Civic Education and Western Civilization

William H. Young

Civic education plays an especially important role in American society because we are uniquely defined by a shared civic ethos rather than by ascriptive national ties. The civic virtue of our founding order, largely defined by Scottish moral philosophy, formed the basis for the curriculum in American colleges during the nineteenth century. But over the twentieth century, academic educationists incorporated first progressive collectivism and then postmodern multiculturalism in higher education, public schooling, and textbooks, according to Robert Lerner, Althea K. Nagai, and Stanley Rothman in Molding the Good Citizen (1995). The civic virtue of the founding is no longer taught within secondary and college civic education. What is being taught is directly contrary to our basis for self-governance.

In the early twentieth century, Lerner, Nagai, and Rothman note, John Dewey introduced the concept of progressive education and “taught that the school, which heretofore had been the locus of intergenerational transmission of received scholarship, learning, and wisdom, needed to become an agent of social betterment and change.” Through colleges of education, he turned the role for public schools towards constructing “a new social order…which would eventually bring into being a democratic socialist society.”

After the 1960s, universities turned to postmodern multiculturalism and proportional representation of ascriptive groups. In Part III, of his essay, Domestic Faction in a Republic, George Seaver explains that postmodern multiculturalism “found that civic virtue imposed unacceptable hierarchies, privilege and oppression in society.” Virtue became a construct of the individual or cultural group, “with no significance of one over the other. Hierarchy was abhorrent, and any attempt to impose one led to ‘privileging’ and oppressing the ‘Other’ in society.” The antidote for such privileging was “social justice,” for the group, not the individual.

Multiculturalism presents “the historical account of America as a system of oppression,” which is “rooted in the work of Marxist historians and social scientists,” notes Peter Wood in Diversity (2003). A review by a panel of distinguished historians in 2004 found social studies textbooks to be “mostly a disgrace that, in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism, fail to give students an honest account of American history.”

America’s Founders and the Madisonian framework of their Constitution have been repudiated. Our children are no longer taught the principles of the Constitution such as: popular sovereignty through representatives and institutions; control of factions and interests through deliberative processes; and actions based on reason, the common good, and majority rule. Most of our younger citizens no longer understand the civic virtue on which our nation was founded. The elaborate machinery that our Founders constructed to contain factions and allow for pursuit of the common good has been undone, as Allan Bloom argues in The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

Glenn Ricketts recently reported in Knowledge of American History Rapidly Becoming History that “eighty-eight percent of high school seniors flunked the minimum proficiency rating” in knowledge of the rudiments of U. S. history in the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress quadrennial survey. Ironically, we are in a way fortunate that they did not learn well, given what they are likely to have been taught.

What is the latest news about civic education? In 2010, the U. S. Department of Education awarded a contract to the Global Perspective Institute (GPI), with a subcontract to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), to develop a national action plan to increase the visibility and impact of higher education’s efforts to advance students’ civic learning and democratic engagement. AAC&U said its interest “builds from the association’s long-standing work on civic engagement and liberal education and the vision for twenty-first-century college learning developed as part of the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative…”

In the latest issue of AAC&U’s periodical Diversity & Democracy (Fall 2011), the lead article by GPI president Larry A. Braskamp, Higher Education for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, argues:

Now is the time for higher education to be both responsible and responsive to society at large, a critic of societal ills and a voice of what is good and worthy within current economic, political, social, and religious contexts.

He notes that the action plan

will help educators once again place civic learning and democratic engagement at the core of their missions” and underscores that more initiatives like these “are needed across higher education to fully repair the broken societal compacts that are weakening the contemporary social fabric.

He argues that civic learning and democratic engagement should address “visionary goals like reducing poverty and violence; increasing inclusion for people who have historically been marginalized; honoring and respecting different values, lifestyles, and cultural and faith traditions; and enhancing personal and community well-being…yielding structural changes toward the common good.”

What does he mean by the common good? Its foundational principles are:

All members of society are responsible for contributing to their multiple communities, extending around the entire globe. All people, regardless of social status, ethnicity, lifestyle, and faith tradition, deserve respect and the freedom to contribute to bettering others’ circumstances while fostering their own development as human beings.

He concludes that colleges “need to focus on sustained civic and community development, on building lasting infrastructure that addresses structural inequality while fostering habits of the head and heart….pursuing ends that are more expansive than promoting private gain.”

In all discussion of this initiative, the fact that America was deliberately founded as a republic rather than a direct democracy (which had failed throughout Western history) is never acknowledged. Nor is the hierarchical concept of deliberation by representatives acting for the people. In The Federalist, Number 63, James Madison states explicitly that the true distinction between classical republics and American government “lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity, from any share in the latter.” The initiative reflects transnational progressivism: progressive democracy combined with global, rather than national, citizenship and the oppressed-group ideology of postmodern multiculturalism.

In the same issue, Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president of AAC&U, explains what “democracy” means in Reconfiguring Civic Engagement on Campus.

Flowing from democracy are the twin terms “social responsibility” and ”social justice,” which…suggest both agency and public policy action. Both concepts help move civic engagement from pure service to service and advocacy, and from a cautiously apolitical stance to an unabashedly political but not doctrinaire one.

In an accompanying article, Civic Literacy across the Curriculum, Seth Pollack, professor and director of the nationally-recognized Service Learning Institute at California State University Monterey Bay, notes that civic literacy builds on a commitment to diversity and social justice and is defined as the “knowledge, skills and attitudes that students need to work effectively in a diverse society to create more just and equitable workplaces, communities, and social institutions.” Courses give students” a foundation in issues of social group identity, social justice, and social responsibility….These elements become even more critical as departments begin to engage more deeply with injustice and inequality experienced by communities.”

In LEAPs and Bounds, November 3, 2009, Ashley Thorne observed, regarding LEAP, that “emphasizing ‘personal and social responsibility’ sounds dangerously close to ‘use the classroom to encourage political activism.’” Her observation was prescient. The civic virtue of university civic education is “social justice,” inimical to the founding concept of civic virtue— the common or public good of the republic.

Dr. Seaver wisely showed that when true civic virtue is esteemed, a nation flourishes; when it is disdained, a nation crumbles. NAS should continue to seek the return of our colleges and universities to teaching the civic virtue that formed the founding basis for our nation. We can only hope that we are not, as Dr. Seaver observed, “like Cicero, past our time.”


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).


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