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.