Finding Common Ground In Civics Education

The following post is based on remarks by Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, delivered March 13, 2019 at the ASI conversation, "Civic Education: Is There Common Ground?"

Ever since the mid-19th century, when the United States adopted a system of universal and free public education in the form of “common schools,” we have debated what should be taught in our schools and how we should teach it. The controversies over the Common Core are only the most recent chapter in a large volume of what one historian of American education has described as the “education wars.” In a democratic and pluralist society, such debate is both inevitable and necessary. Education is the process by which we enculturate and socialize our youth. What we teach and how we teach it is a statement on who we believe we, as a people, are and how we came to that identity. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is an affirmation of who we aspire to be as a people. Education is our declaration on what we believe it means to be an American.

While language arts, mathematics and science all involve different and important aspects of American identity, no subject is more central to American identity than social studies and history, and in particular, than civics. In the United States, civics is education into citizenship in a republic founded on the ideal of rule by its citizens, the ‘we the people’ that announces itself as the ultimate author of the American constitution in its very first words. So civics goes directly to the heart of who is and is not a citizen of the United States, and what rights and duties American citizens possess. It goes directly to the question of the power of ordinary citizens — rather than elites — in determining both how we rule and how we are ruled. It should be a matter of no surprise, then, that the fiercest contests over the content and method of American education have taken place in civics, social studies and history. Our ability to find common ground in the teaching of civics cannot be separated from our ability to find common ground on what it means to be an American — both as a matter of history and as a matter of aspiration — or from our ability to find common ground in how we understand American democracy itself and what we want American democracy to be.

Finding common ground in the teaching of civics is, therefore, an unavoidably political process. If there was any doubt that this was the case, consider that the current renewal of interest in the teaching of civics has clearly been generated by the undeniable crisis in our civic life and the extraordinary dysfunctionality of our political institutions. As we have done in the past, Americans are looking to our schools to help solve deep social and political problems not of our schools’ making. Given the debased form of politics that is currently being practiced by American elites — the pursuit of private interests at the expense of the common good and the paralysis of government through narrow partisan advantage — many Americans have begun to view politics with disdain and disgust, creating a crisis in our civic life. So it’s only natural that many educators would be fearful of the idea that there is something intrinsically and unavoidably political about the process of finding common ground in civics. I understand the trepidation of my fellow civics teachers, which has led many to try to find ways to circumvent the political in their promotion of civics.

And yet, these attempts to decide on what we teach and how we teach it with purportedly neutral, technocratic approaches have a track record of unmistakable failure. Consider the Common Core. A good portion of the problems the Common Core experienced were around its execution, which was done in the top-down, technocratic style that has defined most “education reforms” since the turn of the 21st century. The Common Core was implemented without regard for teacher voice and without the provision of the time and resources for teachers to learn how to use new and more challenging standards. But that was not the only problem. The attempt to circumvent political considerations in the development and promotion of the Common Core resulted in a contentious debate, the terms of which could increasingly be described by what the American historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of politics. To use a metaphor from psychoanalysis: when one attempts to repress the political dimension of decisions on standards, curriculum and pedagogy, it reasserts itself from the unconscious in the irrational and impulsive language of the political id, in wild accusations of conspiracies and the like that are completely untempered by any element of the political superego. How else do we explain a public debate that featured claims on the order of Obama is forcing the Common Core on us to turn our children Muslim, or gay? There is a political dimension to all of these questions of what we teach and how we teach it, even to the claim that the decline of American civilization began when we stopped teaching the Palmer method of handwriting in our schools — although a discussion of that claim is perhaps better reserved for a bar, after one has had a few beers.

The task before us, I would insist, is to approach the question of the common ground for civics with the understanding that it necessarily involves the political, but not in the form of the current debased forms of politics where every question is reduced to an issue of private interest and partisan advantage, but in the classical conception of politics as the pursuit of the common good.

Debates over civics education start with the question of pedagogy. Although it is not widely known outside of the ranks of social studies educators, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers avoided developing a set of social studies standards for the Common Core. The CCSO did provide some funding for the development of what became the C3 standards — or education for college, career and civic life — but it was never prepared to adopt them as part of the Common Core, especially after the controversies generated by the English language arts and mathematics standards. Instead, the Common Core was reduced to education for college and career only. The National Council for Social Studies published the C3 standards, and while a number of states have used parts of them in the development of their social studies and civics standards, no state has adopted the entire package. It is instructive nonetheless to reference the debates over the C3 standards, as they go straight to the question of pedagogy in civics.

The C3 standards centered on what is known in education as inquiry learning, a pedagogy in which students actively engage in and take ownership of their learning by helping to define the issues to be studied. In the world of civics, this inquiry process most often takes the forms of what is called ‘action civics,’ in which students identify a civic problem that they want to address, study its nature, its origins and its possible solutions, with a particular focus on how government or the institutions of civil society could be play a part in those solutions. For example, students may look at an instance of environmental pollution in the community in which they live, figure out what caused it and what might remedy it, and determine which different parts of the government and which civil society institutions could help to promote that remedy. They would conclude by trying to engage political actors on behalf of their solution. This approach had its critics, perhaps most prominently Checker Finn. In Finn’s eyes, C3 was entirely focused on the development of civic skills, at the expense of civic knowledge. According to this view, civics should be about instructing students in the foundational documents of American democracy, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and the constitutional basis of American government, but should not be promoting civic activism on the part of students.

At the level of pedagogy, it is possible to see this skills/knowledge dichotomy in civics as a false binary, and to find a common ground that embraces both poles. Civic literacy involves both civic reading, in which one learns the language of civic life, and civic writing, in which one uses the language of civic life. It is only through the writing — through the active use of civic language — that one makes the language one’s own. As Danielle Allen has so masterfully explained, students need to study a document like the Declaration of Independence, not just because it is a historical, founding document of American democracy, but because it sets forth the language through which American politics and civic life is enacted. The language of the Declaration is invoked again and again in American history by those seeking to stake out their claims that “I, too, sing America,” as Langston Hughes put it so well — the abolitionist, the suffragist, the labor organizer, the civil right activist, the immigrant advocate. For students to become civic actors, to become full democratic citizens, they must know and use that language; they must make the language of the Declaration of Independence their own, and use it in the pursuit of their own civic objectives.

And yet, I know that some will not be satisfied with this reconciliation of the pedagogy of skills and the pedagogy of knowledge. That is because these pedagogies also function as proxies for political points of view. We live a political era when voter suppression is widely practiced, advocated and legislated, for no other reason than that it provides partisan political advantage to one set of political actors. The notion that American citizens can be denied the vote — their most fundamental right and duty — does foundational damage to the first principles and foundations of American democracy. There is, I fear, an equivalent of voter suppression in the realm of civics education, a stance which sees partisan disadvantage in students (especially students from communities that have been historically disempowered and denied meaningful access to political and economic decision-making) becoming active, democratic citizens. And so they oppose it. To the extent that an approach to civics insists that schools not develop civic skills and civic capacity — that civics focuses on citizens as the ruled and not a full part of the “we the people” that rule, and that it teaches students to obey and not question authority — it is engaging in an educational form of voter suppression. Thus it cannot be part of the common ground for civics education that we seek.

In short, I do believe it is possible to achieve a common ground in civics education, but it is a ground only shared by those who have a deep and abiding commitment to an American democracy based on “liberty and justice for all,” in which “we the people” — all the American people, in all of our rich diversity — rule ourselves.


Hi Leo, I found you while I was trying to find out whatever became of Tom Foster. I'm happily surprised you've gone "straight", and very impressed at your academic career post-Antioch and your current position. I read your piece on the legitimacy of Trump's presidency, and I could still hear that considered thoughtful voice from 1971 - the one that I would hear when you collared me in the hall between our rooms, explaining Marxism to me. I'll should never forgive you for that, but I forgive you. Andy

PS Presidents dorm was completely demolished about 10 years ago, and is now a vacant lawn. Stalin himself couldn't have done better in removing all evidence. ;o)