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September 10, 2004

civic learning in dark times

(On the shuttle to New York): I gave a speech this morning to the state directors of Youth for Justice programs. These are federally-funded initiatives to teach young people about the law, through courses, classroom visits by lawyers and judges, and youth courts—among other methods. I spoke about civic education. I hesitate to blog about my comments, because we are in the middle of an intense presidential campaign, terror and war are all around us, and I’m sure that many readers will click right past a blog entry about “civic ed.” But maybe this is a good time to remind ourselves that our Republic will endure, no matter who wins the presidency, and we need to get on with the perpetual work of preparing the next generation. Possibly the election is more important than civic education (or possibly it isn’t); but in any case I would rather discuss and try to make positive change in a limited domain, rather than play the role of a tense and horrified spectator of national politics.

So, in my speech, I began by offering a personal definition of “civic learning.” This is a phrase that, according to our recent focus group research, is more politically palatable than “civic education.” (The latter phrase connotes boring lectures about “how a bill becomes a law.”) In any case, “learning” is the point; formal instruction is just one opportunity to learn.

In my view, “civic learning” means learning to work together on common problems, whether through government, private voluntary associations, or even informal networks such as those that develop in neighborhoods. It may seem communitarian or statist to emphasize the importance of working together. Not so. Even libertarians, the staunchest defenders of individual liberty and uncoordinated private behavior, must value civic learning. That is because:

  • they want some public institutions, such as juries and a volunteer military, to work very well—or else criminals and foreign enemies will threaten our liberty;

  • they want many people to value freedom, diversity, and tolerance for all—or else their fellow citizens will constrain their liberty; and

  • they want people to solve most of their problems through voluntary action in local communities—or else the demand for government will rise.
  • Progressives favor civic learning for somewhat different reasons, but there is a lot of overlap. (Progressives also need people to solve most problems through voluntary action, because government can only do so much.) And all sides should want there to be an informed, thoughtful, public-spirited debate about how best to address public problems: through the state, market competition, or voluntary collaboration.

    Civic learning should build:

  • knowledge, of government, of non-governmental organizations, of local communities., of social issues and processes, of other people’s beliefs, values, and needs;

  • skills, such as discussing and analyzing issues, persuading other people, participating in meetings, running organizations; and

  • attitudes, such as some concern for the common good, some sense of “efficacy,” tolerance, trust.
  • It is not in individuals’ self-interest to develop these attributes, nor do they come naturally. For example, many of the skills needed for working together in groups are counter-intuitive and must be learned through experience or as a result of deliberate instruction. This is why associations have always taught each rising generation civic skills. Given the weaker associations we have today, we need better civic learning in schools.

    Posted by peterlevine at September 10, 2004 08:36 PM


    That's so good that I lifted the whole thing to my blog with a link to yours (you were already linked in a side column). Hope you don't mind.

    The situation is such, at the moment, that we tend to forget that we need to go on practicing how to be democrats and citizens. Thank you for the gentle reminder! I'd only disagree with you that "it's not in individuals' self interest." It is, very much so. That's one of the biggest lessons of all.

    Posted by: Bean at September 12, 2004 06:16 PM

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