Tag Archives: New GI Bill

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.

Playing “What If”

The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) recently published an essay written with my former Graduate Assistant. Hey–if you’re going to dream, might as well dream big….Anyway, here’s our original draft, appropriate for a Sunday Sermon.


Americans are increasingly concerned about two seemingly unrelated issues: a distressing lack of civic literacy and informed civic engagement among the general public, and the escalating burden of student loan debt.

We could make significant progress on both of these issues with a new G.I. Bill.

In the wake of World War II, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill. It provided a wide range of benefits for returning veterans, including subsidies that allowed G.I.’s to obtain low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans that could be used to start a business, cash payments of tuition and living expenses to attend a university or vocational training program. All soldiers who had been on active duty during the war for at least one hundred twenty days and had not been dishonorably discharged were eligible. By 1956, estimates were that roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the G.I. Bill education benefits in order to attend college, and an additional 5.6 million had used them to obtain job training of some sort.

The G.I. Bill was expensive, but by all accounts it was a major political, humanitarian and economic success. It contributed significantly to the creation of a skilled workforce, moved thousands of people into the middle class, and was a spur to long-term economic growth.

The G.I. Bill was originally an effort to reward those who had manifested a willingness to risk their lives for their country, but it has had a number of other salutary consequences: it raised the skill level of the American workforce and provided an avenue for social mobility.

Defending the United States is an important goal, but military service is only one aspect of that defense. It is equally important that citizens understand just what it is that our military is protecting. Citizenship is more than residence; patriotism requires informed engagement by people who have earned the right to be considered citizens. Survival of America qua America is not the same thing as physical survival.

To put it bluntly, there is more than one way to lose one’s country.

If we are to provide that second kind of defense—defense of the American system of law and government—we require a civically educated populace, and it is increasingly obvious that current patchwork efforts to boost civic literacy are not producing that populace.

Our proposal builds on the laudable efforts of others—including, recently, General Stanley McChrystal– who have called for a renewal of national service. It’s important to challenge the notion that military service is the only way to serve one’s country. While military service has been shown to significantly increase voting rates and other forms of civic engagement, fewer Americans serve in the military than in past generations, and we need to consider what sorts of national programmatic efforts might begin to change the civic culture.

We propose a National Service program for high school graduates who would be paid minimum wage during a one year “tour of duty.” At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, participants would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or not-for-profit organization focused upon civic improvement.

In addition, students would be required to attend and pass a civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in cooperation with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools.

What sorts of outcomes might we expect from such a program? Since the program is likely to be most attractive to those struggling to afford higher education, we could expect broader civic participation from populations whose voices are largely missing from today’s civic conversation. A better-educated population should engage in better, more nuanced policy debates, leading (hopefully) to more thoughtful policy choices. We might even see more meaningful and issue-oriented political campaigns, with fewer of the “dog whistles” and less of the intemperate rhetoric that characterizes messages crafted to appeal to uninformed voters.

A program of this sort would also have an enormous and positive impact on the level of student debt.

According to a 2014 report by the New York Times, total student loans outstanding have risen to $1.1 trillion, compared with $300 billion just a decade before. The average total debt for student borrowers was around $30,000 in 2013.

Student debt has thus become a significant impediment to America’s economic growth.

Studies show that the burden of student debt constrains individual decision-making in a number of ways, and affects the entire economy. People with student loans, for example, are less likely to start businesses. Considering that 60 percent of jobs are created by small business, diminishing the ability to create new businesses does considerable harm to the economy.

Debt loads also affect overall consumer consumption. According to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, fewer 30-year-olds in general have bought homes since the recession, but the decline has been steeper for people with a history of student loan debt and has continued even as the housing market has recovered.

In an economy that depends upon the ability and willingness of consumers to purchase homes, furniture, automobiles and other goods, a debt load that effectively precludes such purchases poses a real problem. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, three-quarters of the overall shortfall in household formation can be attributed to younger adults ages 18 to 34. In 2011, 2 million more Americans in this age group lived with their parents than in 2007.

According to a recent report from Zillow, the relatively few millennials who are thriving economically are the ones whose parents are able to subsidize college tuition or a down payment on a home. Help with education and buying a home were the two primary ways in which the original G.I. Bill created upward social mobility. Estimates are that each new household formed leads to $145,000 of economic impact. If student debt is keeping just a third of those 2 million young Americans from living on their own, that adds up to a $100 billion loss or delay in economic activity.

The G.I. Bill was a social contract that said if you invest in your country’s future, your country will invest in yours.

A national public service program of the sort contemplated here would significantly reduce student loan debt, increase civic competence, and provide local communities with additional human capital— resources they can deploy to improve the quality of local life. (Kalamazoo, Michigan, where a local program has been providing subsidies for college tuition to high school graduates since 2005, the city has seen a 4.7 dollar return for every dollar invested, according to a recent Upjohn Institute Study.)

In addition to the economic benefits, a national program encouraging increased civic knowledge and engagement would also move the culture, since an informed citizenry with experience in civic life can be expected to vote, volunteer and engage at substantially higher levels.

The real question is: do we Americans still have the ability to think big?















Time for a New GI Bill

I’ve been thinking.

There are a number of policy changes that would make a big difference in the lives of poor Americans. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to raise the minimum wage. We also need stronger banking regulations, better and lower-cost day care availability, and improved public education in our poorer neighborhoods, just for starters. These and many other measures would help narrow the wide gap between rich and poor.

But I want to suggest a more sweeping—and admittedly somewhat audacious—policy. I want to advocate for a new GI Bill.

Here’s my proposal: upon graduation from high school, students would enroll in a one-year program of civic service and civic education. Upon completion of that year, the government would pay for two years of college. The program would be open to everyone, but marketed heavily to the poor and disadvantaged.

Here’s my justification: we have massive amounts of research confirming that most Americans—rich or poor—know embarrassingly little about the economic and governmental structures within which they live. This civics deficit is far more pronounced in poor communities, where civics instruction (as with other educational resources) is scarce. Because civic knowledge is a predictor of civic participation, one result is that poor folks don’t vote in percentages equal to those of middle-class and wealthy Americans.

Of course, when people don’t vote, their interests aren’t represented.

As I’ve previously noted, Ferguson, Missouri, a town that is two-thirds African-American and has a virtually all-white power structure, reported a twelve percent voter turnout in its most recent municipal election.

Poverty explains more of this than race.

Poverty is a reliable predictor of low political participation and efficacy. Giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to college—an opportunity they may not have otherwise—and conditioning that opportunity on a year of civic learning and civic service—would do two extremely important things: it would give those students the civic skills they need in order to have a meaningful voice in the democratic process; and it would reduce the nation’s currently unconscionable level of student loan debt.

The need to borrow money in order to afford college keeps many young people from getting the education they need. It keeps others from taking lower-paying jobs with nonprofits and humanitarian organizations after they graduate. Our high level of student loan debt has been identified as a substantial drag on the economy, because payment on those loans is preventing many recent graduates from setting up households, buying homes and appliances and even starting families–all activities that keep the economy humming.

As with so many other aspects of contemporary American life, the burdens fall most heavily on those who can least afford them.

A new GI Bill along these lines would enable informed civic participation and give voice to the currently voiceless; and it would simultaneously addresses our horrific levels of student loan debt.

What’s not to like?