional norms and privileges.

    Street law; rights teaching, critical thinking, problem solving, and cooperative learning, along with communication and societal participation.

    Constitutional rights foundation; delves into the Constitution, develops curriculum, provides technical assistance to schools.

    Various Federal support programs for civic education, how history relates to our current situation and how the present will affect the future!

    History, in the most obvious sense comes from the Greek word historia and that word means inquiry which is knowledge acquired by investigation! So in other words, the study of social, religious, and geographical, military, cultural, and economic histories.

    So, history is an all-encompassing explanation of past kingdoms, governments, wars, slavery, voting rights, and civil rights.

    Civics show the relationship between the past and current events including time frames, and how they relate citizens responsibility.

    So, how can we complain about selective historical teaching or the elimination of History in school curriculum?

    It’s easy to criticize others for their selective history teaching or selective knowledge concerning history.

    But alas, there’s two sides to every coin! And, as witnessed the other day, there is no one side that decides to be selective on history! So, if you’re honest about history, you can’t change history, so should history be taught? And even though history has a direct correlation with civics, it seems most people don’t really believe what they say.

    It’s sort of like the left hand hating the right hand for being the right hand and the right hand hating the left hand for the same idiotic reason.

    What does history show about civics? Well, history shows that civilizations decline by the manipulation and reinterpretation of law codes, decay of the family unit. Subverting of parental authority, the pushback on parameters, the rollback of moral code, and permissive assaults on the youngest and most vulnerable of society! Recently, we can see that issue with what happened in Germany, but also, it happened in Rome, it happened in Greece, it happened in ancient Israel! The list goes on and on, it’s part of History after all. Some of this was mentioned the other day, much to the chagrin of those who are not as informed about history and sources of information.

    If, if! If we develop a course of action, to be an activist, on any subject, best know the entirety of history and how similar movements and actions affected the now defunct civilizations, concluding, their laws, their morals, their compassion and empathy, stability, and conscience!

    When you suppress the lessons of history, you repress the viability of a functional society!

  16. In 1970, while a senior at Elkhart High School, I asked our Exploratory Teaching professor Dr. Levi Hartzler if I could mentor under a High School History/Government teacher since I wanted to major in teaching secondary ed focusing on Government and History.
    He just laughed.
    He told me those jobs were reserved for “The Coaches” and none of those were women at that time.
    Fast forward to 2000 when my own kids were in HS, at academically strong Northridge High School, and ” The Coaches” were STILL teaching those classes. (And yes, they showed a remarkable amount of videos or movies)
    I pursued an elementary degree hoping for a position in a 5-6 classroom where I could educate kids about exactly what we are discussing here today.
    Since God put me in a 1st and later 2nd grade assignment for 31 years, I used whatever I could find to get the kids engaged in current events and significant historical issues- in my unique but entertaining style!
    It worked and the kids responded.

    Until we hold our administrators accountable for hiring highly effective people to do this job correctly, and with an emphasis on engaging the students, we will be held hostage by “The Coaches” and their boring videos.
    Ask Jimtown High School how effective that was with one of their own?

  17. I seem to recall a very ancient goal of education as leading an individual to be able to have a reasoned conversation
    on a wide variety of topics, with most anyone else.
    Would it be too far a jump to suggest that a good education in civics could produce a more “civilized” polity?
    Yes, education as nothing more than preparation for earning power is a horrid idea.

  18. Given that civics courses are disproportionally taught by coaches, perhaps those who set curricular standards for a phys ed degree should require a minor in history and political science as prerequisites for attainment of such degree.

  19. When I was in grade school, during the late 40’s, we said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at the beginning of the school day. We stood up and put our hands over our hearts when we recited the Pledge. We had just won a war, and some of us had relatives who had been in the armed services. We had all been through rationing and recycling, so we understood the idea of doing without for the sake of a broader purpose. I don’t know what goes on in classrooms these days. Is the Pledge recited? I think it was an effective tool in civic education, the foundational step.

  20. Hi Jan,
    I retired in 2018 from Baugo Community Schools where we stood and recited the pledge every day for the 40 years I taught there.
    May I submit, my first, second and fourth grade students had no idea what it meant bc there was little to tie into it for them.
    Maybe some ‘felt’ it after 911 but it was just words unless someone pointed out what the sentences meant.
    I was fortunate to find an excellent book from Scholastic published in 2001 that explained what every line was put in the pledge for and why it mattered to us. I read it every year on the first day of school.
    Unless one ties words into actions, they are meaningless.
    Our kids are open books.
    They need to be shown and actively involved in how to be good citizens.
    Not just shown movies.
    PS. Jimtown elementary still recites the Pledge every morning following a moment of silence.
    God can be included in public schools f one so desires don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  21. Here is the contrarian view – I was forced to say the “indoctrinating loyalty, bastardized oath” every morning. I hated it. The original pledge was “to my flag and to the republic for which is stands”. The name of the country was substituted. “Under god” was added in 1954, with pressure from the Knights of Columbus, as an anti-communist/anti-atheist measure.

    I have never thought that American children should be forced to repeat some loyalty oath. I thought that was for Hitler youth, religious orders, and Mao’s China. I also resented the anti-atheist attack on my mother.

    Back to the main topic – Contrary to the usual inaccurate smear, as an unrepentant, bleeding-heart liberal, I would be happy with any small crumb of progress towards civic literacy, in any and all of its forms.

    However, I have come to realize the real problem with “progressive ideas” — they are nuanced and multi-faceted.

    Looking at the recall in San Francisco, you had a prosecutor who tried to look beyond the “arrest and punish” view of crime. The problem is that for his solution to work, and it could, you need to reform policing, increase social support, and decrease poverty among other things.

    For civic education to work, we need to raise the level of education, which involves enticing a better quality of teacher (beyond the coaches, who should just coach), keeping the many dedicated and high quality teachers that are in the system, and raise the prestige of the profession to somewhere like it is in Finland. It is hard to accomplish all of that at once.

    I have heard people (I won’t name names) bemoan the lack of respect teachers receive from their students, while in the next breath denigrating education in general. This country has always had a large anti-intellectual/anti-education streak.

    As for community service. I am all for it. It could (I emphasize could) help foster a better sense of civic duty, but I don’t think it would equal education in fostering a sense of “E pluribus unum’.

    The public school systems, at their best, turned generations of immigrants into “Yankees” (in the European sense, not the Mississippi sense).

    Any movement towards civic literacy, as Sheila endlessly promotes, is a good first step.

  22. Well to be honest I agree with Sheila, but I also believe the pendulum has gone too far. The US is on a trajectory to implode and become a Fascist state where the only thing that matters is money. GREED IS GOOD!!!!!! Ayn Rand was introduced to the GOP by Reagan and it has been down hill from there. I’ve moved and do not plan to come back with the possible exception of one visit. The SBC has become a CULT joined at the hip with the reactionaries/fascists. It is a political party and no longer a religious one teaching Calvinism rather than the teaching lessons of The Christ. It just makes me sick.

  23. I am an early baby-boomer. Completed high school and college during the 60s. We had the draft. I completed Air Force ROTC and served four years of active duty. One of the worst decisions made following our misadventure in southeast Asia was eliminating the draft. As many have noted, and I agree, there should be some mandatory service to the nation (in the military or in some civilian role). I teach at IUPUI and have had the opportunity to talk with our Army ROTC cadets. A theme I have presented is that the vast majority of citizens today have no idea what it means to serve the nation. This is a challenge to those who, today, do serve in any capacity to explain to those who do not what it means to serve.

  24. The common good! I wholeheartedly embrace this as what is or what should be the most important focus of our society, our government, our religious teachings and practices, and of course, our educational system. As a country, we are far too enamored with capitalism and consumerism. I would agree that a couple of years of service (think Peace Corps first) could help to focus many minds on others rather than self.

  25. Sheila, may I add a big thank you to my previous comment? Thanks for your consistent and wise messages!

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