The Civic Education We Need

Albert Cheng & Jay P. Greene

Winter 2022

Although they are frequently pitted against each other, contemporary approaches to education on the left and right often begin from a common assumption: that prejudice and violence toward others is the result of ignorance.

On the left, this understanding manifests most clearly in calls for civic education to be infused with critical theory as a means of addressing racial animus, countering conspiracy theories, and combatting misinformation that could endanger democracy. On the right, it tends to appear in the equating of civic education with teaching people about the history of Western civilization, the principles of the American founding, and how democratic government works. Both sides implicitly accept the Enlightenment premise that knowledge will deliver humanity out of darkness. They thus imagine civic education's central project to be providing students with information — the knowledge that will make them into their better selves.

But is this true? Is knowledge alone what delivers humanity from darkness? English poet and politician John Davies offered a different perspective in the opening lines of Nosce Teipsum ("Know Thyself"), a poem written at the turn of the 16th century:

Why did my parents send me to the schools
That I with knowledge might enrich my mind?
Since the desire to know first made men fools,
And did corrupt the root of all mankind.

Setting aside the theological questions woven into Davies's words, his perspective on education undeniably rejects the contemporary paradigm. His criticism raises an interesting question for advocates of civic education: If knowledge lies at the root of humanity's corruption, why would one presume that more knowledge would save humanity from its bent toward prejudice?

Going beyond Davies's criticism, studies on civic education and the nature of prejudice offer empirical reasons to question the bipartisan assumption that ignorance is what gives way to our social ills. If policymakers seek to craft a civic education that improves society, they will have to move beyond the categories of knowledge and ignorance to articulate a vision that confronts deeper complexities of human behavior. Instead of civic education understood as the provision of information, what we need is civic education understood as virtue formation.


Assumptions about prejudice as primarily a problem of information have been entrenched in contemporary thinking since the middle of the 20th century. At the time, many political theorists argued that prejudice stems from ignorance. In their 1969 book The Tenacity of Prejudice, sociologists Gertrude Selznick and Stephen Steinberg documented a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes among individuals with less education. They attributed this prejudice to a lack of reverence for liberal norms.

Based on this theory, scholars have since reasonably argued that instruction in liberal norms is the solution to prejudice. In a 2012 article published in Social Psychology Quarterly, University of Chicago professor Geoffrey Wodtke summarized this view:

An advanced education attenuates prejudice and fosters a real commitment to racial equality by providing knowledge about the historical, social, and economic forces responsible for inequality; teaching the dangers of prejudice; neutralizing fear of the unknown; promoting democratic norms of equality and civil rights; and facilitating contact between racial groups.

By filling in knowledge gaps, the argument goes, education can inoculate individuals against prejudice.

This view of the relationship between education and prejudice is reinforced by a large body of research about civic education. University of Notre Dame professor David Campbell recently reviewed this scholarship, concluding that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that civic education improves the civic knowledge and engagement of school-aged children. Notably, however, Campbell acknowledges significant limitations to the data and methods behind much of the research.

For instance, few of the studies reviewed used randomized-control trials to establish a causal relationship between civic-education programs and civic outcomes. Moreover, a majority of the studies focused on civic knowledge and a narrow set of civic-engagement behaviors, most notably voting. Hardly any of the studies focused on prejudice — the motivating factor behind recent calls for a renewal of civic education. One civic-education program studied increased knowledge about the Bill of Rights, landmark Supreme Court cases, and other facts concerning civil liberties, but it did not cause students to alter their attitudes about civil liberties. In other words, as the team of researchers who conducted the study concluded, "it is possible to increase awareness and understanding of civil liberties without producing an increase in support for those civil liberties." By extension, it should be possible to increase civic knowledge without decreasing prejudicial attitudes. Perhaps the relationship between civic education and prejudice is not as simple as the prevailing wisdom suggests.

Despite these caveats, the perception that prejudice festers mostly among people with less education persists. Profiles of anti-Semites in particular tend to feature individuals who are portrayed as unintelligent. Yet the empirical research used to support this claim bears a key limitation that undermines its validity: the way anti-Semitic attitudes are measured. Although survey researchers are well attuned to the measurement problems stemming from social-desirability bias — a phenomenon that arises when individuals systematically answer survey questions to appear favorably to others — studies about anti-Semitism remain vulnerable to this problem, and their data are distorted accordingly.

Researchers today struggle because they primarily measure anti-Semitism by asking how respondents feel about Jews or whether they concur with anti-Semitic tropes. A recent study of anti-Semitism, for example, asked undergraduates from the University of California, Irvine, to report their agreement with statements like "Jews have too much power in international financial markets" or "Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind." When presented with such statements, highly educated respondents are plausibly more likely than respondents with less education to recognize what they are being asked and to respond in a way that masks their anti-Semitic attitudes. Far from tempering prejudice, then, education might simply enable people to mask it more effectively.

In recent research of our own, we designed a new measure of anti-Semitism to account for the possibility of social-desirability bias. This measure is based on what Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky identifies as a central feature of anti-Semitism: the application of a double standard.

Our study put forth two versions of a series of survey questions: The first version required respondents to apply a principle to a scenario that involved Jews, while the second required respondents to apply the same principle to a scenario that involved members of other ethnicities, religious backgrounds, or nationalities. For instance, one of the questions asked whether "a person's attachment to another country creates a conflict of interest when advocating in support of certain U.S. foreign policy positions." Israel was offered as the example in version one of the question, while Mexico was used as the example in version two. In another item, we asked respondents whether the U.S. military should be allowed to forbid the wearing of religious headgear as part of the uniform, with version one featuring a Jewish yarmulke as an example and version two featuring a Sikh turban. Importantly, no respondent ever saw both versions of the question; they were randomly assigned to one or the other. This helped prevent respondents from recognizing that we were measuring their sentiment toward Jews, which might have caused them to adjust their answers in a socially desirable way.

If the factual circumstances of the Jewish and non-Jewish examples were truly comparable, we would expect respondents, on average, to answer both versions the same way. Yet if, on average, the subjects applied the principle more harshly to questions featuring examples involving Jews, we can reasonably infer that the difference is attributable to antipathy toward Jews.

When we administered this survey to a nationally representative sample of 1,800 American adults in the fall of 2020, we found that respondents with higher education levels were more likely than those with lower education levels to apply a double standard unfavorably toward Jews. For example, about half of all respondents believed that the U.S. military should be able to forbid either the yarmulke or the Sikh turban. But respondents with advanced degrees were 12 percentage points more likely to support the military in prohibiting a Jewish yarmulke than a Sikh turban.

Across all the items we asked, the general public was a statistically insignificant two percentage points more likely to apply a principle harshly to Jews than to non-Jews. Meanwhile, respondents with bachelor's degrees were five percentage points more unfavorable to Jews than to non-Jews. The disparity was even greater among respondents with advanced degrees, who were 15 percentage points more unfavorable to Jews than to non-Jews.

Of course, one could contend that the Jewish and non-Jewish scenarios we posed are not equivalent. One might reason, for instance, that yarmulkes interfere with military activity more so than turbans, or that dual loyalty is more problematic if it is to Israel than to Mexico. Such potential disagreement underscores the challenge of distinguishing between bigotry and a defensible distinction based on different circumstances.

Regardless, our point is not to discuss our particular findings, but to raise more general implications for civic formation. The greater likelihood among highly educated individuals to apply a double standard against Jews calls into question the assumption that education causes prejudicial dispositions to abate.


In the survey we fielded to measure anti-Semitism, 51% and 54% of respondents who held bachelor's and graduate degrees, respectively, thought it was "very" or "absolutely" essential that U.S. high schools teach students to be "activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices." Only 48% of the general public shared the same view. This suggests that more highly educated individuals are more aware of systemic injustice. Yet still, those same individuals were more likely to apply a double standard against Jews.

Our findings are not unprecedented. According to multiple analyses of national survey data stretching as far back as the 1960s, highly educated people are more likely to recognize prejudiced attitudes, and more likely to support principles like equality in the abstract, than less-educated individuals. Education has little effect, however, in terms of support for policy proposals intended to remediate observed inequities. For example, sociologist Mary Jackman found highly educated white individuals exhibited higher levels of support for the principle of racial integration than less-educated white individuals during the 1960s and 1970s. But when respondents were asked about policies like school desegregation and busing, support for racial integration in principle did not translate into support for policies to promote racial integration in practice. In other words, education enabled people to signal their support for integration, but it did not affect their support for policies designed to further integration.

Several years after this study, Jackman and her colleague Michael Muha conducted another national survey of U.S adults to compare attitudes of whites about blacks, men about women, and high-income individuals about low-income individuals. They found little evidence that education tempered prejudice among respondents toward those respective groups. To explain their findings, Jackman and Muha proposed that instead of producing more toleration or support for liberal norms, education equips dominant social groups with the intellectual capacity to legitimize and preserve their status. To put it in more concrete terms, simply having more information about the Holocaust does not necessarily make people more tolerant toward Jews.

Recent research supports Jackman and Muha's hypothesis, underlining the dangers of divorcing civic knowledge from civic virtue. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Erin Cooley and her co-authors provided subjects with a text about white privilege. Rather than increasing empathy toward poor black individuals — which such interventions are typically designed to do — it increased antipathy toward poor white individuals. In this case, education not only failed to bridge the gap between supporting justice in theory and supporting justice in practice, it actually increased unjust animus.

Such results are always a possibility when conveying knowledge is conflated with cultivating virtue. Decades of evidence indicate that knowledge transmission alone is insufficient to combat discrimination. After all, one can learn about justice and equity in ways that are divorced from the ends of becoming more just and more equitable.

The end to which knowledge points matters. To take on people's unjust prejudices, education must do more than enlighten; it must also form the kind of character that seeks justice.


The inconsistency between what people say they believe, what they do in practice, and whether they ultimately care about justice at all has been observed since the times of ancient Greece. In The Republic, Plato (vicariously, through Glaucon) tells the story of the Ring of Gyges, in which a man finds a magical ring and discovers that it gives him the power of invisibility. Seizing upon his newfound ability, he commits adultery with the queen, and together they usurp the king's rule and rise to power.

Glaucon reasons that everyone, if given the opportunity to wear the ring and get away with all sorts of wrongdoing, would do so. This story, according to Glaucon, is proof that injustice is superior to justice, as long as one can get away with it:

[N]o one is willingly just but only when compelled to be so. Men do not take it to be a good for them in private, since wherever each supposes he can do injustice, he does it. Indeed, all men suppose injustice is far more to their private profit than justice.

At issue is the human tendency to avoid doing justice when injustice offers more benefits and no consequences. In that case, why do the right thing? Glaucon's conclusion that it's natural to do the unjust thing (or, on an even more ethical egoist reading of the text, that the just thing to do is to benefit oneself as much as possible) is not the result of ignorance. Quite the opposite, in fact; Glaucon knows precisely what justice entails. Fully aware of the costs and challenges of doing the just thing, Glaucon reasonably concludes that all men skirt justice when it is convenient for them to do so.

Knowledge — even knowledge about justice — can be used for a just cause. Or, as Glaucon's example shows us, it can be used to defend injustice. To be just is an entirely different matter. A truly just person does not merely know what is just, but does what is just, even when it seems to come at a great cost to himself. Knowledge, therefore, can lead one to seek justice as easily as it can lead one to accept injustice. True justice goes beyond the sphere of knowledge and into the realm of character.


The Cartesian mind-body fissure characteristic of post-Enlightenment thought, together with the preeminence of psychology as a scientific discipline, has framed the study of prejudice since the early 20th century as primarily an issue of the mind. Prejudice, however, is not exclusively an issue of the mind; it is also a matter of the body.

People not only think prejudiced thoughts; they behave in prejudiced ways. Likewise, good citizens know not only how to reason through principles like "all men are created equal," they also care about their neighbors and treat them well.

Some advocates of civic education recognize the embodied nature of civic formation. They know that civic knowledge alone is not enough. To put that knowledge into practice, they supplement it with civic skills. This entails teaching students how government works while also preparing them to actively participate in civic life. A teacher might explain the Electoral College while helping high-school seniors register to vote, for example.

It is at least as important for good citizens to know facts about the Constitution as it is for them to understand how to appropriately engage in activities like voting, debating civilly with others, staying informed about pressing issues, engaging in peaceful protests, and communicating with civic leaders. By teaching civic skills alongside civic knowledge, educators can empower students to participate in the civic life they are learning about.

The focus that the teaching of civic skills places on practice begins to address the inconsistency between what people believe and what they do with respect to prejudice. It properly recognizes that civic knowledge alone is insufficient to ensure people act justly toward one another. However, an emphasis on developing civic skills shares the same problem with an emphasis on instilling civic knowledge: The question of ends remains.

Both knowledge and skills are instrumental goods. They can be used as a means for good or evil. Virtue, by contrast, is something one has and is. It is good in and of itself. Skill in debate — as Plato is fond of pointing out — can be used to pursue the flourishing of the polis, or it can devolve into self-serving sophistry. The same maxim applies to protests, reading and sharing news stories, contacting representatives, and most other kinds of civic skills. No matter how sound the knowledge it instills or how energetic the advocacy it encourages, in the end, civic education will struggle to mold students into citizens who love justice and contribute to the common good until it is courageous enough to address the question of ends and assert the importance of virtue.


Attention to virtue is at the crux of Socrates' counter to Glaucon's egoist claim that one ought never to exercise restraint insofar as one can escape punishment. Socrates shows that having a well-ordered soul, acting with integrity, and being just is more than an instrumental good; it is an intrinsic good. In short, the just man is the happy man.

But how can education produce such persons? Plato sketches the answer in his "allegory of the cave." The allegory is often understood as a metaphor for education, in which people are moved from ignorance — life in the darkness of the cave, staring at shadows of puppets and mistaking them for reality — to enlightenment, leaving the bowels of the cave to gaze at the sun. This understanding of the allegory reinforces the position that if prejudice is caused by ignorance, more information is the solution.

This is a misreading of the allegory. Although the cave is a metaphor for a sort of ignorance and the sun is a metaphor for a kind of knowledge, it is not the ignorance of information and the knowledge of facts that advocates of civic education today take it to be. The sun is not a library full of books, but rather a metaphor for the source of truth, goodness, and beauty itself. As Socrates explains: "[E]ducation is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be. They presumably assert that they put into the soul knowledge that isn't in it, as though they were putting sight into blind eyes." The task of true education, according to Plato, is less focused on putting information about the world into students' heads and more focused on helping those students to see the transcendental a little more clearly. In learning to see, the pupil not only becomes acquainted with what is true, good, and beautiful, but becomes true, good, and beautiful himself. The pupil increases his knowledge and is formed into a particular kind of character.

In the poem Nosce Teipsum cited at the beginning of this essay, John Davies, too, observes that the accumulation of knowledge must be wed with truth, goodness, and beauty. Without this union, there is nothing to counter the sinister human tendency toward self-centeredness. Far from bringing enlightenment, knowledge divorced from truth, goodness, and beauty corrupts the use of reason, leading to ignorance. In fact (perhaps in a reference to Plato's allegory), he likens this malformation to a backsliding into the darkness of a cave — a regress in which eagles turn into bats:

But then grew reason dark, that she no more
Could the fair forms of good and truth discern;
Bats they became, that eagles were before,
And this they got by their desire to learn.

Genuine enlightenment is only possible for the virtuous person, one whose self — and by extension, his quest to gain knowledge — is properly aimed.

English novelist and scholar C. S. Lewis argued as much in his 1943 lecture "Men without Chests." Lewis's lecture identifies neglect of the spirited part of the tripartite Platonic soul as central to the problem of contemporary civic education. "The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat...of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments." That is, for knowledge of the mind to be used for the common good rather than one's own desires, the spirit in one's heart must be tempered. Without a civic education that aspires to cultivate proper sentiments, Lewis concludes, children grow up "without chests," incapable of using the knowledge they learn for the good of anything but their own selfish desires.

To combat this malady of the spirited part of the soul, civic education must begin with music and gymnastics. The right sort of music — by which Plato means fictions, poetry, and stories, as well as melodic songs — can serve to acquaint children with rhythm and harmony, predisposing their souls to become well-ordered:

And, due to his having the right kind of dislikes, he would praise the fine things; and, taking pleasure in them and receiving them into his soul, he would be reared on them and become a gentleman. He would blame and hate the ugly in the right way while he's still young, before he's able to grasp reasonable speech. And when reasonable speech comes, the man who's reared in this way would take most delight in it, recognizing it on account of its being akin.

Gymnastics — the physical training of the body — also serves a purpose in forming the soul. It helps the spirit learn to tolerate temporary discomfort for the long-term health of the body.

Together, music and gymnastics — the foundational elements of a Platonic education — nurture children's imagination and discernment. In the end, Plato's model for education does more than provide knowledge or skills; it is a sort of habituation that subtly shapes children's supple souls to love truth, goodness, and beauty.


Naturally, the scope of Plato's model extends beyond the social-studies classroom. Civic education is not a task that can be limited to one course or one hour out of the school day; instead, it must permeate the life of the school. Students' minds and souls can be cultivated in classes, of course, but children are also deeply formed and habituated into good or bad neighbors during recess, when they eat their lunch, and when they participate in extracurricular activities after school. For the sake of cultivating civic virtue, it would be worthwhile to imagine civic education not only as an interdisciplinary task accomplished through the collaboration of independent specialists from their respective fields, but also as a project to re-unify dismembered educational curricula and help children cherish truth, goodness, and beauty.

Civic education does not occur merely within the life of the school; it also occurs in homes, neighborhoods, the marketplace, religious institutions, and any other voluntary association in which individuals gather with others to unite around a common purpose. It is within the context of these communities that people learn to seek the interest of others instead of their own and to work together for their mutual flourishing. It is where they practice virtues like showing kindness, hospitality, and charity to others. It is also where they practice having the courage to defend their convictions or compromising to build coalitions with those whose views may not fully align with their own. These and other "habits of the heart," as the late sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues articulated nearly 40 years ago, are cultivated in all spheres of civil society. Schools are but one of the many institutions where this kind of formation happens.

Civic education, then, requires a kind of knowledge. But not merely civic knowledge, narrowly understood as knowledge of history and government institutions; it also requires knowledge of ultimate things — of truth, goodness, and beauty — so that a flourishing polis can be discerned.

Civic education likewise requires training in a kind of skill. But not merely civic skill, narrowly understood as possessing competencies in democratic procedures like voting, petitioning, assembling, or staying informed; it also requires cultivation of habits that give rise to the practices of good citizens. In sum, civic education requires the cultivation of civic virtue for making sense of civic knowledge and guiding the application of civic skills.


In his book Education and the Good Life, originally published in 1926, polymath Bertrand Russell composes a paean to modernity and the advances of science and technology. He joins with his fellow Progressive Era cultural elites to express their faith in their newfound ability to master nature and create an order of their own making, eradicating social ills such as hunger, sickness, and material poverty. Included in this optimism is the belief that prejudice can be eliminated with the power of science and technology: "Physical evil," he exclaims, "can, if we choose, be reduced to very small proportions....The great terrors which have darkened the sub-conscious mind of the race, bringing cruelty, oppression, and war in their train, could be so much diminished as to be no longer important."

Russell and the rest of the progressive intelligentsia overstated their case. They could not foresee the capacity of science and technology to destroy and dehumanize. To their credit, since the early 20th century, industrialization, specialization, and mechanization have lowered the cost of the production and distribution of goods, lifting countless people out of material poverty. But these advances also enabled humans to kill each other with an unprecedented level of efficiency. Social media and the internet, to cite more recent examples, have connected people across the world and made information more readily available than at any other time in human history. Yet they have also enhanced our capacity to marginalize, malign, and misguide others. Far from eradicating prejudice, science and technology have stoked its destructive powers.

Simply redoubling efforts of providing information, whether in the form of policing alleged misinformation or disseminating the right information, will not produce the tempered citizens we long for. Nor will improving human capital by expanding people's stock of technical skills be sufficient to that end. At the heart of forming good citizens is cultivating character and virtue. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized this key point as a college student. Writing for the university paper at Morehouse College during his undergraduate studies in 1947, he critiqued the modern conception of education founded solely on realizing pragmatic ends without adequate attention to character formation and ultimate ends. King noted that "education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals."

In short, King believed that "intelligence is not enough." The true goal of education, he thought, should be "[i]ntelligence plus character."

Albert Cheng is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, where he teaches courses in education policy and philosophy.

Jay P. Greene is a senior research fellow for education policy at the Heritage Foundation.


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