From Civism to Civitas: A Retrospective on
The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic's Third Century

R. Freeman Butts
Center for Civic Education
Calabasas, California

I wrote The Morality of Democratic Citizenship in the middle years of the 1980s while I was a Visiting Scholar at the School of Education and the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. It was published as a paperback of 232 pages in 1988 by the Center for Civic Education. Its complete text is now made available on the Center's website as of January 2000. It has not been changed or brought up to date, except for the correction of a few editorial mistakes lingering from the original publication.

The staff of the Center believes that the book still has value for its look to the future as well as for its historical interest. Naturally, I agree. I believe that it summarizes in rather brief terms some of the main ideas and values that have been incorporated in what has now become a world-wide effort to build a vital and energizing education for democratic citizenship. (See CIVITAS: An International Civic Education Exchange Program)

True, Morality deals primarily with schools in the United States, as its subtitle indicates: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic's Third Century. But I believe that its effort to define a defensible conception of American citizenship upon which school instruction should rest can be a useful model for other countries that are now trying to reconstruct the curriculum and the teaching of their educational systems. They are looking for firm foundations upon which to build their transition from dictatorial forms of government to democracy, a process now engaging many countries around the world.

So, I think it is valuable to note something of the educational and political setting in which Morality was first composed. I frankly built it upon some of my earlier writings which, I venture to say, had some influence upon my later writings as well as upon some of the publications of the Center's own volumes. (See other titles by me on this website under Articles and Papers)

I presume to mention one or two examples in which I myself was engaged as part of the general movement for improving civic education in the United States during the past twenty-five years or so. Civic education was given a vital boost in the mid- and late-1970's as the nation tried to overcome some of the widespread alienation toward government arising from the Vietnam War by turning attention to the approach of the 1976 bicentennial celebration of the American Declaration of Independence whose ideals were being reclaimed and reexamined by a large number of educational and political groups.

For example, in the early 1970s the Law in a Free Society Project (forerunner of the Center for Civic Education) began to develop a series of curriculum materials devoted to the basic concepts of a democratic society. They produced curriculums, casebooks, lesson plans, and guides for teacher education on eight concepts: Authority, Justice, Privacy, Responsibility, Participation, Diversity, Property, and Freedom. The first four concepts have been revised and brought up to date in a volume entitled Foundations of Democracy in 1993; and the other four are now being revised for publication.

Other groups were hard at work in other ways to achieve a better civic education, notably the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the American Bar Association's Special Committee on Youth Education for Citizenship. (See items on this website for a description of the Center's engagement with these and other civic education groups.)

In the mid-1970s, the Kettering Foundation and the Danforth Foundation collaborated in supporting a National Task Force on Citizenship Education, headed by B. Frank Brown, which issued its report in 1977 called Education for Responsible Citizenship. In June 1974, I had given a paper at the annual meeting of the Education Commission of the States in Miami on the goals and curriculum patterns of civics courses in the schools. Frank Brown asked me to be chairman of the Task Force's Advisory Committee and to write a chapter on the history of civic education in the United States. Other members of the Committee dealt with the rationales and actual practices of civic education in this country and abroad.

Meanwhile, in 1976 I had moved to California and was invited to join the Board of Directors of the Center for Civic Education. As a result of my participation in several of the activities mentioned above, I was moved to sum up what I had learned by writing The Revival of Civic Learning: A Rationale for Citizenship Education in American Schools published by Phi Delta Kappa Foundation in 1980. The very title indicated that I was optimistic that basic and desirable changes were under way in the 1970s.

The one thing that was distinctive about that volume was my rather clumsy effort to give a schematic form to the Center's list of concepts and to fit them into a table or schema combining the American ideal of e pluribus unum along with Aristotle's classic paradigm of governments. Aristotle classified all governments into three types, those ruled by one, by the few, or by the many. Each type had a true form that serves the public good and a corrupted form that serves primarily the good of the ruler:

Government by True Form Corrupted Form
One Monarchy Tyranny
(king, dictator)
Few Aristocracy
(the best)
(wealth, class, heredity)
Many Republic Democracy
(the mob, poor, needy)


In the Revival's Decalogue of Democratic Civic Values for American Schools, I incorporated seven of the eight concepts for which the Center had developed curriculum materials in the schools. I dropped Property and I added three others that I thought the Center had skipped over too lightly, namely, Equality, Due Process, and International Human Rights. So I came up with a schema that not only included true forms and corrupted forms but classified the concepts as major components of the values of Unum and the values of Pluribus which are both goals of American democracy but often in conflict:

I argued that civic education in America should incorporate and honor both the values of unum and of pluribus as the foundations of a constitutional democracy. I found the word "civism" in Webster's New Universal Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged 1976), defined simply as the principles and virtues of a good citizen. But I misjudged the cogency of that seldom used word "civism," adapted into English from the French civisme, originally implying sympathy with the principles and cause of the French Revolution of 1789.

Nevertheless, the general schema met with some success, notably in the California Framework for History and Social Sciences drawn up and adopted by the State Board of Education in January 1981. The authors of the Framework adopted my conceptualization of democratic values but added three concepts to the Unum values, namely Truth, Responsibility, and Respect for Persons and Property.

But as the 1980s wore on it became clear to me that the need for a revival of civic education was greater than ever before. The nation was gearing up to restudy and reevaluate the study of the Constitution as it prepared to celebrate the bicentennial of the framing and installation of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 and the Bill of Rights in 1791.

An outpouring of scholarship was stimulated by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, headed by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, by Project '87 (co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association), by the American Bar Association, and by hundreds of individual scholars. Meanwhile, bitter constitutional issues leaped to the political forefront during the Reagan administration's confrontations with a Democratic Congress over the Iran/Contra affair, Judge Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, and many other issues.

So, I tried to take seriously Justice Burger's injunction that Americans ought to revive a serious study of the Constitution as the heart of "a history and civics lesson for all of us." The contents of Morality tried to make that lesson explicit for what the field of social studies should be teaching:

Chapter 1 One Clear Mandate: Teach History

A. Teach History - But what History?
B. What Role for History in the Social Studies?
C. Citizenship as Paramount Theme

Chapter 2 Another Clear Mandate: Teach the Constitution

A. Learning from the Bicentennial
B. How We have Taught the Constitution in the Past
C. Whose Constitution Shall We Teach?
D. A Case Study in "Original Intent" - The Establishment Clause
E. Informing Public Debate

Chapter 3 Underlying All Else: A Defensible Conception of Citizenship

A. The High Ideal of Citizenship in a Republic
B. The Modern Idea of Democratic Citizenship

Chapter 4 What the Schools Should Teach: The Twelve Tables of Civism

The point I am trying to make here is that when I came to write up the gains and losses for civic education during the 1980s in the The Morality of Democratic Citizenship, I listened to the California 1981 Framework Committee. So I added Truth and Property to make my Decalogue into the "Twelve Tables of Civism for the Modern American Republic." And I changed Personal Obligation for the Public Good to Patriotism; I thought there should be no backing away from a term which is so fundamental to the unity of the nation as well as a specific way to define the obligations of citizenship.

So there is a continuity and a cumulative character to those two books of mine, which profited no end from the work of the Center for Civic Education whose staff mobilized scholars and teachers from all over the United States to contribute to CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education in 1991 and to the National Standards for Civics and Government in 1994. Both of these volumes deal with all twelve concepts in one section or another, especially under the heading of "The Fundamental Values of American Constitutional Democracy."

If I could do Morality over again (as I have tended to do in a number of articles in the 1990s), I would rename my schema the "Twelve Tables of Civitas: Foundations of a Constitutional Democracy." Civitas is a better term for my purposes than civism. I should have gone first to my 1918 Elementary Latin Dictionary in which "civitas" is defined with two meanings: (a) a community of citizens, a body-politic, a state, and (b) the condition of a citizen, citizenship, membership in the community. Of course, the Latin dictionary did not contain the word civism; it is not a Latin term.

Whereas Webster's Unabridged Dictionaries of 1976 and 1960 list civism as an English word, they do not list civitas. However, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition, 1987, and the Newly Revised and Updated Edition, 1993) carries both words: civism is simply good citizenship, whereas civitas virtually repeats the meaning in the Latin dictionary: civitas refers to both (a) the body of citizens who constitute a state or community and to (b) citizenship, especially as imparting shared responsibility, a common purpose, and a sense of community.

I would now opt for civitas instead of civism as the title for a schema of civic education, This is not merely the bias of an amateur wordsmith, but it is the most economic way of defining the goals of civic education. A recurrent phrase of educational reform, popular during the last two decades of effort to achieve national education standards, has been "What students should know and be able to do" in each subject of the curriculum. In those terms, civitas sums up precisely the two-fold goals of civic education. It should

  1. enable students to know about government, its history, values, principles, and institutions; and

  2. enable students to do what is required of good citizens as they participate in their communities, states, nation, and the world.

Indeed, these have been the goals of my colleagues at the Center as they produced their curriculum materials and as they developed the Framework for Civic Education which they called CIVITAS in 1991, as they produced the National Standards for Civics and Government in 1994, and as they forged the International Civic Education Exchange Program in 1995, now reaching countries in all hemispheres.

Meanwhile, Morality stands here on its own as a historical piece about American civic education. In 1987-88, before the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent decline of Communism in Eastern Europe and throughout the Soviet Union, few would have predicted the speed of the transition to democracy in much of the world. Those developments since 1988 have been recorded in many of the publications of the Center during the past decade, including some of my own and of others available on this website.

It is even possible that Morality may now gain somewhat more relevance in the United States by its very use of the term "morality." Note, for example, the record of Gallup polls for the past 50 years which summarizes those problems that the American public believed were the most important ones facing the country. (See The New York Times, Week in Review, Sunday, August 1, 1999.)

For the first time since 1950, all four of the top issues had direct implications for American education. In 1999, the most frequently mentioned issues in descending order were: ethics, morality, and family decline; crime and violence; education itself; and guns and gun control. A focus on the enhanced role of civic morality as a major purpose of American schools could not be more opportune.

Emphasis on "civic virtue" provides a way through the morass of pressures on public education arising from the growing alienation and mistrust of government, the growing demand for public schools to teach religious-based morals, and the contests between the ideals and practices of public education versus demands for schools to honor parental rights, vouchers for religious schools, charter schools, and the privatization of public education. (See, for example, my "Working Paper" entitled EDUCATION FOR CIVITAS: The Lessons Americans Must Learn, Hanna Collection in the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, which carries the story up to May 1997.)

In sum, one more time, I submit a revised schema for civic education. It is basically the same schema contained in Morality but with a few changes in the wording of the title and in four of the sub-headings: "The Obligations of Citizenship" becomes "The Responsibilities of Citizenship"; "International" has been restored to "Human Rights"; "National" has been added to "Cultural Imperialism"; and "Democratic Civism" becomes "Democratic Civitas". The original text of Morality has not been changed. I believe these headings are more appropriate for the present time and for the future.

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