Does Civics Ed = Ideology?

In a recent blog post, education expert Diane Ravitch quotes a reader who avers that the purpose of public education is that “the job requirements of a citizen in a democratic society are far and away more demanding than the job qualifications of a serf in a feudal society… It [educating for democracy] is one of those measures that democratic societies enact in the effort to maintain themselves as democratic societies.”

When I posted it on the GC Facebook page, one of our college leaders, Sergio Reyes from Boston University responded:

“I disagree with the post and the comments. Education shouldn’t be an instrument of a particular system of government — democracy or any other — to perpetuate or improve itself. Education should allow people to realize their full human potential; to attain the tools to live the lives they want. In making education public, states are only fulfilling their duty to citizens by providing the means to lives that are something other than “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Democracy is a means, not the end, of education.”

Sergio brings up a larger point here: Is “educating for democracy” an inherently ideological enterprise? Put another way, does teaching kids to be active and engaged citizens mean you have to oppose other prevalent ideologies?

One person who thinks so is Barbara Ferman, who wrote a recent paper entitled, “Educating for Democracy: Reflections From a Work in Progress.” Barbara is a political science professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and head of the University Community Collaborative, an action civics program working with predominantly low-income, minority youth in West Philly. (GC works with Barbara and UCCP through the National Action Civics Collaborative (for more on which, see my earlier post).) In the paper, she draws heavily on experience running UCCP and a college action civics course.

Ferman identifies three principal barriers to civic engagement for young people, an “unholy troika” of “relevance, negativity, and the triumphant market” (232). According to Ferman, young people “fail to see the relevance of government in their lives… They are unable to link what they perceive to be private or individual issues and problems with governmental activity or inactivity” (232). Additionally, years of attacks on government (famously, Reagan’s line that “government is the problem”) have eroded belief in a positive role for government. Finally, Ferman argues, the ideology of the market, manifested by pushes for privatization and a strong emphasis on the individual (as opposed to the community) have turned the “1960s adage that ‘the personal is the political’… on its head. The new dictum is ‘the political is the personal’ ” (233).

It will not escape readers’ notice that the very description of the problem of civic disengagement entails teaching active citizenship in a way that affirms left-of-center assumptions about government, the place of markets, and so on. That sounds a lot like teaching students a specific ideology (or, more polemically, indoctrination). Of course, ideology per se is not necessarily bad; it is hard to conceive of any course that teaches citizenship devoid of it. “Active and engaged citizenship” looks pretty different from the standpoint of, say, the Muslim Brotherhood.

That said, the paper raises a number of questions: If Ferman is right, does that mean that some strains of conservatism are inherently opposed to civic engagement (and thus, presumably, democracy itself)? Or does she misrepresent (or misunderstand) the causes of civic decline? And is ideology inevitable when teaching citizenship – and if so, what should that ideology look like?

-Daniel Millenson, Managing Director