Civic Education, the Essential Substrata of Military and National Service

July 10, 2019
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Across the Midwest, and indeed much of America, you will find inscribed across the doorways of the brick and stone schoolhouses built in the early 20th century these words: “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.” From the New York City Police Academy, which adopted the exhortation as its motto in 1925, to Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School in 1926, and countless humble schools in between, America’s institutions of learning proudly acknowledged the public ends of education and the duties or responsibilities toward their community that education confers on those educated. In proclaiming this mission, American schools were simply underlining with a flourish the role historically envisioned for them, dating to the very foundations of the American Republic: to create good citizens, of and for the Republic.

Creating good citizens who were prepared for self-government was the primary charge of democratic schooling. At the time of the American Revolution, Benjamin Rush, one of the most influential founders when it came to schooling, even suggested that public schools ought to be in the business of creating “Republican machines” out of the future generation. Such phrasing sounds exotic, if not toxic to our ears today, perhaps in part because our schools no longer understand themselves in such terms, much less communicate that to students and their larger communities.

A few years ago, former civics teacher and current education scholar Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute conducted a study of the hundred largest school districts in America, which represent some 11 million students, reviewing their publicly available mission, vision, and values statements to see whether “they still view the preparation of students for participation in democratic life as an essential outcome.” Within the 14,000 words making up those mission statements, U.S. citizenship appears only once, “democracy” only twice. Sixty percent of the mission statements makes no mention of civics, citizenship, or democracy. And while there are nods toward “community,” the context is inevitably in terms of what the community can do for students—not what students are expected to do for the community. What is emphasized is private success—entrance into college and having a career. We might say that “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve” has become rather “Enter to learn; go forth to earn.”

This isn’t a blanket condemnation of self-improvement, monetary and otherwise. As Pondiscio pointed out, these school mission statements are crafted by a panoply of leaders and stakeholders in each district, who at least in theory come together to articulate a set of ideas, values, and goals that reflect the aspirations of their communities. And service toward that community, much less to the larger American community, seems nowhere to be championed and publicly valorized as an obligation or even goal of education, even by community leaders. Small wonder that civic education, the last, sorry beachhead of education’s public purpose, is barely acknowledged as a curricular necessity; is given less than 10 percent of a student’s classroom time; cannot give its teachers time or funding for professional development; gives its professional development community less funding in the aggregate than one organization alone, Intel Foundation, gives in one year in grants to STEM programs. Everywhere, especially in light of the 2016 election outcome, politicians and pundits are giving lip service to the importance of civic education. Precious few have done anything tangible about it. However, this has been a perpetual problem for the past few decades. This has led me to call civic education “The bobblehead issue”: It’s a problem that seems to be acknowledged with a nod only in passing by those outside of the civic education community.
This commission creates an opening to change that.

Rebecca Burgess is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where her work focuses on veterans, the public policies that affect them and their families, and their role in civil society and politics. She is concurrently the manager of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, a program that fosters original research on civic education, the health of America’s public institutions, and the principles of American democracy.

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