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Civic Education

by Leonard Waks

Martha Nussbaum and her critics agree that American citizens will only be able to grapple with contemporary problems if they have greater understanding of and respect for people beyond our national borders. The disagreements focus on the right ethical foundations for education promoting global responsibility: direct appeal to cosmopolitan values vs. appeal to these values as they are expressed within our distinct national traditions. But framing a national conversation on patriotism and democracy as a conflict over the ethical foundations of our common educational goals is distracting; it draws our attention away from the really daunting political problem of advancing these goals in civic education programs of the nation's schools. Showing this requires a fresh look at citizenship and civic education.

The institution of citizenship is a kind of contract between social groups. As Solon's and Cleisthenes' constitutions in Athens and the social wars in Rome illustrate, when social elites extend the status of citizen they seek to preserve their dominant position while maintaining or restoring an acceptable level of social peace. This decreases their need to use violence in securing social control. In exchange, subordinate groups acquire the social goods and realms of free action that come with citizenship. But in such contracts among unequals subordinate groups often have to settle for something less than (or different from) what they initially demanded. Moreover, what they do get remains a matter of ongoing dispute after the deal is struck.

Consider in this light the right to an education. It was among the first "social rights" of democratic citizenship. But the right to an education does not have a clear and uncontested meaning. The demands of the dominant groups for social peace, worker loyalty, occupational skills, and a work ethic, are countered by the claims of workers and other subordinate groups for knowledge, skill, cultural orientation, and social status advancing their autonomy. For powerful elites, public education (including civic education) is one channel for communicating the dominant ideology -- for messages which promote social integration under prevailing conditions of inequality. For the less powerful, public education (again including civic education) promises an expansion of economic, social, and personal opportunities. In this struggle, the very meanings of "patriotism" and "democratic education" are essentially contested: conservative elites point to unifying figures and events from the past, while those giving voice to worker and minority sentiments emphasize those universal, cosmopolitan values in our traditions to buttress claims for extensions of social and political justice beyond the status quo.

Hence, social conflicts are recapitulated in the civic education wars. Though one would hardly guess this from reading either Nussbaum or her critics, there has been a sustained effort to promote global values in school humanities and social studies -- broader knowledge of and respect for other cultures, and broader loyalty to the human community including its most disadvantaged members. This curricular movement is known as "Global Education", and while it appeals to liberals, it is an anathema to conservatives. Like all such movements in social education -- including values education, affective education, and now even "inquiry based history education" -- global education has been the scene of an intense and inconclusive ideological and political battle in the states and school districts.

And teachers are on the front lines. While global education has been advanced by many teachers, most others -- sensitive to the ambivalent social charter for teaching and learning about issues beyond our national borders, or advancing the claims of disadvantaged groups -- either feel uneasy about global education and weaken its message, or oppose it outright and neglect its themes in their classrooms. As a result, global justice remains at best a very minor concern of the schools.

Battles over the meaning of "citizenship," the "citizen's right to an education," and "civic education" are at the heart of the national conversation. Failing to take note of them (because of their agreement about education for global responsibility), neither Nussbaum nor any of her critics faces the most important practical question in the national conversation: whether, under prevailing conditions of social inequality and conflict, robust cosmopolitan values -- whether delivered as moral universals or attached to our specific national value traditions -- CAN be broadly advanced in the American school curriculum.

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