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March 03, 2006

why there is no "civics" discipline, and why that matters

I'm writing a book about youth civic development and have just drafted a section entitled "There is no academic discipline of 'civics.'" In that section, I argue that the lack of such a discipline has negative consequences for research and teaching in schools and universities. It prevents us from understanding participation as well as we should and keeps us from preparing young people to be active and responsible participants. I explore some reasons that political science, literature, history, and moral philosophy--all defended from time to time as civic disciplines--do not meet the need today. Finally, I suggest two responses: trying to create a new discipline, or distributing the study of citizenship throughout schools and universities. Both approaches are problematic. (The excerpt is pasted below.)

Today, there is no academic discipline devoted to questions about what people can and should do as participants in a democratic society. The lack of such a discipline has practical consequences. First, it means that questions about citizens' roles are not addressed with sufficient seriousness by academic scholars; there is not enough research about citizenship. To be sure, many universities try to enhance their own students' civic capacities by providing opportunities for service-learning, internships, foreign study, and dialogues with other students about issues and conflicts. However, these opportunities are not tightly connected to research or included in the courses that are most highly valued in the disciplines. Separating service from teaching and research has hurt all three activities, in my opinion.

Second, high schools emulate college curricula, because schools are under intense (and perhaps appropriate) pressure to prepare their students for college attendance. If there is no college discipline of civics or citizenship, then high schools naturally provide classes on political science (under the name of "government") and history. These are academic disciplines for which PhDs are awarded. Those who defend civics or social studies as well as political science and history have difficulty answering Diane Ravitch's question: "What is social studies? … Is it history with attention to current events? Is it a merger of history, geography, civics, economics, sociology, and all other social sciences? Is it a mishmash of courses such as career education, ethnic studies, gender studies, consumer education, environmental studies, peace education, character education, and drug education? Is it a field that defines its goals in terms of cultivating skills like decision making, interpersonal relations, and critical thinking, as well as the development of 'critical' attitudes like global awareness, environmental consciousness, multiculturalism, and gender equity?"[1]

Courses on civics and social studies were launched during the Progressive Era, to prepare youth for active citizenship. They grew at the partial expense of history, which some saw as an overly academic discipline. In 1915, the US Bureau of Education formally endorsed a movement for "community civics" that was by then quite widespread. Its aim was "to help the child know his community—not merely a lot about it, but the meaning of community life, what it does for him and how it does it, what the community has a right to expect from him, and how he may fulfill his obligations, meanwhile cultivating in him the essential qualities and habits of good citizenship."[2] In 1928-9, according to federal statistics, more than half of all American ninth-graders took "civics." That percentage had fallen to 13.4 by the early 1970s. In 1948-9, 41.5 percent of American high school students took "problems of democracy," which typically involved reading and debating stories from the daily newspaper. By the early 1970s, that percentage was down to 8.9. Nevertheless, the percentage of high school students who have taken any government course has been basically steady since 1915-1916.[3]

Although the historical data have gaps, it appears most likely that "civics" and "problems of democracy" have disappeared since 1970, while American history, world history, and American government have either stayed constant or grew. Today, Advanced Placement American Government is the fastest-growing AP exam. As Nathaniel Schwartz notes, the old civics and problems of democracy textbooks addressed their readers as "you" and advocated various forms of participation.[4] Today's American government texts discuss the topics of first-year college political science: how a bill becomes a law, how interest groups form, how courts operate. Social studies arose during the Progressive Era, when philosophical pragmatists argued for a curriculum of practical relevance to democracy. Social studies and civics seem to be waning at a time when academic rigor is valued and colleges increasingly set the tone for high schools.

There is nothing wrong with studying political science in high school or college. In fact, the discipline began with an explicit civic purpose. The American Political Science Association, founded in 1903, created four successive high-profile committees on civic education before World War II. John William Burgess, a major political scientist who died in 1931, saw his discipline as a way to "prepare young men for the duties of public life."[5]

Today, however, while political science remains a challenging and important discipline, it has limited relevance to questions about what a citizen can and should do. That is partly because a certain logic has led political science to focus on the most powerful forces: nations, Congress and the presidency, major lobbying groups, and social classes. In the 1950s, Harold Lasswell, reflecting a view that had by then become standard, wrote: "Political science, as an academic discipline, is the study of the shaping and sharing of power." Hence serious political scientists should not worry much about citizens as agents: "The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential. ... The influential are those who get the most of what there is to get. ... Those who get the most are the elite; the rest are the mass."[6] Of course, there have since been numerous studies of local political institutions and of ordinary people's political behavior, but far fewer than one would find in a discipline devoted to citizenship.

Second, political science (as its name implies) is an empirical and not a normative discipline, which means that it says little about what citizens should do as opposed to what they actually do. Although political science began in the late nineteenth century with ambitions to enhance civic engagement, that aim began to seem unscientific by 1920. In 1901 (before political science took its modern form), President Hadley of Yale had argued, "A man may possess a vast knowledge with regard to the workings of our social and political machinery, and yet be absolutely untrained in those things which make a good citizen."[7] He argued for civic education that would enhance motivations, virtues, and skills as well as knowledge. By 1933, President Hadley's view was giving way to that of University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, who announced, "'education for citizenship' has no place in the university."[8]

A 1971 report by the American Political Science Association argued that the role of political education was to provide "knowledge about the 'realities' of political life." According to this report, most high school civics instruction imparted "a naïve, unrealistic, and romanticized image of political life which confuses the ideals of democracy with the realities of politics."[9] However, a curriculum focused narrowly on the "realities" of politics (emphasizing power, corruption, inequality, and conflict) will not inspire many students to participate, or give them the skills to do so.

A third reason for the gap between political science and citizenship is the problem of expertise. While political scientists differ about the appropriate role of "ordinary people" in a modern democracy, the very concept of a sophisticated, highly quantitative discipline devoted to politics suggests that expertise is important. At times, political scientists have drawn rather undemocratic lessons from this suggestion. For instance, the APSA Committee of Seven's argued in 1914 that citizens "should learn humility in the face of expertise."[10] This is a form of civic education that is unlikely to promote active participation.

Things may be changing. The APSA's Strategic Planning Committee recommended in 2000 that the central purposes of the Association should again include "preparing citizens to be effective citizens and political participants." However, it remains to be seen how much impact that unmistakable shift in the Association's rhetoric will have on actual research and teaching in political science.[11]

Political science is not the only discipline that first arose with the explicit purpose of enhancing citizenship, only to abandon that goal. In ancient Greece, the more responsible Sophists founded the rigorous study of literature as a means of civic education for participants in republican self-government. Protagoras, for example, invented the study of grammar through his careful, analytic reading of literature. He claimed a moral and civic purpose for this work. In Plato's dialogue that bears his name, Protagoras says, "The works of the best poets are set before [children] to read on the classroom benches, and the children are compelled to learn these works thoroughly; and in them are displayed many warnings, many detailed narratives and praises and eulogies of good men in ancient times, so that the boy may desire to emulate them competitively and may stretch himself to become like them."[12]

Many centuries later, in Italian republics that somewhat resembled Protagoras' polis, people who called themselves "humanists" began to teach literature as a form of civic education (in preference to theology and moral philosophy, which were seen as other-worldly and non-political—better for clergy than for citizens). Humanists argued that stories depicted virtuous actions in concrete situations, while story-tellers exemplified eloquence, which was an essential skill for civic participation. As Francis Bacon observed, "it is eloquence that prevaileth in an active life."[13]

However, today mainstream modern literary criticism is not a discipline devoted to civics, and there are major two reasons for that. First, in an effort to become professional, most critics have abandoned the practice of looking for explicit moral value in stories and are instead interested in issues more amenable to expert judgment, such as influence, genre, form, and rhetoric. As R.S Crane wrote in the 1930s, "The essential thing about the understanding to which the literary critic aspires is that it is understanding of literary works in their character as works of art. It is not criticism but psychology when we treat poems or novels as case books and attempt to discover in them not the art but the personality of their authors. …. It is not criticism but ethical culture when we use them primarily as a means of enlarging and enriching our experience of life or of inculcating moral ideas. … Criticism … is simply the disciplined consideration, at once analytical and evaluative, of literary works as works of art.[14]

Second, modern critics are unlikely to endorse "eulogies of good men in ancient times," in part because the values of anyone from distant times and places do not seem directly relevant to the issues of our own era.

History has also been advanced as a civic discipline. Like literature, it provides examples of virtue and vice and eloquent narration. Leibniz thought its purpose was to "teach wisdom and virtue by example": a commonplace view by his time.[15] In his famous address as president of the American Historical Association in 1931, Carl Becker said, "The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present." That is a civic justification of historical research (and Becker advocated research that was careful and rigorous).[16] Historical evidence and examples do seem essential for thinking about what citizens can and should do; but I am not sure that history is generally studied or taught with that purpose in mind.

Finally, moral philosophy has sometimes been seen as civic discipline. However, modern professional philosophers mostly work at the largest or the smallest scale. That is, they either consider the overall structure of a society and the definition and distribution of fundamental rights and essential goods; or they consider decisions and dilemmas faced by individuals in private (e.g., whether abortion is moral). There is also important work on professional ethics, including the ethics of politicians and judges. But there is much less philosophical work on the ethics of participation in civil society or political movements—the topics of most relevance for citizens.

It is intriguing to imagine a formal academic discipline of "civics." It might combine philosophical investigations of citizens' role in communities, historical research into changing forms of civic participation, empirical studies of political behavior and political development, formal study of rhetoric, and analysis of the frequent challenges that confront active citizens, such as free-rider problems in voluntary associations. However, it seems unlikely that such a discipline will develop in the near future. The alternative is to try to infuse many (or all) existing academic disciplines with civic themes and to organize educational institutions so that they draw their members' attention to the study and practice of citizenship. But that, too, is a tall order. There is a risk that civics, if diffused across the curriculum and research programs of a school or university, will never amount to much.


1. Diane Ravitch, "A Brief History of Social Studies," in James Leming, Lucien Ellington, Kathleen Porter-Magee, eds., Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2003).

2. Arnold Brown, The Improvement of Civics Instruction in Junior and Senior High Schools (Ypsilanti, MI: Standard Printing Co., 1929), p. 28).

3. Richard G. Niemi and Julia Smith, "Enrollments in High School Government Classes: Are We Short-Changing Both Citizenship and Political Science Training?" PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2001), p. 282.

4. Nathaniel Schwartz, "How Civic Education Changed (1960 to the present), MS paper, quoted with the permission of the author. However, observers have consistently complained that schools devote "the time almost entirely to a detailed study of the structure of government, with extremely little attention to the problem of behavior as a citizen." This is from Charles Clinton Peters, Objectives and Procedures in Civic Education (New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1930), but cf. Arnold R. Meier et al., A Curriculum for Citizenship: A Total Approach to Citizen Education (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), pp. 134-41.

5. Quoted in R. Claire Snyder, "Should Political Science Have a Civic Mission? An Overview of the Historical Evidence, PSOnline, June 2001

6. Harold D. Lasswell, Power and Society (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), p. xiv; Laswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), p. 13. Citations from Saunders, p. 16 (check orginals).

7. Arthur Twining Hadley, "Political Education," in The Education of the American Citizen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1901), p. 135.

8. Quoted in William Talcott, "Modern Universities, Absent Citizenship? Historical Perspectives." CIRCLE Working Paper 39 (2005), p. 2.

9. Quoted in Schwartz.

10. APSA Committee of Seven (1914, p. 263, quoted in Stephen T. Leonard, "'Pure Futility and Waste': Academic Political Science and Civic Education," PSOnline (December 1999).

11. Quoted in Snyder, "Should Political Science Have a Civic Mission?"

12. Plato, Protagoras 325e-326a (my translation).

13. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, edited by William Aldis Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1880), II.xviii,i.

14. R. S. Crane The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), vol 2, find p (probably 12).

15. Leibniz, Theodicy, II:148.

16. Carl Becker, "Everyman His Own Historian," Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Minneapolis. December 29, 1931, from the American Historical Review, Vol. 37, no. 2, p. 221-236

Posted by peterlevine at March 3, 2006 10:47 AM


One of my girlfriends closest friends in law school has a significant other who is getting a PhD in philosophy at Penn State. He has since moved down here to Nashville, and it turns out that we are interested in almost the exact same questions in philosophy that I am interested in as a political theorist. He remarked to me that people of our ilk are "like the Kurds. There's some of us in sociology, philosophy, political science, etc., but we are the majority nowhere."
Could Civics be a new home for all of us interested in the relationship between citizen and the world? I don't know how or if one could pitch it, but Maryland would be the ideal candidate for such a move. Between the departments already existing, there are a lot of points of intersetcion between these departments (CP4, PEGS, Democracy Collaborative, etc.) and there is the groundwork for actual student incorporation with the Civil Society "Living and Learning Community".
As someone who was the college roommate of the student rep. for the Civil Society dorm idea as it was being formed, it sounds to me like convincing the administration would be a tremendous hurdle, as would answering the question "how would this be a money maker?" But, if you could wrestle enough autonomy away for one's self, I think you could create a fairly persuasive-looking vision of integrating these things into a special program for exceptional Maryland students that could be a real springboard for their careers, and could offer very excellent courses with outstanding faculty who would have great connections.
Probably impossible, but on the other hand, movements like "Straussianism" seem to have endured as much from the iron will and commitment to a specific vision of education as any other factor. Perhaps where there is a will, there's a way?

Posted by: Steven Maloney [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 5, 2006 01:40 PM

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