Among the current problems plaguing American youth, child obesity, steroid use, and other self-styled "crises" clamor for political action, but rampant civic illiteracy receives scant public outcry. Many decades after the Progressive thinker John Dewey's influential followers first prescribed the nostrum of "social studies" to American public education—and despite its utter failure—most contemporary books demanding civic education "reform" still see social studies as the panacea. With just the right dose of Dewey, they assert, our national virus can be eradicated.
The ten contributors to Civic Education and Culture, and its editor, Bradley C.S. Watson, McKenna Chair in American and Western Political Thought at Saint Vincent College, advocate a radically different approach from the dominant social studies project. They suggest renewed appreciation for the West's classical (especially Greek) patrimony, reaffirmation of American self-government, and the restoration of a liberal arts curriculum in American higher education. Their arguments, the essayists broadly concur, do not promise a quick fix.
Divided into three parts, the book begins with three excellent essays on "Civic Education and the Western Tradition." Bruce S. Thornton, professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno, calls for a recovery of "critical consciousness," whereby philosophy examines tradition for the sake of finding truth. A gift mainly of the Greeks, this spirit of investigation is critical but not destructive; it gives no license to a rampaging intellectual anarchy. That immoral condition, our present plight, owes much to the legacy of John Stuart Mill, suggests Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion. The "worship of innovation" inspired by Mill meant that what he celebrated as "experiments in living" now are expected ways of life. Drawing nimbly upon James Fitzjames Stephen's devastating attack on Mill, Kimball argues that the velvet glove of Mill's libertarianism, which has become our lifestyle liberalism, concealed the iron fist of rationalized coercion, leading to today's mandated diversity. Catholic University Louvain Professor of Philosophy William Desmond similarly finds tyrannical forces lurking in Kantian autonomy, a universalism that tends, he explains, to denigrate the pietas necessary for patriotism.
The book's second part includes four articles on "Civic Education and the American Regime," each of which points to virtues essential to patriotic citizenship. Colleen Sheehan, professor of political science at Villanova University, rescues James Madison from those scholars who render his ideas inimical to civic virtue and a democratic ethos. Inspired by Robert Frost's poetic appreciation of prudence, Sheehan demonstrates that Madison-more than any other American founder—knew the need for political communication that would stir citizens to civic action at the same time it facilitated the growth of a commercial republic. Both ends were essential to what Frost called "Madison's dream." Following the lead of Madison and Abraham Lincoln, Hudson Institute senior fellow John Fonte urges Americans to maintain reverence for their regime of liberty. He warns of social studies-led efforts to "transform" the founders' idea of our regime, constructing a "counter-regime" in its place.
Abigail Thernstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, shares Fonte's wariness of multiculturalism, and incisively focuses on how habituation shapes the culture of learning in general and in public education specifically. Thernstrom lauds several charter schools that by accepting no excuses for failure habituate their students to think about what it takes to be great. Thomas Pangle, the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies at the University of Texas in Austin, provides a thoughtful overview of the debate in Canada and the U.S. over the disenfranchisement of felons, pointing to the practical virtue of democratic deliberation. By asking, with Plato, how law acts as a teacher, Pangle elucidates a question common to many of the selections in this volume: What are the prerequisites of republican government?
Contributors to the third part of the book, "Civic Education and the University," insist that republican government largely depends upon a well-educated citizenry. Lieutenant General Josiah Bunting, former superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, laments the loss of "the idea of emulation." Unconscious and intentional acts of emulation (what Desmond refers to earlier as "civic mimesis") help to foster selflessness. In emulating noble deeds, students begin to learn that they are not self-made. Teachers and leaders contribute most to the ennobling of culture by their example of self-government. Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, contends that the present academy is far from exemplary, and might be best characterized by its politicized and self-interested excess. Higher education's primary goal, Colorado College Worner Distinguished Service Professor Timothy Fuller insists, must be the overcoming of its politicization. "The purpose of the university is to understand the world, not to change it," he writes. At its best, the university "is the academic form of the virtue of moderation."
Readers will not find in this book a ten-part master plan for revivifying American civic education and culture. They ought not strive for one, for as Watson writes in his thoughtful introduction, "civic education does not reduce to civics." The contributors to this superb and remarkably cohesive volume exhort their fellow citizens to reflect with philosophical clarity and to act with patriotic probity, offering the measured counsel that civic education should resist politicized reductionism and elevate the gaze of its citizens.