Since the Capitol riot of 6 January, calls for increased civic education have resurfaced. Arne Duncan, a former US secretary of education has recently suggested that “just as Sputnik prompted America to get serious about science education during the 1950s, the continuing support for an anti-democratic president should prompt us to get more serious about teaching civics.” Former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Christopher Krebs has argued that we have to think about how “we educate on civics … [and] on how elections actively work,” adding “I love the idea of bringing back ‘Schoolhouse Rock.’” News anchor William Brangham agrees: “here’s to more ‘Schoolhouse Rock.’” These are just the latest in a swelling chorus of voices from across the political spectrum.
While most Americans nostalgically nod along with these ideas, Stanley Kurtz has pointed out that the emerging action civics is “starkly at odds with civic education rightly understood.” Kurtz warns that these new civics programs are partisan and biased, and that “Action Civics conceives of itself as a living laboratory in which mere civic theory is put productively into practice. Students, it is held, best acquire civic know-how through direct political action.” While this attempt to create a “living laboratory” is laudable, there is already a real laboratory that has existed for generations: the household and local community. Perhaps it is because these natural systems are disintegrating that the artificial activist laboratory seems attractive.
As a seasoned high school history teacher, I’ve heard calls for more civics before, and have seen the curriculum change accordingly. No matter what the programs actually include, they all seem to overlook the foundational ways that citizenship develops. Civic responsibility cannot be taught in class: it is a practice, consisting of habitual, lifelong actions within a social framework. As advocate for family-centered living Rory Groves suggests, these types of things “cannot be transmitted in a lecture hall. They must be modeled.”
Civility, deliberation and debate were once organically fostered by families and local communities to buttress democratic political practice. It is families and local communities to which we should turn our attention—not to schools, where students are “getting worse at history, geography and civics.” Families and communities are the places where civic practices are formed. We should still aspire to the vision Wendell Berry outlined nearly thirty years ago: that “a young person, coming of age in a healthy household and community, will understand her or his life in terms of membership and service.” What could be better civic education than that?
Membership and Service in the Household
It is no coincidence that, as fewer people form stable families, there is a decrease in civic goodwill and good faith arguments in the public square and an increase in eruptions of violence. As Michael Lind has recently written: “Isolated individuals are the natural sources for political armies” as they “often share a common lack of social rootedness … Twenty-somethings who are married with children and have stable jobs and mortgage payments are unlikely to storm either Seattle’s or Washington’s Capitol Hill.”
The isolated arrangements Lind alludes to are a recent historical development. Until the twentieth century, only one percent of the world’s population lived in single-person households. As historian Jill Lepore explains, “that figure began rising around 1910, driven by urbanization, the decline of live-in servants, a declining birth rate and the replacement of the traditional, multigenerational family with the nuclear family.” The shift towards the individual accelerated during the second half of the twentieth century. Lepore continues, “Beginning in the nineteen-sixties, the percentage of single-person households grew at a much steeper rate, driven by a high divorce rate, a still-falling birth rate, and longer lifespans overall [and] … the old began to reside alone.” The civic practices of sacrifice and service also dwindled, argues Mary Eberstadt: “Institutional substitutes for the family, from day care in early life to nursing home care at the end, have syncopated and interrupted the familial rhythms of birth and dependence and death as never before in history.”
Countless civic exercises take place in daily family life: young siblings negotiate which games to play; older siblings divide up bathroom time; husband and wife navigate life decisions; family members complete thankless chores and daily duties. A thriving household requires work and play, debate and compromise, conflict and resolution, sacrifice and service. Yes, sometimes families fail miserably. And families are certainly not democratic. “Compared to any egalitarian ideal,” Eberstadt explains, “the family is indeed an intrinsically unfair institution, with authority and responsibility and labor unevenly distributed among generations. The family is also, at least for parents, the hardest work many humans will ever undertake, with relentless decision making and seeming nonstop obligations … the family does not put individualism first.”
But the daily reciprocity and cooperation of life together counteracts excessive individualism with lessons on civility, negotiation and the limits of freedom and authority. This arrangement has subtle beauty and power, as men and women learn the deep satisfactions of sacrifice and service that develop character. When the fruitful family is the central unit of society, young and old, male and female are all involved in the meaningful task of forming human beings. This type of direct agency and the ability to impact one’s immediate surroundings is more potent than the promises of action civics, the abstract instruction to change the world or the distant realm of Washington politics.
Membership and Service in the Community
The family prepares men and women for citizenship in a republic, which entails first duties, then rights. Meaningful service in the community is based on the values forged in the household. As Lind writes, “People who are rooted in real communities—extended families, neighborhoods, occupational associations, religious congregations—do not make good foot soldiers in partisan armies deployed by remote elites who are battling for control of government offices. They have jobs they can’t miss and children they have to pick up from school and errands to run.” A renewed focus on the local provides perhaps the best chance for democracy in our fragmented and polarized era.
As John Gastil and Katherine Knobloch argue in their book Hope for Democracy, Washington politics increasingly exhaust the American people, making us into spectators of “legislative karaoke,” in which representatives take turns delivering soundbites and scripted talking points, aimed more at the news cycle and social media than at their fellow members of Congress. Gastil and Knobloch argue that the “professionalization of government” has turned most modern societies from democracies to “polyarchies,” ruled by an elite political class.
Together, the sense of political impotence and alienation and increasing isolation create a demoralizing mix. Gastil and Knobloch suggest that we should combat these forces with deliberative democracy: “Across the globe, political reformers have been busy inventing new approaches to democracy that give average citizens more meaningful roles in making decisions, joining policy debates, or giving direct advice to the electorate. The core idea of this new movement is ‘deliberative democracy.’” Their research suggests that there are ripple effects throughout society when citizens develop intentional habits of democracy locally. This could provide one key to the recovery of meaningful civic life in local communities, or, as the authors call them, “mini-publics.” Local communities are manageable in size and humane in scale: you can make measurable impacts when you know your neighbors and leaders.
I am skeptical of the benefits of more civics education—whether traditional or action civics. There are larger social forces at work that mitigate against civic responsibility. Strengthening families and local communities can only be part of the solution. But the gradual drift from family to individual as the primary social unit has certainly played a role in the decline of civil society.
This shift towards a focus on the self is often praised because it holds out the promise of autonomy and individualism—but it has been found wanting at times when sacrifice for the common good and service to the community are needed. Perhaps that is because the family provides a different sort of freedom: an ordered freedom of limits and interdependent coherence. This is not individual freedom untethered from responsibility and commitment, but the freedom from vulnerability and loneliness that comes of making a meaningful contribution to the lives of others. Part of the challenge is that many people are no longer familiar with this type of existence, having never experienced it themselves or having been unable to find a partner who was willing to form a family. Embracing the external order of the natural family in the context of a community is hard work, but such work can provide individual and social renewal. And while there is no room to hide from human brokenness and failures within the close quarters of the family, the family also provides a salve for our personal wounds through the bonds of blood and self-giving love.