The Bigger Fight Over Civic Education

There's a huge gap between what we expect of our educational system and what we're willing to put into it — especially when it comes to making citizens.

By Nathan Pippenger

Last year, the College Board announced a revised “framework” for its popular AP US History course, and conservatives were not happy. Activists attacked its alleged anti-Americanism; the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution denouncing it; conservative state legislators launched various attempts to revise, replace, or ban it. Perhaps the most distinguished criticism arrived last week, in a letter from the right-of-center National Association of Scholars. The letter is signed by a number of prominent conservative academics who claim that “grave new risk” is posed by the course’s “arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history.”

Intriguingly, the group’s complaints are routed through not only a discussion of history, but of civic education as well. They’re frank about this point, noting that “the AP test effectively has taken the place of the formerly required U.S. history survey course in colleges and universities,” meaning that many AP students will never again take a course in American history. And what they’ll learn in the revised course, the signatories claim, is likely to corrode their civic identity. “The new framework is so populated with examples of American history as the conflict between social groups, and so inattentive to the sources of national unity and cohesion,” they write, “that it is hard to see how students will gain any coherent idea of what those sources might be.” This leaves students ill-equipped for “a life of deep and consequential membership in their own society.”

I highlight the specifics of these conservative complaints because they provide a revealing contrast to a recent Democracy piece on this same topic. In our spring issue, Bard College president Leon Botstein reviewed the history and future of American education’s core democratic dilemma: achieving both excellence and equity. As Botstein explains, the European émigrés who admired postwar American education were attracted to its democratic character—the way it built students who were curious, self-motivated, and prepared to relate to other citizens on relatively equal terms. “For all their snobbery about America as a land of unkultur,” Botstein writes, “the thoughtful (if somewhat sentimental) intellectuals among the European refugees recognized the value of American pedagogy, if for no other reason than its potential merit as an instrument of political education for the sake of citizen engagement in a free society.” The educational methods which achieved these results were supplemented, crucially, by “the idea of a single, unitary public school system in which everybody enrolled.” As Botstein notes: “the unitary public school system that kept all children together until college and that built citizens of character, devoted to democratic values, was viewed by the émigré generation as a marvel.” Of course, this system was never fully achieved, and—in a dark irony—its extension also proved its undoing. The dream of great common schools was always undermined by the reality of segregation, but after the Supreme Court mandated school integration, private and charter schools rose to prominence. The disintegration of the common-school ideal was catalyzed by the charter school movement in the South and fueled by the host of other problems weighing down public education today (including the destructive linkage of school funding to property taxes).

I present these two narratives in some detail because their differences are instructive. Botstein spends relatively little time on the curricular content that may or may not have fueled this civic education—instead, his account focuses on the practices of the common schools and the skills they conveyed, as well as the critical step of actually gathering diverse students into one school. In an age of inequality, school differentiation, and resurgent racial segregation, this is becoming ever more difficult to achieve. This grim socioeconomic fact is probably the biggest impediment to a democratizing civic education, and debates over curricular reform are woefully incomplete if they fail to address it. Poor students in a crumbling, underfunded public school are reminded daily that their experience is worlds removed from that of wealthy suburban students at a generously-funded public or expensive private school. We could do a lot more to promote a shared civic identity by taking concrete steps to rebuild civic spaces that have decayed over the last several decades. That would do more to ensure deep, consequential, and widely-shared membership than any revision to course curricula.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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