Civic education has emerged as a major front in the bitter clash spilling over into many domains between left and right in America. Since the civic-education battles revolve around the nation's core principles and fundamental character, they may prove the decisive front.
Education in general and civic education in particular shape students' understandings of themselves, their fellow citizens, the nation, and other nations and peoples. Consequently, the outcome of the raging debate about the content and goal of civic education is bound to have a major effect on America's ability to secure freedom and protect equality under law, provide economic opportunity and spur growth, revitalize civil society, and defend the free and open international order against antidemocratic and unfree regimes' ambitions to bend it toward authoritarianism.
AN ANCIENT IDEAL
Civic education is an old idea. According to the classical tradition rooted in Plato and Aristotle, the whole of education should aim at forming the soul by cultivating the virtues. Education, in this view, involves both the training of the body through disciplined physical exertion and the formation of the mind through study of science and the humanities--not least the principles of one's own nation's political order. For the classical tradition, education is civic education.
To a significant extent, the modern tradition of freedom agreed, with the crucial proviso that education's principal goal was to prepare students for the rights and responsibilities of freedom. Accordingly, liberal education puts study of the principles of a free society at the core of the curriculum. At the same time, liberal education places a good deal more emphasis than did classical education on introducing students to the diversity of views on the great moral, economic, legal, political, philosophical, and religious questions, and on equipping students to think for themselves. Such study--concentrating on great works of literature, history, philosophy, and theology--is part and parcel of civic education well understood because it cultivates the virtues of reasoned inquiry, tolerance, and civility, all of which contribute to good citizenship in a liberal democracy.
Civic education as Americans tend to think of it today involves telltale innovations. Contemporary American educators treat civic education as a specialized undertaking, walling it off from other...