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Danielle Allen correctly diagnoses a problem with contemporary education policy. The language of citizenship—and the aspiration to educate for citizenship—has disappeared almost entirely from our vocabulary. This is lamentable for many reasons, chief among them that the civic purpose of education animated the very creation of publicly funded schools and mandatory attendance laws. The goal on which public education is based is not the development of skills for competing in the global marketplace but the development of skills and dispositions for creating an informed and engaged citizenry—necessary, according to America’s founders, for democracy to flourish.
Attached to Allen’s accurate diagnosis, however, is a complicated and controversial prescription. To restore the civic purpose of education, she argues, we should adopt a participatory paradigm on the model of Hannah Arendt. Doing so will recuperate the humanities and social sciences and generate a body politic far more ready to combat growing income and wealth inequality. This is a lot—too much, I worry—for civic education to bear. None of these aspirations is essential to defending civic education, and some are not even clearly connected to it.
Education has come to be seen as a private good whose benefits accrue to each student in the form of greater lifetime earnings.
Take Allen’s defense of the liberal arts, a cause I share. The humanities might be defended as valuable in their own right rather than as an instrument for informed civic action. And even if we think they are valuable for civic purposes, it would be good to have more empirical evidence than Allen provides. (Allen’s paragraphs on the liberal arts are rife with the rhetorical formulation, “To do X, surely we need Y,” a strategy that philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “surely klaxon”: a warning to the reader that the author has offered an ill-examined truism.) Moreover, STEM education may be no less essential than the liberal arts in training for participatory readiness. The pervasiveness of algorithms in our lives, the advancement of biotechnology and artificial intelligence, the nature of digital data—all these have profound political and civic implications that citizens must know something about in order to judge whether and how they should be used and regulated. I doubt Allen would disagree: she recently edited a book with the subtitle “understanding citizenship in a digital age.”
Consider as well Allen’s claim that a participatory paradigm will create engaged citizens who seek political equality and distributive justice, thereby reining in income and wealth inequality. Perhaps. But I know of no evidence to show a correlation between civic preparation and particular policy commitments.
Still, we should keep Allen’s diagnosis. The vocational has eclipsed the civic, and education—in the minds of parents, students, and educational policymakers alike—is now seen as a private good whose benefits accrue primarily to the individual student in the form of competitive advantage in the labor market and greater lifetime earnings. That society as a whole benefits, too, by maintaining a growing economy in a competitive global market, is of secondary interest. And nowhere do we hear that civic preparation is important to the sustenance of a healthy democratic society.
What is to be done? I would point to simpler solutions. Civics classes—which convey the ordinary functioning of democratic institutions—have all but disappeared from high schools. Mounds of empirical evidence, much of it collected in Christopher Achen and Larry Bartel’s new book Democracy for Realists, show how few citizens pay attention to politics or understand particular policy issues. Restoring civics classes and conveying basic information about important policy domains would be a good place to start.
We should also look beyond the schoolhouse. Classrooms are not the only spaces in which children can learn participatory readiness. This happens in extracurricular activities as well as in associational life outside the school. As the political scientist Robert Putnam has reminded us, civil society is itself a great schoolhouse for citizenship, and reinvigorating civil society, especially for young people—through religious associations, sports teams, neighborhood clubs, and so on—should be part of civic education, too.
Rob Reich is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, helps to lead its Center for Ethics in Society and Institute for Human-Centered AI, and is coauthor, with Jeremy M. Weinstein and Mehran Sahami, of the forthcoming book System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot.
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