Resuscitating Civic Education: What Does Being a Good Citizen Require?
According to a new report issued by the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan wants to reboot civic education and upgrade it for the twenty-first century. The future of democracy depends on it, he argues. But the key to improving civic education today is not to make it more like a video game or a summer camp, as Duncan wants to do. It’s to equip students with the tools to sort out the political life unfolding around them. The problem today is not merely that students don’t “know enough” facts. It’s that they lack the basis for forming and holding opinions. And without opinions—ultimately, opinions about the common good—politics will always seem a distant chore best left to others.
Good citizens do things: they speak out, they vote, they volunteer, they organize. But to do those things well, citizens need to know things. Civic action requires civic knowledge.
This might seem so elemental as to need no defense. After all, an ignorant citizenry is easily manipulated by propaganda and the seductions of flattering and over-promising politicians. Only when citizens are knowledgeable are they empowered to resist the self-serving machinations of ambitious elites and act in their own interests. Only a knowledgeable citizenry can preserve its freedoms.
This is why the persistent evidence of citizen ignorance is so hair-raising. Surveys show that almost half of Americans, for instance, think the phrase, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” appears in the United States Constitution (actually, it is from The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). Speaking of Communists, almost half of Americans believe that Communist Party members cannot run for president. Three-quarters of the population think the Constitution guarantees a high school education.
Before we jump too quickly to the conclusion that citizens are ignorant about basic Constitutional facts, we should consider whether surveys might be crude and ultimately misleading measures of what citizens know. After all, Marx’s pithy definition of justice captures a truth larger than communism. And any “card-carrying member” of the Communist Party would, practically speaking, be ineligible for high office simply because the public would summarily reject such a candidate.
As for an education guarantee, in fact all citizens are required (by the states) to be educated, and there are firm restrictions on the employment of children. So practically speaking, we have something akin to an education guarantee. Besides, the specific phrases and various articles of the Constitution are not much read outside of law schools and the federal courts, and it might be understandable if good citizens, in the hurly-burly of daily life, mistake a few specifics.
But when we turn away from these questions to questions about current events, the evidence of widespread ignorance is sometimes so plain that it cannot be explained away. To offer just a couple of examples, an astonishing 80 percent of the public cannot name either of their state’s senators. Just after the 2004 presidential election, 58 percent of Americans had heard little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act, which gave the federal government new surveillance powers to fight terrorism and had been the subject of many months of debate and discussion.