Needed: a good civics course

`We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken'd ... It is a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.' -- Walt Whitman

``We hold these Truths to be self-evident ...''

Thus thundered the Declaration of Independence as it set forth the profound rights and duties of a people seeking freedom.

Yet, as the nation approaches its 210th birthday tomorrow, it appears that, without the proper education, these ``Truths'' may not be entirely self-evident to many American students.

Today, more US educators are concerned that the ``scientific illiteracy'' noted among high school students in the past decade may be matched by a growing civic and cultural illiteracy. Students, they say, aren't gaining a sufficiently vivid and broad understanding of America -- its historic drama and ideals, its deeper binding themes.

``We do have common values,'' says civic historian R.Freeman Butts, a visiting ``token liberal'' at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, ``but students aren't asked to wrestle with them -- with the conflicts behind liberty, justice, and equality -- in any sustained and thoughtful way.''

Students not exposed to such wrestling, say scholars, are less able to think and draw from a common body of knowledge based on the ideas and issues behind the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the civil rights movements.

The sacrifice and vision required for these events were not for the entertainment of future generations, say civic thinkers, but are lessons to be studied if the story of freedom on the planet earth is to continue.

A 20-year decline in the clarity and vitality of teaching about America and a student population preoccupied with its own immediate culture are two main reasons given for the ``illiteracy.''

Much blame is laid at the door of the social studies. Since the 1960s, social studies has introduced students to a broader range of cultures, to ethnic diversity, and to immediate social problems, but it has sacrificed a deeper study of the common, defining symbols and properties of America -- the shaping of the Puritan character, the Jefferson-Hamilton debate on federal authority, the rich ideas behind 19th-century literature, and so forth -- say historian Frances Fitzgerald and professor Diane Ravitch of Columbia Teachers College.

The result is a flattened, antiseptic version of history and life.

``It's not that American history isn't being taught,'' says Harriett Tyson of the Rand Corporation, ``but the way it's taught is so boring it would take a saint to sit through it all.'' Consequently, ``kids learn most of what they know about government on TV,'' says child specialist Judith Torney-Purda of the University of Maryland -- hardly an adequate education, she adds.

Gaps in civic literacy are indicated in a recent survey by the National Assessment for Educational Progress that shows, for example, that 58 percent of high school seniors thought it illegal to start a third political party in the United States.

Civic thinkers who share founding father John Adams's belief that ``no government or liberty'' is possible without ``a positive passion for the public good established in the minds of the people,'' express concern about trends in student thought away from larger ideas and goals. They point to a 1985 survey showing that ``developing a meaningful philosophy of life'' declined as a main goal among college freshmen, from 82 percent in 1967 to 44 percent in 1983, while being ``well-off financially'' jumped from 40 to 70 percent (American Council on Education-University of California, Los Angeles study).

Such indicators do not bode well for a system of self-government in an increasingly complex world, says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Dramatic increases in minority students and the children of the 10 million new US immigrants naturalized since 1970 make it important to present students with a view of America that is both realistic and inspiring, he says. Some minorities may not have cultural links to democratic traditions. By 1990, half the students in some states will be minority -- mainly black and Hispanic.

Richard Remy of the Citizenship Development Program at Ohio State University says that ``information overload'' on issues of nuclear energy and war, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, and starvation in Africa ``makes it more important for students to be competent in thinking critically about government and politics.''

Remy's concerns echo those of John Adams in 1770 at a point of Colonial crisis: ``There will be church quakes and state quakes in the moral and political realm, as well as earth quakes in the physical.'' Adams and other founders, says historian Page Smith, felt that democracy, which emerged from 1500 years of religious tyranny, must rest upon a highly conscious citizenry, and was in constant danger of being subverted by limited interests, and ``a lack of realism about the corruptibility of human nature.''

For Adams, as for Dr. Remy and others today, a remedy is found in ``the American religion'' -- education -- in the active study and debate of moral and political issues. But how to do this in schools is a matter of high anxiety for parents who feel their children's values and sense of America will be harmed by liberal or conservative views. The problem has ``paralyzed many school boards,'' says Ms. Tyson.

One veteran social studies textbook publisher told the Monitor, ``When I was going to school, it was all black and white. There were answers for everything. Now there are so many gray areas....''

Back in the halcyon days of the 1950s, when America was (material) prosperity itself, and ``history was good,'' as writer David Halberstam sums it, there were no gray areas. Certainly not in civics -- which was mainly a narrow form of patriotic ``citizen adjustment.''

But soon, the Vietnam War and rapid social upheaval punctured the idealized view of America. History and civics were swallowed up by a social studies attempting to offer more relevance. ``Schools tend to mirror society, and citizen education began to drift during this time,'' says Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation.

The drift still continues. Needed today, educators say, is not a civic education concerned mainly with how a bill passes Congress, but one capable of a deeper search into how we define ourselves as a people and a nation -- one that asks what America means today.

``For a long time, we lived in an innocence in which we didn't have to ask ourselves who we were,'' remarks Joseph Duffey, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``But now we have to think about that question -- and we'll pay a price if we don't.''

Some thinking is going on. Educators scanning the curriculum horizon say a ``new civics'' may in fact be developing, though as a ``movement'' it is still highly scattered and inchoate. New civics is a far cry from the dry and platitudinous civics of yore -- though it retains basic teachings in law and government. It also draws from the ideals and lessons of history, from contemporary issues, and from a study of character and values.

The package is wrapped up with a ``critical thinking'' or reasoning-skills approach designed to make students ``judges of the actions and designs of men,'' as Thomas Jefferson wanted it. This is a powerful mix, say advocates of the new civics -- a more ``holistic'' approach. Conservatives appreciate the traditional emphasis. Liberals appreciate the ``free thought'' aspect.

Mr. Butts calls the new approach ``civic learning.'' At the National Council for the Social Studies annual meeting last fall, David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, termed it ``civic intelligence.''

Some educators feel the effort to reweave a common civic culture and history may be one of the most important developments in school content in the next 10 years.

``A lot of people have talked about the need for a `new synthesis,''' Tyson says. But ``nothing will happen without a major change in textbooks and teacher training.''

Some changes may already be afoot. Two weeks ago, the Social Science Education Consortium, a floating think tank for the social studies, met at Stanford University to discuss ways to fuse civic education and teacher training. The Education Commission of the States has already held two conferences on the subject. And the influential Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development is devoting a special fall issue of its magazine ``Educational Leadership'' to the issue of civics.

Action is also underway in some states. California has turned from its ``anything goes'' social studies approach and designed a ``core'' history and civics curriculum. Tennessee has mandated new curricula in character education. Furthermore, the upcoming bicentennial of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will cause school boards around the country to pay more attention to matters of law and government.

Some educators -- often of a libertarian bent -- say the whole idea of studying about America through civics and history is faulty and anti-democratic, especially as contrived by public schools. Students learn in a more natural and spontaneous way, they feel -- through sports, music, work -- and shouldn't, as Mark Twain had it, let education get in the way of that learning.

Pro-civics educators invoke the thinking of Walter Lippmann, who offered that self-government and moral reasoning in a modern democracy do not take place happenstance: ``A society can be progressive only if it conserves its tradition.''

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