Civic education has a fundamental problem.

It is not like other forms of education that teach specific content and skills that have an obvious value in the marketplace. Instead, it teaches content and skills that are necessary for our society to continue to function in ways that we take for granted. In other words, we can only really know the value of civic education when it is not being done right.

This problem is certainly not news to civic educators, who have increasingly seen resources steered to literacy and STEM education at the expense of civic education. For my part, the potential consequences of this problem seem much more urgent to me following the recent riots carried out in London by a class of disaffected and disengaged young people.

One British commentator trying to explain the riots observed that this class of young people has “no skills, education, values or aspirations…. Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community…. Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present.” Perhaps this explanation oversimplifies, but the overwhelming sense I got from reading accounts of the rioting was simply that these young people saw no reason NOT to run roughshod over the lives, liberties, and property of their fellow citizens. Another way to say this is that these young people failed to uphold their part of the social contract that allows us to live in a free society. They failed liberty. At the same time, we can only conclude that those responsible for teaching them to live in a free society failed liberty as well.

Failing Liberty 101 is the title of a new book by William Damon, Professor of Education at Stanford University and director of its Center on Adolescence. Prof. Damon has spent decades researching the psychological development of young people, and he concludes that young people cannot develop into flourishing adults without the right kind of education – especially without the right kind of civic education.

Damon observes that America today is characterized by “a decline in civic purpose and patriotism, a crisis of faith, a rise in cynicism, self-absorption, ignorance, and indifference to the common good….” These factors are particularly hard to process for young people – “who are in a formative time of life typically characterized by idealism, hopefulness, and elevated ambition.” Young people are looking for purpose in life. Yet if they find “nothing positive to believe in, they drift in unconstructive and sometimes destructive directions.” Given this, Damon finds three dimensions of civic education that he believes are vitally important components of a civic education that will help young people flourish: education for virtue or character, a proper grounding in the American tradition, and an appreciation for America’s promise.

Damon acknowledges the challenges faced by educators trying to teach virtue – particularly in public schools. Yet whether schools are ready or not, Damon argues that the breakdown of the family and other institutions where young people have learned virtue and character gives the public school an increasingly important role as teachers of character or virtues. Further, Damon argues “the question is not whether a school chooses to provide its students with a moral education. All schools do so, whether they know it or not. But will a school do that well…?” Damon is particularly concerned that schools undermine the teaching of virtue or character. He points in particular to the potentially destructive effect of teaching that denigrates patriotism. For Damon, patriotism rightly understood is a vital civic virtue, not to be confused with “the kinds of chauvinistic and militaristic passions that were fomented by totalitarian ideologies….” Indeed, Damon sees patriotism – in the sense of a “positive emotional attachment to a community” as being “a necessary condition for sustained engagement in it.” He appreciates the importance of constructive criticism of our civic institutions, but argues “this capacity must build upon a prior, sympathetic understanding of that which is being criticized.”

For this reason, it is critically important for Damon that young people are given a sympathetic introduction to the American political tradition. A young person’s disposition toward their political heritage is an important factor in how that young person begins to identify him or herself; young people, Damon writes, “need to care about their society if they are to dedicate their concerted efforts toward citizenship.” Damon is therefore highly critical of the bitterly pessimistic formulation of the American tradition advanced by Howard Zinn. In addition to criticizing Zinn for imposing on readers an “epic feat of negativism,” he recalls his own conversations with Zinn about the effects of that negativism on young people. Zinn reported a letter from a high school student who said, “I read your book…. [Now] how can I keep from being thoroughly alienated and depressed?” We should ask, with Damon, whether a student who is alienated from and depressed about his heritage as a result of an unduly critical teaching about it will ever be able to appreciate that which is good about his tradition, or make a positive contribution to that which should be improved. At best, that student will withdraw, at worst, that student will seek to destroy that tradition – the good with the bad.

Without this appreciation of what is good in our past, Damon concludes, students cannot have hope for the future. Damon reminds us that the notions of American exceptionalism and the American Dream are related – and that, rightly understood, they refer to far more than just material success. America is special in that it “offers every U.S. citizen a chance to strive toward the aspirations they hold most dear, whether material, personal, social, or spiritual.” American young people can and should aspire to be far more than merely part of an envious, self-absorbed, rioting rabble like those young people who destroyed their own communities in the towns surrounding London – and their teachers should encourage them to do so.

Yet as Damon found in interviews with high school students, some students do not get this encouragement. One high school girl said, “Last year, the history teacher told us that the American Dream was dead…. I just – I didn’t believe that at all. If we didn’t dream, then we wouldn’t be doing anything. We wouldn’t be advancing as a society.” Another girl was more pessimistic, saying “I guess I’m not a true US citizen, or what America wants me to be, because America doesn’t even abide by their own rules or their own expectations, so I don’t know what a US citizen is…. I don’t know what [the American Dream] would mean to me. I heard [the phrase] so many times. And it’s crazy, and I don’t know what it is.”

Regardless of the differences of perspective or of experience that separate these two girls, it is clear that both of them want to live in a country they can believe in. If there is something in our country that is worth believing in – and it is my deepest conviction that there is – it is our responsibility as civic educators to communicate that worth with all of the confidence and skill we have to offer. The Bill of Rights Institute is here to support you in that indispensable effort.

What barriers do you face in your effort to educate young people to believe in the America we both love?

Posted in Staff Updates

3 Responses to “Failing Liberty”

  1. Dustin Gurley says:

    I think that it is of the upmost importance for the youth of today to develop a sense of community and civic responsibility. However, citing Zinn as a historian that fosters pessimism in young people is unfair. Zinn presented history from perspective of the common man, and was not afraid to highlight the mistakes and motivations of people in power. An effective teacher can explain history objectively and use major events such as slavery, Native American removal, and Vietnam as a tool for change and awareness. A citizen with an understanding of history and government can be productive member of society, a voter, a person of civic responsibility. Teaching history in an only positive light, doesn’t make students productive citizens, it makes them ignorant and ethnocentric.

    • Jason Ross says:

      Dustin, I don’t disagree with anything you said. But your objection works better against Zinn than it does against his critics. Zinn teaches U.S. history only in a negative light. It is a thoroughly depressing account of our history – and one that utterly fails to explain why millions of “common men” have left tyrannical regimes to seek freedom and opportunity here.

  2. Have we forgotten The Boston Tea Party? Shays rebellion? The Whiskey Rebellion? Slave Riots? Haymarket Square ? The Railroad Strikes? Watch what you wish for.

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