For too many Americans, “civics” is either a vague mystery or akin to a dental cleaning: we know that we should do it but would avoid it if possible. Regrettably, our country has chosen in the past 50 years the path of avoidance and ignorance by demoting civic education in our schools, including higher education, which also deems civics unserious, unpleasant, or less important. The consequences of this de facto policy have been disastrous for our educational system and our civic culture. Some educators, scholars, and civic leaders have warned about it, and some serious efforts have been undertaken to redress it. Nonetheless, what retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor diagnosed over a decade ago as America’s “quiet crisis” remains a crisis, even if some progress has been made in raising awareness about the problem.
I’m grateful to have been born into a family of fairly recent immigrants who instilled in me a love of America as an exceptional country, if a work in progress, along with a love of education. I also am grateful for those teachers who sustained an educational tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and that thrived in America until the last century—a serious civic education, regarded as both a duty for any free person in a decent political order and an indispensable element of an examined life.
To define civics and civic education, I invoke a recent national study of which I was a coauthor—along with scholars and educators from Arizona State University, Harvard, Tufts, iCivics, and the Arizona department of education—titled Educating for American Democracy. We gathered as a heterogeneous group by design, holding progressive and liberal-to-conservative views; yet we shared a premise that study of U.S. history must be melded with study of America’s constitutional and political principles to prepare citizens for self-government. Such a civic education is indispensable for preparing informed and engaged participants in the American experiment. It requires instruction from kindergarten through high school—and into higher education for those so fortunate—of the civic knowledge and civic virtues needed to contribute responsibly to civil society and political affairs.
In our deliberations, we noted that America had rallied against external threats in the past 75 years by re-investing in both K-12 and higher education and re-designing their priorities. This process occurred in response to the 1957 Sputnik crisis of the Cold War and the economic-competitiveness crisis of the 1980s, with the educational beneficiary largely being science, technology, and mathematical studies, or STEM. America has forgotten, however, Lincoln’s 1838 warning on the perpetuation of our political order: that if America were to fail, it would not be by foreign conquest but by suicide—due to civic ignorance about our laws and Constitution, combined with a decline in the civic virtues needed to sustain civil disagreement and civic friendship amid the diverse views in our republic.
Contrary to what might be expected from a group of educators in our era, the Educating for American Democracy report forthrightly declares our love for America and defines patriotism as a fundamental element of civic education. It calls on teachers, educators, and serious citizens to endorse the twin necessities of civic knowledge and civic virtues such as civil disagreement and friendship across philosophical, religious, and partisan views. We invoke Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea, expressed in Democracy in America (1835), of a reflective patriotism that loves America, but through study and argument; incorporating love of people and place but elevating these sentiments given our country’s foundations in universal principles and self-government. Our current deficit of such reflective patriotism and other civic virtues is intertwined with civic ignorance.
If liberal education means free inquiry and discussion about the most fundamental questions concerning humanity, nature, and the divine, it also means awareness that “liberal” bespeaks a dual reality. Only among a free people, enjoying political liberty and the rule of law rather than rule by sheer power, can traditions and institutions of Socratic inquiry thrive and be perpetuated.
Those devoted to genuinely higher education must be equally devoted to the study of and perpetuation of political liberty; otherwise, they are free riders, self-contradictory, and living on borrowed time. Thus, the decline of civic education in American schools and universities both reflects and reinforces the decline of genuine debate and heterogeneity in higher education and other elite American institutions. There can be no true liberal or civic education without intellectual diversity and lively debate.
Most damaging, then, is the rise of a culture of conformity and orthodoxy in several crucial disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, in turn yielding an outsize effect on universities, schools, and the media. We no longer study and practice the civic virtue of civil disagreement across diverse views, or of civic friendship transcending differences, and this deficiency reinforces the perpetual academic tendency to sort into schools and sects of thinking. Liberal education and civic education need one another, both for the development of the human soul and for the health of our civic and educational cultures.
Lest this approach be seen as itself partisan, we should note the recent argument by Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, in his book Higher Expectations, that higher education is failing students, due to two grave deficiencies: the decline or absence of civic education and of ethics education. These subjects no longer are prioritized in the required curricula of most universities and colleges. Bok is no curmudgeonly conservative. Indeed it is heartening, in a time of polarization across our academic and civic lives, that he offers an insight similar to that suggested in Richard Brookhiser’s fine biography of George Washington, Founding Father, that the civic character and civility of this great statesman were mutually reinforcing. Here was a powerful and ambitious leader—as admirers of the musical “Hamilton!” might have recently rediscovered—who disciplined his soul as a boy and throughout his life by “Rules of Civility” written by Jesuits in 16th century France about ethical regard for others. This is a crucial reason why Washington could found and serve a civic republican order, and twice relinquish near-absolute power (as victorious general and as our first president) to secure that constitutional republic for posterity.
The same ethical and political principles also led Washington to be the only slaveholding American president to emancipate all his slaves and to provide them with financial support and education. Napoleon himself later remarked, in failure and exile after giving free rein to his ambition, that the French had wanted him to be a Washington—that is, to serve a common good and embody civility. Brookhiser notes that Latin provides a common root for our English words citizen, civility, and civilization. But by design or neglect, in recent decades America has inflicted upon itself a civic ignorance that feeds an angry incivility, in turn causing civic disintegration and regular political violence—thus placing in doubt the foundations of our civilized life.
As a matter of civility, I will point the finger at my own profession first—the scholars and professors who have turned away from genuine civic education. Experience provides grounds for a new consensus to correct several unwise educational views. At one extreme are the purist and narrowly utilitarian views: that civic education necessarily is partisan, and thus either threatens the free discourse needed in liberal education or ranks beneath the higher capacities of technological, scientific, quantitative, and core communications learning.
At another extreme is the postmodernist redefinition of all learning as political, subjective, and power-implicated: thus civic education should be partisan, but with social-justice ideology and activism replacing America’s hypocritical, failed legacy. Our regrettable condition is that most leaders in higher education, and in the crucial social science and humanities disciplines needed to restore a healthier middle ground on civic education, hold one of these mistaken views.
Perhaps the best foundation for warnings about America’s crises of civic ignorance and disintegration is the sober Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu. He founded a moderate approach that corrected the rationalist and modernist excesses of some famous predecessors. Many more Americans have heard of his fellow Frenchman Tocqueville, who in fact was Montesquieu’s great successor in advocating moderation or a careful balancing of principles about human liberty and its decent aims.
We should rediscover why Montesquieu was the most cited philosopher during our constitutional founding, invoked alike by advocates of the new 1787 Constitution and its opponents for providing the most balanced, comprehensive view of how to combine the rule of law, natural rights, liberty, religious belief, and modern commerce. The “hardware” of our complex constitutional order, of separation of powers and federalism, derives almost singly from this eighteenth-century philosopher and his work The Spirit of Laws (1748).
Yet just as importantly, Montesquieu explains the “software” of civic and religious virtues indispensable for the functioning of a complex republic like America to include the moderating of tendencies toward extremes of rationalism and materialism, and of partisan or sectarian fanaticism. His balanced, complex philosophy also was a greater influence on our Declaration of Independence—with its blending of classical, medieval, and modern elements—than many recent scholars have recognized. America has always been more than a land of “Lockean” individualism.
Study of Tocqueville arguably is needed to supplement and elevate Montesquieu’s political science, and not only because Tocqueville had the advantage of encountering the American constitutional republic whereas Montesquieu could only call for such polities to be fashioned. Nonetheless, Montesquieu undergirds America’s first political science, The Federalist, which includes an appreciation for the central role of statesmanship or high prudence in both domestic and foreign affairs. This approach helps us to appreciate such great American statesmen as Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan—and also those statesmen who never held high office, including Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
A truly educated American cannot disregard these principles, debates, achievements, and figures of the American experiment without repudiating the foundations of the liberty and prosperity permitting them to be educated at all. The wave of ideological fervor about racial justice currently sweeping our elite institutions embodies this self-contradiction and ingratitude, given America’s decisive influence in turning human history away from slavery or legal servitude. A culture of rejection or repudiation is inadequate to understanding or sustaining America.
A civic education also must include study of America’s leadership during the 20th century in establishing the first global order safe for political and economic liberty, and of how this achievement might protect rather than betray our founding principles. What citizen can be truly informed in casting a vote, leading an organization, voicing an opinion, or joining a protest without education in these matters? Yet somehow our elites tolerate a disregard for civic education. We need to do better.
America’s founders, and subsequent great leaders in our history, emphasized civic education. One reason for this is that Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws was the first work of modern political philosophy to intertwine discussion of civic education with advocacy for free and complex political orders. Tocqueville deepened this vein of moderate republicanism. Both philosophers warned, in their distinctive ways, that seemingly free polities in fact could degenerate into despotisms marked by fanatical republican patriotism, or by passive acceptance of elite rule amid hollow forms of democracy. Both saw the link between sound civic education and the perpetuation of constitutional liberty; both saw deficient education leading to a despotic, irrational politics of passions, appetites, and unbridled ambition. Too few of our leading minds grasp that this is largely our condition today—this oscillation between frenetic activism, at one extreme, and civic ignorance and indifference, at the other—and how it is nothing less than a recipe for disaster.
The self-educated Lincoln had the grasp of human nature, history, and politics to foresee such disaster even as a young man. He dedicated the remaining quarter-century of his life to preventing it. “If destruction be our lot,” he argued in 1838, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” His remedy was a civic education in the laws, constitutionalism, and fundamental principles of our country. He later would emphasize the Declaration of Independence as the cornerstone of such education. He eventually would lead the new birth of freedom to enact the full meaning in America of what the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God required—the equal liberty of all people. The study of such ideas and statesmen is as thrilling as it is necessary for a free people. It is our duty to ourselves and our posterity, and we are blessed that it also is a delight. But all those who now believe so must think clearly, deliberate with one another, and act before it is too late.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs’s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.