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February 09, 2006

Robert George on civic education

Thanks to Brett Marston for directing me to Robert P. George's essay, "What Colleges Forget to Teach." This a thoughtful comment by a major conservative scholar. In essence, George objects to the balance of political ideas and materials that college students experience as undergraduates and before they arrive on campus. They should, he thinks, understand the importance of limiting the powers of the federal government, of restraining judges, and of empowering the states. They should understand the lasting virtues as well as the vices of the American constitutional order.

I agree with all this and find it useful--especially George's conclusion that "the reform and renewal of civic education in our nation is a noble cause. We must make it an urgent priority." My agreements with George are more important than my disagreements. However ...

1. I'm not convinced that the balance of ideas that students experience is so far from what George would prefer. Generally, when either liberals or conservatives decry the content of social studies classes, they do so innocent of any statistical evidence about what is actually taught and discussed in schools. There are anecdotes about egregious teaching that can incense people across the spectrum from Howard Zinn to Robert George himself, but no one knows how common these stories are. In 2004, we asked a national sample of young Americans to recall two major themes from their social studies classes:

  • 29.8% recalled "great American heroes and virtues of the political system"
  • 38.6% recalled "The Constitution or U.S. system of government and how it works"
  • 7.8% recalled "racism and other forms of injustice"
  • 14.8% recalled "wars and military battles"
  • 5.2% recalled "problems facing the country today"
  • These results should make George happy (and lefties unhappy), although I admit that George might not like some of the details of what students learn. For instance, it's possible that they are exposed to a liberal interpretation of the Constitution rather than the views of the Federalist Society--but who knows?

    Second, what students are taught is only part of the issue. There's also the question of how they are taught. Do they sit in large lecture halls being informed about the Constitution (from a radical, liberal, or conservative perspective)? Do they debate constitutional principles in small groups, moderated by a well-informed teacher? Do they conduct ambitious projects of research, service, or advocacy that involve constitutional principles? I'm not wedded to any one approach, but I suspect that the way we teach has much more impact than what values we try to convey in lectures.

    3. George is no doubt sincerely committed to civility and to an open-ended, ideologically diverse discussion of principles. He is perhaps right that his own perspective is undervalued in the academy. But the difficult part is not agreeing on civility or diversity as abstract principles--the hard part is making concrete judgments. For instance, George describes the situation in academia as "dire" and provides some illustrative "horror stories," such as Princeton's decision to give a "distinguished chair in bioethics to a fellow who insists that eating animals is morally wrong, but that killing newborn human infants can be a perfectly moral choice." That fellow is, of course, Peter Singer. His view is a coherent application of utilitarianism, which is a 200-year-old position with roots in ancient thought and much influence on modern conservatism. I'm no utilitarian, but I don't see how a university can regret attracting one of the most original and influential philosophers of the current era.

    Posted by peterlevine at February 9, 2006 11:23 AM


    From Mica Stark, via email:

    I came across George's essay a few weeks ago and it has spurred some good conversation at Saint Anselm College. I want to echo and underscore the point you make though: it's about the how. I suspect that intellectuals and practitioners on both the left and right could arrive at a shared understanding of what a young, engaged citizen should know and be able to do. However, what gets far less attention is how young people are being taught civic knowledge and skills. It has been my experience that if meaningful opportunities are created for young people to: 1) identify public issues they are passionate about 2) discuss that issue and core concepts of democracy with their peers and an educator 3) learn and practice civic skills 4) and be given the support and structure they need to apply their knowledge and skills to a public issue --- they become thoughtful, active engaged citizens. The civic education discussion (movement) needs to move past the content. It is important and there is common ground. We need to focus the conversation on how we are going to achieve the goal of preparing a young person to be a lifelong citizen.

    Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 13, 2006 02:14 PM

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