The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republic's Third Century

R. Freeman Butts
Center for Civic Education
Calabasas, California


As this book was finally going to press in the waning weeks of the 1987 Bicentennial year and in the opening weeks of the 1988 election year, the issues treated here were, if anything, flaring up with increased intensity. Clearly, they would not soon or easily disappear. There is no way that a published book can keep up with fast-breaking events that bear on the fundamental role of schools in preparing youth for citizenship.

Within the scope of a single week in January the Supreme Court sent mixed messages to school officials, teachers, students, and parents regarding their respective rights and authority under the Constitution. In one case, the Court (5-3) said that school authorities could limit the expression of student ideas in newspapers published in journalism courses conducted by the school, because a student newspaper is not "a forum for public expression," and thus the First Amendment rights of students "are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings." Writing for the majority, Justice Byron R. White stated that this case was different form Tinker, where a school simply tolerated non-disruptive student speech; whereas in Hazelwood the school properly exerts

educators’ authority over school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions, and other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school. These activities may fairly be characterized as part of the school curriculum.... A school must also retain the authority to refuse to sponsor student speech that might reasonably be perceived to ...associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 86-836).
In his fiery dissent Justice Brennan claimed the majority was teaching the wrong ‘civics lesson’ on the meaning of the First Amendment in education for citizenship. He argued that the majority has mistakenly distinguished Hazelwood from Tinker and that the student newspaper was indeed

...a forum established to give students an opportunity to express their views while gaining an appreciation of their rights and responsibilities under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution....

Tinker teaches us that the state educator’s undeniable, and undeniably vital, mandate to inculcate moral and political values is not a general warrant to act as ‘thought police’ stifling discussion of all but state-approved topics and advocacy of all but the official position. Otherwise educators could...cast a perverse and impermissible "pall of orthodoxy over the classroom..."

Instead of "teach[ing] children to respect the diversity that is fundamental to the American system" and "that our Constitution is a living reality, not parchment preserved under glass," the Court today "teach[es] youth to discount important principles of our governments as mere platitudes." The young men and women of Hazelwood East expected a civics lesson, but not the one the Court teaches them today.

The following week Justice Brennan wrote for the majority (6-2) that school officials did not have the authority to expel handicapped children without due process, even if they were disruptive of the school environment (Honig v. Doe, 86-728). Both decisions aroused applause from some commentators in the press and TV, and consternation among others. This interplay among the civic values of freedom, justice, equality, authority, privacy, and due process revealed continuing deep cleavages in public and professional opinion as well as in the courts. And the prospect was that still more volatile issues might be working their way up the courts in litigation seeking to prohibit federal funds from going to parochial schools for the education of disadvantaged children or removing tax exemption for church agencies that sought to exert political or educational influence regarding abortion rights of teenagers.

Still other aspects of constitutional rights in education were focusing front page attention on matters of equality, discrimination, segregation, and affirmative action. The Congress was passing the Civil Rights Restoration act specifically designed to overcome the Supreme Court’s decision in Grove City College v. Bell regarding the use of federal funds by colleges that practice gender discrimination. And federal judges in Boston, Austin, Oklahoma City, and scores of other communities were deciding whether school integration practices under the orders of the courts had gone far enough to justify lifting their surveillance initiated by the Brown decision of 1954 and numerous subsequent decisions of lower and higher courts.

Meanwhile, as the election year warmed up. all the presidential candidates promised their loyalty to improving education, as did candidates for Congress, governorships, and state legislatures. But, only a few were talking about the role of the schools in education for citizenship. Rather strange for a profession that lives on the suffrage of citizens. "Moral and ethical values" seemed to be food vote-getters, while most candidates stayed away from "religious values" as too touchy.

Still, the expressed concern of political leaders to improve education could be a heartening development, especially if their attention could be focused on elevating education for the "office of citizen," a role which all youth should be prepared to fill. From such a base, perhaps the educational system could not only raise the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote (the U.S. is now lowest among 28 democratic countries), but also increase their informed judgment when they do vote; and in the long term elevate the commitment of increasing numbers of youth to devote themselves to preparation for a career in the public service, as Paul Volker and a number of university presidents have recently urged.

A new and intriguing Gallup study of the electorate was issued by Times Mirror in brief summary form in September 1987, entitled The People, the Press & Politics. Arguing that conventional labels of conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, or independent no longer reveal the diversity of the electorate’s views, the study constructs a new typology. People are classified not only according to party preferences but according to several basic values and orientations, such as religious faith and belief in God, tolerance toward the beliefs of others, attitudes toward the government’s obligations to insure social justice, militant anti-communism, alienation and feelings of powerlessness, and attitudes toward the proper role of government an d business corporations.

Even more intriguing are the terms of the typology of voters and their estimated percentages in the adult population: Enterprise republicans (10%); Moral Republicans (11%); Upbeats (9%); Disaffecteds (9%); Bystanders (11%); Followers (7%); Seculars (8%); 60s Democrats (8); New Deal Democrats (11%); The Passive Poor (7%); and The Partisan Poor (9%).

Whatever the merits of the complete Times Mirror study may be upon its publication by Addison-Wesley in 1988, one or two things are clear. A low level and a low quality of education are closely related to a low level (not to judge quality) of education. The Followers, the Partisan Poor, the Passive Poor, and the Bystanders are all identified as "less well" or "poorly" educated. Together, they represent 34% of the adult population. Note particularly the Bystanders: "Young, poorly educated and marked by an almost total lack of interest in current affairs" they are "non-participants in American democracy" (p.14).

A cynic might say that it is just as well for the poorly educated not to be active politically; better to leave politics to the well-educated. But that would be to ignore at our peril Jefferson’s warning: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization it expects what never was and never will be."

So, beyond the election year of 1988 remains the task of reformulating the guidelines for what the schools should teach in order to prepare the young for citizenship. This includes what the schools should teach by their practices, environment, and governance as well as by their curriculum, textbooks, and ideas. Professionals and academics in education, history, jurisprudence, the social sciences, and the humanities are divided on these matters, as the forgoing chapters reveal. Little wonder that the public is also uncertain and divided.

Some of the leading contemporary cast of characters in these disputes will undoubtedly continue to play leading roles. One cannot predict with certainty which ones will star nor for how long. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia will certainly continue to uphold constitutional doctrines of original intention on the Supreme Court, and judge Bork has resigned his position as an appellate judge in order to continue speaking out in the public forums. Justices Brennan and Marshall will continue their leading liberal roles as long as they remain on the Court in the hope that understudies are ready to carry on their views.

Whether William J. Bennett will continue beyond the election of 1988 as Secretary of Education is not settled, but his speaking and writing will very likely continue to play a part in the professional and public debates regarding the place of history, geography and civics in the social studies as set forth in his James Madison High School. Bennett’s clear, forceful, and often contentious views have made the content of education a topic of public and media discussion for beyond the purely professional forums. Not only do historians and social studies professionals enter the fray, but the daily columnists in local and national press continue to have their say. James J. Kilpatrick applauds school authority exerted over school newspapers; Ellen Goodman finds "a scent of authoritarianism" in the Hazelwood decision and in James Madison High School.

Undoubtedly, such volatile and sometimes inflammatory issues as described in this book will continue to be debated in the public space of the media, legislation, and litigation. But, as I stated in the Preface, the task of revitalizing the historic mission of American civic education requires the sustained attention of the scholarly community, the educational profession, and the public. It will take their combined efforts to stimulate and inform the outlooks of those who do the curriculum-making, the textbook-writing and publishing, and the teaching and administering of schools as well as of those in educational policy-making positions. The heart of the matter is a defensible conception of the morality of American citizenship, a conception that can be transformed into the substance and practices of the educational enterprise.

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