Civic education is in a bad way and has been for some time. The latest report from the front is a video featuring some angry Berkeley students demanding a take-home essay. Apparently, they’re unable to take an in-class exam because that would threaten their emotional well-being, a staple from the anti-everything movement of today’s youth. Anything that causes distress must be banned. And in today’s academy, that encompasses an awful lot.
Much has been said about the lack of knowledge among American students regarding American history, civics, and history. But, as this latest episode at Berkeley demonstrates, American college students are increasingly unable to engage in rational public discourse with even minimal civility. A student’s grasp of the facts of American constitutional principles, American history, and American civics is not the same as the capacity to engage in public discourse in a reasonable manner.
Suppose, for instance, that a student graduated from high school capable of answering any and every question about American history and civics on a multiple-choice test. If that same student is unable to have a reasonable conversation about contentious topics – for instance, why the Second Amendment comes before the third; or whether Lincoln’s true goal was emancipation of America’s slaves or the salvation of the Union; or whether the benefits of American intervention in Europe during the twentieth century outweighed the costs – such a student, while competent in the realm of ideas and knowledge, would also be a neophyte regarding engagement in reasoned debate.
Knowledge of the constitutional principles of America is important for students. But the ability to engage in rational public discourse that addresses questions pertinent to the life of the republic is even more so. This ability is not automatically acquired from knowledge of the Constitution or American history or American civics. It derives instead from the manner in which those subjects are taught.
This mode of engaging subjects by probing conversation and measured, rational dialogue about the curricular content is traditionally known as liberal education – the education befitting a free human being. And there is no country in which it is more important that civic education also be liberal education than America.
American civil society is liberal in a fundamental way – tolerant of differing opinions about fundamental and contested questions. American civic culture does not depend on a superior caste of elites, bureaucrats or administrators who hold the knowledge of the constitutional principles, but rather on rational public discourse between all free citizens.
This problem has recently been most evident on America’s college campuses, but the K-12 schools from which students come bears heavy responsibility for it. To turn this around, K-12 schools must treat civic education as liberal education.
First, schools ought to encourage close reading of the best literature in every part of the curriculum. Historical and civic knowledge “sticks” better when students discover it through the process of reading – but they must have the skill to make the discovery in the first place.
Second, they ought to encourage students to debate and discuss. This doesn’t necessarily mean simply imitating Oxford Union-style debates, which can turn into pointless back-and-forth exchanges without any resolution and foster the sense that winning is all that matters. Instead, teachers should take time in class to ask for students’ opinions on whether, for example, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was beneficial or harmful for the country, and then consider alternative opinions: was greater mobility good for economic growth but harmful for traditional neighborhoods? How can such costs and benefits be weighed? Such an approach can show students how to approach historical facts in ways they hadn’t thought of, making class discussion not something to be won but a forum in which they discover new ways of understanding the facts and evaluating their significance. It also enables students to discover that they have a passion for rational discourse with peers and teachers.
Third, schools should give students frequent practice in persuasive writing in English, history, and civics courses. Persuasive writing presupposes that students know the facts, and requires that students get to know those facts better by utilizing them in an argument. It is, at the same time, an exercise that helps engender the habit of rational persuasion because it requires students to take into account opposing arguments.
The ignorance of American students about their own political and cultural heritage is shocking. But without the habit of restrained, reasoned discourse, they will simply not grasp the treasure protected by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. For them to sense that they have inherited something worth preserving, they must be taught to argue, debate, and discuss. This ability is not natural – it must be cultivated. Such is the heavy responsibility of American schools, and the great challenge they now face.
Ian Lindquist is a Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Executive Director of the Public Interest Fellowship. His work focuses on liberal and classical education, civil society and civic education, and the traditional and communal grounds of liberty in modern and contemporary society and culture. From 2009 to 2015, Mr. Lindquist was a middle and high school teacher, and assistant headmaster, with Great Hearts Academies in Phoenix, Arizona, where he taught Socratic seminars on great books to high school sophomores and juniors.