The Alcove

Just What Kind of Civic Education?

A new article in The Smart Set sparks a necessary conversation about civic education—but defining that term may be more contentious than you think.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald TrumpEducationElections

Right now, we are entering the final stretch of what has been, at the very least, one of our “wackier” presidential elections. At the same time, many of us are going back to school, in one way or another—either sending our children off to grade school or returning home after dropping off the older ones at college. Some of us are even returning to the classroom to teach. There would appear, therefore, to be no better moment to rethink the purpose of civic education by exploring the vital links between our political landscape and our educational system.

Michael Lind, over at The Smart Set, has done this very thing. He rightfully criticizes the American penchant for seeing education’s role solely through the lens of “job training” (“many if not most skills used by adults in daily life are picked up on the job,” Lind believes). In its own way, Lind’s piece asks us to rethink the purpose, and importance, of a liberal education in today’s society.

However, this is a much more contentious task than one might think. Lind enjoys being “provocative.” He sees himself dispelling platitudes about education—they’re easy to come by—but, unfortunately, he provides what can only be called “counter-platitudes”—his arguments are thinly defended and riddled with holes, and his view of what civic education should mean is, in itself, inherently flawed.

Some will see a conservative tone to Lind’s arguments. “One must master,” Lind writes, “one’s own civilizational heritage before moving on to others.” This, of course, assumes that there’s agreement on what exactly is meant by “civilizational heritage,” a rather bulky term that could use some fleshing out. He wants education to be “initiation into an ancient and living tradition that defines a communal identity.” But we live in a day and age when “communal identity” is being challenged, not just by immigration, but by one particular side of the presidential ledger : Donald Trump, who has appropriated this sort language to suit his own purposes.

What Lind likes to do is provoke, especially those on the anarchist left. And he offers the big whopper of his essay when he claims that the purpose of education is in fact “indoctrination,” a term he fully acknowledges is controversial. He goes on to explain, “The point is that, in addition to having a shared identity, any enduring society must have a political consensus which by its nature includes some values and excludes others.” The problem, at least from an American standpoint, is that we live in a period of time when “shared identity” is no longer something that we agree upon. Here we also enter the land of counter-platitudes: His statement might sound definitive, but it leaves open a plethora of other questions, more perplexing than clarifying.

And then there’s this next statement, one that should leave those following our current presidential campaign scratching their heads. In calling for a key principle of his vision for civic education, Lind writes, in typically sweeping fashion: “American political debate is still structured according to the categories of 18th century Enlightenment republicanism.” Here Lind enters wishful-thinking territory. Has he paid attention to political debate over the course of the last few election cycles, and especially this one? Can we really suggest that we live with that heritage when a presidential contender—who earned the majority of votes in a primary and now runs close behind his Democratic rival—claims that President Obama helped found ISIS, clings to a birther conspiracy, and pops off about his own lack of knowledge on key issues? The phenomenon known as “Donald Trump” makes it clearer than anyone (or anything) that the Enlightenment tradition is moribund in contemporary debate: Postmodern, “post-factualism” drives our debates much more than any sense of objective truth grounded in universalist principles. Enlightenment republicanism, after all, was birthed in the eighteenth century, as Lind himself states, but it’s not clear it can survive today’s postmodern media landscape.

Lind slips into more aspirational language when he justifies his views about education’s role: “But if, as a child, you do not learn to get along with others, including bullies and people you do not like, your career as a physicist, computer programmer, or mathematician is likely to be blighted.” To “get along with others” is, yet again, another platitude that needs some deeper inspection. Don’t we want to create students (and, eventually citizens) who aren’t trained only to get along with people and become “team players” but who can also think for themselves, and maybe even criticize group decisions?

Schools for Lind “have a duty to socialize citizens in the norms of good behavior.” The fact that he even brings up terms like “good behavior”—ultimately, a term that really requires some sort of definition—again exemplifies the slipshod nature of his thinking. These kinds of terms make him sound like a man writing from a great distance, far removed from the daily realities the rest of us inhabit.

Here’s Lind summarizing his own argument. Listen to the gaping holes throughout this passage: “The chief purposes of American education should be to initiate students into enduring, central national and civilizational traditions, to indoctrinate them into the principles of a democratic republic, and to inculcate ethical habits and polite manners.” When a man running for President is doing exactly the opposite of this, what faith should we have that educational leaders will embrace Lind’s vision either? More to the point, the role of education shouldn’t be about creating “polite manners,” whatever those are; it should be to provoke young people to think for themselves, to reject “polite manners” when necessary, and to engage in heated debates about the future.

What education can do is provoke students into thinking about the world differently than they would have without going to school. It’s not to change minds or to evoke one particular “alternative” vision of things; it’s to press—and I’ll use my own provocative word here: force—young people (or old people in adult education, for that matter) into thinking for themselves. That requires exposure to literature, political theory, science, and history. What books students are assigned should be up to the discretion and judgment of a professional educator who has experience in the classroom and knows what can prompt students into thinking more critically, perhaps to think in a way that might lead them to wonder what is even meant by “polite manners.” In the end, Lind offers the sort of provocation that is badly needed to generate debate about education’s role in society. Unfortunately, the misguided platitudes and sweeping terms he refers to give short shrift to what is, now more than ever, a much-needed debate.

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Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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