On Civic Education, Critical Thinking, and Civic Empowerment: A Response to Catherine Ross

James E. Fleming & Linda C. McClain

We greatly appreciate Catherine Ross’s gracious, thoughtful, and supportive intervention into the conversation between Kent Greenfield and us concerning civic education and what he (not we) called “mandatory patriotism.” She nicely encapsulates our position (as well as hers) and makes cogent criticisms of his view that we would adopt. She is right that we contemplate critical thinking when it comes to the Pledge of Allegiance and Constitution Day just as we do in civic education more generally: that we articulate “a framework that incorporates critical thinking with mindful patriotism in which thinking students can challenge the ideas presented and hold authority figures to the ideals they tout – even where the flag or Constitution ‘is our own.’”

We would like to respond to Ross’s observation concerning our proposal that government should require that homeschooled children should “come into the public schools to learn civics.” In our book, we state: “all children, including homeschooled children, should participate in civic learning in schools.” (144). Ross applauds our proposal “in principle,” but counters that “the real civics lessons in schools are not communicated through formal classes” (although she thinks schools should offer them), “but in the lessons learned by doing and acting – exercising speech rights, debating, and receiving adult guidance about resolving conflicts when schools make the best use of ‘teachable moments.’” While we would not draw such a sharp distinction between classroom learning and “doing and acting,” we agree with Ross about the importance of the entire school environment. Indeed, this is a basic point made in the consensus document that we discuss in Chapter 5 of our book, “The Civic Mission of Schools” (Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE, 2003). That report states: “in addition to civic education programs, school environments and culture are critical to whether and to what extent young people gain civic skills and attitudes.” Thus, the “most effective programs” are in schools that “infuse a civic mission throughout the curriculum; offer an array of extracurricular activities; and structure the school environment and climate so that students are able to ‘live what they learn’ about civic engagement and democracy.” (“The Civic Mission,”  21). We completely embrace this notion of a civic mission “infusing” schools. However, we made our proposal about homeschooled children coming to school for civic learning in our sketch of how constitutional liberalism would seek to “reconcile the dual authority of parents and children to educate children.” (Ordered Liberty, 139)

In her instructive work on the vital importance of teaching tolerance, Ross has proposed that such teaching could take place in the home but with “materials on tolerance provided by the schools.” We rejected a similar proposal with respect to civic education. One reason was the possibility that homeschooling parents who disagreed with the substantive messages of the curriculum might undermine them. In addition, we expressed concern that: “Even if parents willingly conduct such lessons, homeschooled children will lack the opportunity to hone skills of critical thinking through studying civics in the context of a classroom and, together with other students, working out how ideals and principles apply to particular contemporary problems.” (144) In effect, our reason for requiring children to spend some time in school is so they will have a chance to participate in (as Ross puts it) “lessons learned by doing and acting.”

In closing, we would bring up an aspect of civic education not yet mentioned in this online symposium. Schools, through civic education, can play a role in addressing – as “The Civic Mission of Schools” puts it – the “exceptionally large” gap in the United States between the best- and worst-prepared students in terms of their civic and political knowledge.  Schools can address “troubling inequalities in civic and political engagement,” (14) or what Meira Levinson calls, in her book, No Citizen Left Behind (2012), the “civic empowerment gap” between more advantaged and less advantaged children (based on wealth, race, and whether or not they are native-born or nonnnative-born). In their work on civic education, civic liberals – and other proponents of civic education – should be mindful of this inequality and of the potential for schools to address it.

You may also like...