Civics without a country?

August 22nd, 2012

In the latest issue of Academic Questions–the quarterly journal of the National Association of ScholarsWSPWH editor Diana Schaub asks what happens when we as a nation try to teach citizenship education without recognizing that citizenship necessarily entails attachment to a particular country. Responding to the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement’s report A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future, Schaub notes that the report emphasizes “the need for civic learning to permeate education from start to finish.” But, unlike previous calls for civic education–by Thomas Jefferson, for example–the Task Force continually evokes the word “democracy,” but does not recognize that ours is a “representative” one. The proposed education, she writes, “is a civics that is not rooted in the actual ground of the civitas.”

She continues:

Another sign of the report’s alienation from American politics is the downplaying of the nation-state. There is much talk of “local and global generative partnerships” and “transformative” alliances, but the United States itself is oddly absent. This is not a civics that has as one of its aims the fostering of national loyalty. “Patriotism” is another word that never appears. While Jefferson himself certainly advocated the importance of small-scale community (as in his system of “ward” democracy), and while he also expressed world-encompassing humanitarian sentiments, he felt no embarrassment in speaking of our duties to our country. One has the distinct impression that the authors of A Crucible Moment regard patriotism as atavistic. Theirs is a “national call” for global engagement and global citizenship.”


My own wish would be for a civic education at once more patriotic (especially, but not only, in early schooling) and more philosophic, particularly in its willingness to interrogate democracy. Such an education would challenge the assumption that if democracy is good, more democracy is better. It would explore the deficiencies of democracy and how a democratic republic, through its institutions, corrects those deficiencies. It would inquire into the status of excellence in an egalitarian order.

I suspect that the civic ignorance of the young is more a result of their indifference than a failure on the part of their teachers to present the basics of American history and government. We won’t succeed in dispelling that apathy without first fostering love of country. While we need more care for the formation of the heart, heart alone is not enough. Especially at the high school and college levels, civic education must be interwoven with a truly liberal education (liberal not in any ideological sense, but in the Socratic sense). This is not an altogether easy or tension-free combination, and it certainly wasn’t even possible in the democracies of the ancient world—Athenian civic indoctrination had little tolerance for the questions raised by Socrates. Happily, the American version of democracy has from the beginning been able to combine affection and reflection. In a wonderful passage rediscovered by a college student of my acquaintance (who possesses just this sort of full heart and fine mind), John Quincy Adams spells out the moral and intellectual effects of reverence for the American past. Respect for our forebears “excites…interest in their history, attachment to their characters, concern for their errors, involuntary pride in their virtues.” We can be attached and proud, while still inquiring and critical.

For an example of civic education inspired by a dialogue between heart and head, I would offer What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song. This anthology (and the linked curriculum at which I helped assemble along with my co-editors Amy and Leon Kass, invites students, and all Americans, to experience and explore the many elements of their American identity through the medium, primarily, of imaginative literature. From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Willa Cather, from Herman Melville and Mark Twain to Alice Walker, John Updike, Ralph Ellison, and Wallace Stegner, America’s creative masters have crafted lively and multilayered depictions of the American creed and character, achieving compelling, and often competing, visions of this American life of ours. With the hope of e pluribus unum in view, we welcome readers to share in the enjoyment and discussion of our national heritage of stories, speeches, songs, and symbols.

Read the rest of Schaub’s essay here.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Tags: ,