The Public Interest

Civic education reconsidered

James W. Ceaser & Patrick J. McGuinn

Fall 1998

WE ARE approaching the end of an era in educational philosophy. From the middle of the 1960s until today, the reigning orthodoxy among educational theorists has been one of hostility to civic education, understood as the attempt to inculcate an appreciation for the principles of America’s political system. Those espousing this orthodoxy rarely, of course, call it an anticivic idea. They have preferred instead to advance their views under more attractive labels, such as humanitarianism (where an attachment to the nation, especially one’s own nation, is considered repugnant), individualism (where the cultivation of any political orthodoxy is regarded as a violation of each individual’s right to fashion his or her own moral hierarchy), or, most recently and elaborately, multiculturalism (where people are said to belong authentically only to ethnic, racial, or sexual, groups, not to anything as synthetic as the “Eurocentric” ideas of the American political system). Each of these theoretical justifications rests nicely on a positive standard—humanity, self, or culture—but the real driving force behind them has been the desire to eliminate certain dark tendencies thought to be encouraged by American civic education: imperialism (especially as it was manifested during the Vietnam War and the Cold War), repression, and racism and sexism.

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