Monday, May 25, 2020

The Right and wrong way to teach civics

John C. Calhoun: A well-educated citizen

Hope Essay #7 (Others: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6)

My favorite joke about a person whose civics education has been neglected is to say that they can't name three of the nine justices on the Supreme Court but they can name five of the Three Stooges. 

I may not be far off. I just Googled “civic ignorance” and got 7,270,000 hits. Even better, "Americans’ historical ignorance" gets you 22,400,000 hits. Try “lie witness news” if you want to laugh about it (until you cry!).  Americans seem to know next to nothing about democracy, the particular democratic system that rules them, or their national history. Read this bit from hit number 1 of the 22 million (as of May 18, 2020) on historical ignorance:

A survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “more Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the U.S. Constitution,” “more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place,” and “half of the respondents believed the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 were before the American Revolution.”


In 2012, former Supreme Court justice David Souter seemed to predict the rise of Donald Trump and the end of democracy. The cause? Civic ignorance. Ignorant Americans would give total power to a tyrant who would tell them something like Only I can fix it. “That is the way democracy dies,” he said. “And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”  But civic and historical ignorance is nothing new, and neither is our national lament about it. There was hand wringing during the First World War when a sampling of High School graduates could identify only 33 percent of the names, dates and events that school teachers thought good American citizens should know. During World War II, the eminent American historian Allen Nevins fretted that the Greatest Generation’s lack of historical understanding imperiled the war effort—our soldiers hadn’t learned enough about American democracy to understand what they were fighting for.  Yet somehow, these ignoramuses managed to make the world safe for democracy and defeat fascism. 

So, should we stop fretting about historical and civic ignorance? Maybe. But I think there is a grain of truth in those 30 million lamentations about citizenship education. Democracy may or may not be in greater peril now than in the past and today’s citizens may be more or less fit for self-government than previous generations of the poorly educated, but democracy now and in the past, here and everywhere else, is fragile and imperfect. If there is one thing we have been dangerously wrong about it is the notion that once a people adopt a system of democratic government they never give it up. That sentiment has led citizens to take democracy for granted, as just a given—to assume it doesn’t need our love and care, much less our defense against enemies, who seem to be growing. Or worse, they think it is not necessarily any better than other kinds of government, and is not worth defending. 

Not only is lack of education not the greatest threat to democracy, but the arrogance of the learned may be a greater threat than the ignorance of the uneducated. I keep reading things that suggest people with more education are worse citizens. They are more likely to be “political hobbyists,” whose social media posts contribute to polarization according to Eitan Hersh’s research (Hersh, 6). They are more resistant to facts that contradict their beliefs, according to research by Brendan Nyhan.

And consider those great American statesmen who owned slaves. I consider them to have been the worst citizens the USA ever produced, yet they were some of the best educated people in world history—people like John C. Calhoun, whose Yale law degree didn’t lead him to the conclusion that slavery was incompatible with America’s Constitutional system of government. On the contrary, he constructed an elaborate theoretical justification of slavery.  In 1962, President Kennedy said to a group of Nobel laureates at a White House dinner: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Our genius third presidents read so many books during his long life that his collection became the Library of Congress after he died. But the fellow who penned the phrase “all men are created equal” was a slave-owner who claimed to oppose slavery while owing 600 slaves. And all that reading didn’t stop him from writing these horrifying racist sentiments or fathering children with a woman he owned.

So, just conveying more knowledge about history, government, or the Constitution will not on its own produce good citizens and preserve democracy. The Phillips family who founded the school where I teach spoke about the importance of teaching both knowledge and goodness when they founded educational institutions in Exeter and Andover around the time of American independence. There are many worthwhile human characteristics that we might include under the heading of goodness, like kindness and generosity; but producing the next generation of wealthy philanthropists—something Exeter and Andover are pretty good at, I think—will not save democracy.  Maybe quite the opposite. So, what kind of goodness makes good citizens and how do you teach that?

I don’t claim to have the final undisputed answer to that question. One reason I write this blog is to try to figure out what I think about things like this and reconcile conflicting ideas that I hold—and discover rational bases for hope.

I’ve been writing these essays during the great pandemic and global lock-down of the spring of 2020, which happens to coincide with a one-term sabbatical.   In his essay "One Hour to Think," E.B. White considers the practice of setting aside time "in the slim hope that if only we were idle, perhaps we might grow thoughtful."  I've grown thoughtful enough, I suppose, though in a most un-systematic way.  I seem to be proving White's conclusion that productive thinking tends to be "an accidental sprout that appears unexpectedly on the vine of one's daily routine and that can be cultivated if one catches it soon enough and tends it with some kindliness and patience" (White, 110).

I expected to sit down and write one essay about hope and politics and be done with it, but have encountered a seemingly endless number of thought-sprouts, as I read, write, follow the news, and go about my daily routine.  These weeks of idleness have led to eight blog posts about hope, democracy and citizenship, and in the place on my laptop where I draft these things, another 8000-plus words with more accidental sprouts than I may ever get around to cultivating.  "Democracy," White says, "is harder to explain and propound" than other systems of government. Or, per Danielle Allen, it's "intellectually hard"  (White, 113; Taylor, 1).   But I think it's worth the time and effort and it involves things like trying to figure out why we we should love democracy in spite of its many flaws; the role of protest and compromise in democratic politics; the relative importance of leaders, followers, and just plain citizens; the function of sacrifice, empathy, humility, solidarity and coalition-building; lessons from various movements like labor, Civil Rights and anti-communism; how private schools boost or harm democracy; the tension between truth and social justice; politics and democracy at the various levels of government, from local to national to global;  dissent, patriotism and deliberation; progress, inevitability, contingency; groupthink and thinking in groups; human nature and it's suitability for self government. 

I've thought a lot about these things and read what others have thought.  I may write something about them, too.

Hope Essays: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6.


Eitan Hersh, Politics is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change (New York: Scribner, 2020).

Astra Taylor, Democracy May not Exist, but We'll Miss it When It's Gone (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019).

E.B. White, On Democracy, ed. Martha White (New York: Harper Collins, 2019).


  1. Oh boy. I'd hate to see how I'd do on Lie Witness News. But I'd like to suggest John Bargh's book, Before You Know It for a nice overview of what developmental, social, congnitive, and evolutionary psychology have to say about the mysteries of human behavior including why good people do bad things and with plenty to say about the differences between liberals and conservatives and how to get conservatives to think more like liberals. Psychology has come a long way in the last 10 years. I find it puzzling that people are as ignorant about human psychology as they are about politics. What's more interesting and important and relevant than the human mind? Another great book on how to communicate with and influence people with differing perspectives is Jonah Berger's The Catalyst. If only we could get that Democratic party leaders to read these two books, they might have a shot at winning the next election.

  2. I followed a couple of the Brendan Nyhan links regarding educated people being "more resistant to facts that contradict their beliefs." I can think of one reason why: education teaches you how the sausage is made, so to speak. Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, brings up his past work as a financial analyst where he could make the projection say whatever his boss wanted it to say. Adams often disbelieves stats floating around in the media, with this as one of his reasons.

    Another reason is that while the fact that is contradicting their beliefs is being mentioned, they think there are other facts that support their beliefs which are not mentioned. One of Nyhan's links was about whether people believed the unemployment statistics (this was back before the 2012 election). While I don't think those are falsified, I do wonder if there is something about how they count which I don't understand (i.e. I haven't read the fine print).

    But I view these things as just minor issues in the context of education as an overall benefit to society.

  3. I entered "top ten civics facts everyone should know" into a search engine, and the top entry was this:

    In contrast to one of the links in your previous post, which led me to organizations promoting learning the facts that citizenship tests test you on, this one organized civics education around ten phrases, like "e pluribus unum" and other familiar ones like that.

    When young, I had difficulties figuring out the whole conceptual structure of what civics class was trying to teach me. Why is the Bill of Rights a series of Amendments to the Constitution -- if they were already aware the Amendments were needed, why didn't they just include them in the Constitution proper? Etc. I'm sure everyone has questions that confuse them.

    Would teaching through phrases make a difference? After all, the purpose of civics class isn't to make us experts in the details of Constitutional law. Or perhaps the details of the pedagogy don't matter much.