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March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn
H. Michael Hartoonian, Richard D. Van Scotter and William E. White
It's all well and good for U.S. schools to educate its future workers. But who's teaching students their civic responsibility?
It's easy for educators to misconstrue the purpose of public education, given the fashionable emphasis on student acquisition of facts, information, and skills as expressed through test scores. But no matter how well we might prepare students to compete in the global marketplace, we cannot forget that U.S. schools have a clear civic mission: to sustain and reinvigorate the American republic.
Thomas Jefferson understood this, which is why he drafted bills that would expand access to education, writing that "No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness" (Boyd, 1954, p. 244). Horace Mann (1855) understood this, which is why he traversed the state of Massachusetts arguing that healthy communities are made up not of "a few men of great knowledge, [but of] many men of competent knowledge" (p. 287). Countless others also understood this, but the message has been diluted and distorted in the elusive quest for "workforce preparation."
It should come as no surprise, then, that our students struggle with their civic identity and civic roles. In a University of Minnesota survey conducted in 2005, 80 high school students responded to the fundamental question, Who are you? Students typically provided their family name, ethnicity, or such descriptions as basketball player, part-time worker at Joe's Restaurant, Sarah's friend, member of the chess club, and so on. Few identified themselves as "citizens" or "students." Similarly, when the students were asked, What do you think motivates you to have and do the things you do? their responses fell into four categories: sexuality, athleticism, materialism, and physical strength. They explained that these values seemed to guide adult society and were also expected of them.
The students seldom cited such values as justice, equality, and civility. However, putting civic behavior and knowledge first in our education is how we create and maintain a republic.
The legacy of America's founding is a unifying set of core values that transcend the athleticism or materialism revealed in the student survey. These values are continually being debated, of course, but we can use that debate to create a better community, state, and nation. We need to cultivate the idea of America in our schools. We cannot expect students to achieve civic enlightenment all by themselves.
It's the purpose of schools to train students in this civic responsibility so they understand that in the United States, a persistent debate was launched at the time of the American Revolution and has been carried out ever since through citizens' civic discourse over four sets of value tensions:
Each value pair represents both conflict and synergy. Our laws are never good unless guided by a higher conscience or ethics. Freedom is impoverished if not accompanied by a sense of equality that provides a moral infrastructure in which to encase that freedom. The quest for cultural unity is inconsistent with democracy if it does not also recognize the rich diversity of our increasingly pluralistic society. And private wealth is never fully realized, nor secure, without a robust common wealth.
Freedom can lead to anarchy, equality to collectivism, diversity to tribalism, unity to totalitarianism, common wealth to communism, private wealth to plutocracy, law to fascism, and ethics to nihilism. But when held together and balanced, these values represent the ethos, ambition, and aims of the United States.
In a healthy democracy, citizens and their representatives attempt to define these values for their generation and bring these value pairs into balance as they address problems. The best way for our students to learn this essential civic skill is by analyzing the actions of previous generations of citizens in light of these four value pairs.
"George Washington," by Charles Willson Peale, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1780. © Collection of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The United States believes in the rule of law and the duty of citizens to abide by laws. Nevertheless, many American heroes have been lawbreakers. George Washington led an armed rebellion against a sovereign government; Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and violated a Supreme Court ruling to maintain the union of American states; and Rosa Parks broke the law on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to advocate civil rights. The list goes on. U.S. history is a chain of such events, in which ethics trumped existing law and thereby advanced the cause of liberty and justice.
Where might students find that law-versus-ethics debate today? All around them.
For example, a federal judge in California recently struck down that state's Marriage Protection Act (2008)—or Proposition 8. In this court's judgment, the ethical rights encoded in our civil liberties take precedence over the power of majority rule that led to the marriage law. Proposition 8 proponents argued that they have religious grounds on which to base their traditional definition of marriage, whereas the California judge appealed to a broader civic principle that "All men are created equal." The jury is still out on this decision (at least in a figurative sense) as the case makes its way up the judicial system.
Students can more deeply understand, for example, the revolutionary resistance to British rule and protest against laws such as the Stamp Act of 1765 when these events are couched in terms of emerging ethical principles. Colonial America chafed under British ministerial government action in the 1760s. Despite respect for British common law, colonial leaders were influenced by the Enlightenment ideals they had learned through the writings of John Locke and Montesquieu: By virtue of being human, man was capable of governing himself. The political theories of these men advanced the idea that individuals of conscience did not need a king or master to tell them what to do.
Homestead Steel Works, Homestead, Pa. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection [LC-D401-15583].
Students should examine the balance between freedom and equality as an essential part of American democracy. Take freedom in the economic arena, for example. With free enterprise, resources and money tend to flow into the hands of the few, as in the Gilded Age, when strong private monopolies forced low wages and poor working conditions on many working-class citizens. In contrast, when government acts aggressively to redistribute wealth in the name of compassion and economic justice, individual opportunity suffers.
Left unchecked, the imbalance of wealth and power undermines democracy. Students might reflect on the growing disparity in wealth and income among 21st century U.S. citizens: Are we shifting into a new Gilded Age or into a new era of individual opportunity?
The Reconstruction era in the United States (1865–1877) presents an excellent opportunity for students to explore the tension between freedom and equality. After the defeat of the Confederacy, blacks discovered that their freedom did not guarantee equality. Reconstruction marked the beginning of the struggle for racial equality, a journey that would last more than 100 years.
Awaiting Examination, Ellis Island. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-B201-5202-13]
One of the finest achievements of the United States has been to create a stable political culture made up of different languages, religious traditions, and races. Immigrants started out as German-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, or Asian-Americans, but time erases the hyphens and soon all become Americans, adding distinctive cultural influences that enhance diversity and richness.
The integration of immigrants has not been easy to accomplish, however, and students should understand that the thread that holds together an increasingly diverse nation is thin and vulnerable. They can consider such questions as this: Are we one nation or a collection of people who have little kinship with one another? Regardless of national heritage, everyone is part of our national story, one that celebrates the diversity and unity of our immigrant nation.
Economic diversity has always been evident in American society, but the power of opportunity has provided a unifying impulse for us all. From our colonial days, we have been a place of many religious denominations, but that religious diversity has not sparked sectarian warfare. Likewise, we have reveled in our regionalism as northerners, southerners, midwesterners, or westerners while maintaining a fiercely loyal national identity.
Can we retain that rich balance between unity and diversity in the 21st century, or will a media-driven clustering of people into like-minded groups fracture us as a people in ways we've not seen since the eve of the American Civil War? Something for students to consider.
Ore train crossing Markham Trestle in Utah. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ6-1364]
Our history demonstrates for students that the quest for private wealth has been a driving force behind the nation's economic development. Yet investment in the public infrastructure—schools and universities, streets and highways, electric grids, gas utilities, water systems, airports, parks, hospitals, libraries, museums, and the like—benefits both businesses and their employees. Students can view the current call to develop high-speed rail, refurbish deteriorating roads, rebuild airports, and improve water systems as an attempt to enhance the nation's common wealth. A refurbished physical infrastructure requires either tax revenues or private investment for financing, or a combination of the two, showcasing the synergy between private and public investment.
History can teach students much about the interplay between the nation's private and common wealth. For example, as students consider the invention of the automobile in the early 1900s—and its effect on related industries, such as steel, rubber, and automotive parts—they will see that private wealth expanded during that time. They will also note the interest in expanding the common wealth, as federal legislation called for building and linking ever more roads and highways to accommodate the burgeoning consumer demand for automobiles.
However, expanding private wealth without a comparable investment in common wealth would prove to be problematic. Students will come to understand that Americans' love affair with the car and the need for streets, roads, and highways skewed the nation's balance between private and public transportation and precluded large-scale investment in mass transit systems, such as buses and high-speed trains.
To be a citizen of the United States takes hard work. Among other things, it requires developing a democratic mind. Such thinking equips the individual with an intellectual ability to entertain contradictory or opposing ideas, to be patient, and to make decisions on the basis of facts supported by evidence. Citizens understand the intellectual virtues of civility, hard work, and integrity. They create knowledge, justice, and wealth. They lead institutions. They take responsibility for doing what is right and good.
None of us are born with this capability. It must be learned. The fundamental purpose of education must be, then, to develop citizens and thoughtful critics of the republic. It's not certain we can succeed. We might yet devolve into subjects—followers, consumers, and self-serving people who believe that they are entitled to individual rights without personal responsibilities.
Unless our schools teach students the complexities and joys of civic engagement, this republic will not long endure. Students would take a much greater interest in both American history and civics if they understood that they were developing essential skills for perpetuating our representative democracy—if they understood America as an enduring debate.
Boyd, J. P. (Ed.). (1954). The papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 10. Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mann, H. (1855). Lectures on education. Boston: Ide and Dutton.
University of Minnesota, School of Education. (2005). Perceived student identities in three Minneapolis high schools. Unpublished study.
H. Michael Hartoonian, Richard D. Van Scotter, and William E. White are coauthors, with James E. Davis, of a new digital history and civics program for secondary school students, The Idea of America, developed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD
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