How to Educate an American Citizen

What should schools teach about the Constitution? And should they teach feelings, aspiration, or fact?

As Americans grapple with the urgent task of repairing a divided and polarized public, the democratic role of educational institutions is becoming ever more important. That role is far from new; early public schools and universities cast their goals in terms of public purpose, and battles over national identity and belonging have regularly been fought on educational terrain.

But what does preparing young people for citizenship mean? What do people need to know, do, and be in order to fulfill democratic ambitions? And what, therefore, should K–12 schools, colleges, and universities do to realize those ambitions?

Consider how Americans relate to their Constitution: how we feel about the Constitution, what we want from it, and what we really know of it. Most Americans’ image of the Constitution foregrounds the Bill of Rights: an important element of the Constitution, to be sure, but one that exists due to a historic compromise to balance the original text itself. Many appear to “know” of rights that are not actually enumerated in the Constitution, as we learned when some insisted on a constitutional right not to wear a mask in public. In one sense, the Constitution functions as an object of reverence and pride—its textual content incidental to the principles people derive from it and the love they feel for it.

What, then, should schools teach about the Constitution? And should they teach feelings, aspiration, or fact? A knowledge-based approach (facts) would emphasize the text itself and the historical processes that led to its creation: What were the authors trying to do, how did they try to do it, and what have the effects been? By contrast, a skills approach (aspirations) would ask students to interpret the text and its history, grasping how citizens and groups can use and understand the Constitution. And a values approach (feelings) would show students the genius of the design, inspiring patriotic attitudes. How one teaches the Constitution, of course, matters for how one’s students will feel and what they will know about America itself.

Should we understand citizenship education as being mostly about knowledge, about skills, or about beliefs? Certainly some mixture is appropriate, and none of the three can be effectively taught without some of the other two. The question matters, though, for how we educate for citizenship, and how we measure and assess education’s effects on citizenship. Democracy is about sharing power and governance with other people in a polity—particularly people who are different from you. So what mixture might best prepare young people for sharing that polity fully, responsibly, and generously?

These three competing approaches animate a set of recent books on education’s role in democracy. One approach emphasizes attitudes and values (what should students believe to be good citizens), as exemplified in How to Educate an American, edited by Fordham scholars Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn Jr. Another focuses on the skills for performing good citizenship (what should they be able to do), as seen in Higher Expectations, by Derek Bok. A final approach, revealed in How to Educate a Citizen, by E. D. Hirsch Jr., holds up shared knowledge as the key.

what does preparing young people for citizenship mean?

In 2019, the New York Times published a controversial, award-winning collection of essays entitled The 1619 Project. Its provocative claim: that 1619—the year the first enslaved people were brought to North America—is better understood as the foundational year for the United States than 1776. While some of the ensuing controversy focused on the historical content, most objected to the (implied) indictment of American political development: the idea that racial oppression is more foundational than even the Declaration of Independence. Conservative politicians and commentators denounced the project; Senator Tom Cotton even introduced a bill to prohibit teaching about it in public schools, labeling it “left-wing propaganda” and “revisionist history at its worst.” One of the Trump administration’s final acts was to promulgate The 1776 Report, intended to rebut the 1619 Project. The report contained virtually no historical disputes with its nemesis; rather, it lamented the decline in patriotism The 1619 Project (and “identity politics” in general) might bring. The unmistakable lesson: patriotic values are more important than accuracy.

Such questions animated a group of conservative thinkers, commentators, and education scholars who came together under the umbrella of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Hoover Institution for a series of talks. The talks became the book How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn Jr. The collection offers many thoughtful, ambitious ways of understanding the social, cultural, and civic functions schools ought to play.

The authors are mixed on these questions, sometimes even within a single article. Take, for example, Eliot Cohen’s treatment of historian Jill Lepore’s work. First, Lepore is derided as a “critical” historian; Cohen follows Gordon Wood in criticizing Lepore (in her The Whites of Their Eyes, from 2010) for being a “modern analytic historian” instead of a “patriotic” one. Raising concerns similar to Cotton’s indictment of 1619, he scolds academic historians for “specializ[ing] in the study of clay feet.” “Americans,” Cohen declares, “need history that educates and informs, but also history that inspires.” Then, later, Lepore is praised for just that: “an ambitious and engrossing one-volume history of the United States, These Truths.” In Cohen’s view, the change from Lepore’s 2010 book to her new one is a shift from analytic to patriotic history. He attributes the shift to the political times: during the Trump administration, liberals needed heroism, so These Truths read heroically. But These Truths was published in 2018, which means it had to be complete no more than a year or so into the Trump administration, and underway well before it. Perhaps the explanation for the difference between the two books is simpler: maybe the subject matter of the first (the Tea Party movement) evokes critique, and that of the second, patriotism. In a contest between patriotism and truth, which should win out? In his zeal for patriotic inspiration, Cohen leaves little room for valuing historical accuracy.

Cohen straightforwardly endorses, as a tool for citizenship, the role of history as inspiration. Telling too much of the wrong truth is bad, even if it’s true, because “patriotic” history breeds, well, patriotic children. In that context, the beginning of the following chapter (by Robert George) is rendered ironic: “A grave threat to their pursuit [of knowledge] today is posed by the politicization of the academy (and sometimes its feeder schools).” Cohen’s chapter is, quite literally, an argument for politicizing historical study in the service of patriotic attitudes. Adam Meyerson and Adam Kissel, in the chapter that follows George’s, argue largely the same: civics education should develop appreciation, not just knowledge, because knowledge on its own can be too “pessimistic.” William Damon, too, argues for education fostering patriotic views alongside “purpose,” which remains undefined. Most of the conference attendees apparently saw no problem with politicizing historical study—just so long as the politics lean the right way.

In the specific case of the history debates, all this points to the fact that historical accuracy is not a sufficient basis for citizenship education. The debate between 1619 and 1776 can’t be solved using historical evidence alone; nor can that between Lepore’s treatments of the Tea Party and of the Founding. Interpretation, judgment, and deliberation are crucial skills that build on a foundation of evidence but can’t be reduced to it.

That fact—generally presumed by historians—makes How to Educate a Citizen: The Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation, by education scholar (and sometime conservative-education star) E. D. Hirsch Jr., all the more provocative. Hirsch builds on his prior work to insist that it is primarily knowledge that serves civic goals. American schools, he charges, have largely abandoned knowledge acquisition in favor of skills and individual development; shared knowledge, though, is the key to “unify[ing] a nation.” (Hirsch’s work is cited heavily in William Bennett’s chapter in How to Educate an American.) “Schooling in a democracy,” Hirsch writes, “is not just schooling. It’s also citizen making.” He’s right (and not only so in democracies), but while his commitment to shared knowledge is passionate, it is not ultimately convincing.

Hirsch’s case is built on a single, empirical claim: that students with more shared knowledge will do better civically as well as in other dimensions. They will be more functional and prosperous, economically competent and socially unified, better able to enter universities, more patriotic, and more successful in real life. Hirsch valorizes knowledge-based schools: those whose curriculum and design are oriented around teaching their students a common base of knowledge. These schools, he asserts, provide better education and better outcomes for children.

The stakes are high; if your child attended a knowledge-based school, “then your child would love school and not wish to leave. Your child would be so well schooled that he or she could attend a top high school. Imagine such public schools all over the nation; the fortunes of the United States, both economically and socially[,] would soar. Its unity and competence would rise.” “Any city or state that adopted a well-thought-out topic-specific K–8 curriculum and classroom materials would begin topping the charts in achievement and equity.”

Wow! Who wouldn’t want that to happen? Well, to begin with, while Hirsch asserts these enormous causal effects, he never demonstrates them, nor does he offer virtually any evidence from other studies to back them up. Chapter 2 is an extended dialogue with two teachers, each of whom has taught in two states—interesting experiences, to be sure, but certainly not causal evidence. (This preference for assertion over evidence is true in the Petrilli and Finn volume, too.) Much is made of a study by David Grissmer showing major increases in verbal achievement in knowledge-based schools, particularly among disadvantaged students; “these are decisive results.” But, as it turns out, the study isn’t peer-reviewed or even published, and it appears from Grissmer’s website that it focuses only on first-grade children. A promising finding, to be sure, but hardly a sufficient empirical hook on which to hang the elaborate causal and prescriptive claims of this book.

The presumption here is that knowledge is facts—not, for example, relationships, patterns, inferences, or judgments. The examples underscore that presumption: “You can’t understand what Google is saying unless you already know a lot of the facts Google is assuming you know.” But in reality, it’s not just foundational facts you need to know. You need to know foundational relationships (how Google is related to other sources of information, for example); skills for interpretation of that evidence; and judgment about what to trust and why. The facts mean nothing without their interpretation.

Furthermore, the array of knowable facts is essentially infinite, and most of those facts are instantly available via that very same Google search. The question is which facts are relevant and what they mean. And understanding those questions is more about skills (what one can do) than knowledge (what one knows to be true).

Hirsch is adamant through most of the book that it’s not important which particular facts are shared; it’s the very fact that they are shared that makes them powerful unifiers. At one point, he tasks “the majority” with determining the specific facts to be conveyed, an absurd idea in a pluralistic, multiethnic society. By the final chapter of the book, though, he’s dropped all concern for specific knowledge, arguing instead for teaching “patriotism”: a preference for students having positive beliefs or attitudes about their country, but not a body of facts. This goal for shared knowledge producing shared values is presumably behind this jaw-dropping sentence: “Our founders … sought to create a government that would accommodate every person of every religion, race, and ethnicity.” This may be patriotic history, but it’s just not true.

Interpretation, judgment, and deliberation are crucial skills that build on a foundation of evidence but can’t be reduced to it.

If Hirsch privileges shared knowledge, in Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century?, former Harvard president Derek Bok asks whether current colleges and universities are teaching the intellectual skills students need for contemporary society. The book is comprehensive and wide-ranging, focusing on the ambitious VALUE rubrics of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) for preparing students for careers and citizenship.

Bok’s discussion of civics education in college is focused on American government; there is little consideration of citizenship on a global level or of civic skills that might be useful in other countries. But, importantly, he does focus on skills rather than on knowledge: “the basic skills and qualities of mind required for responsible civic participation, such as analytic ability, proficiency in written and oral communication, respect for the rights of others, and the capacity to work with fellow citizens effectively and collaboratively toward common goals.” He acknowledges concerns about substantive knowledge, but the emphasis is on what students are able to do after receiving their education.

That vision is articulated best in the first paragraph of the ninth chapter: an extended list of capacities Bok invites us to imagine “much larger numbers of college graduates” developing. The list calls on these graduates to be able to

analyze problems successfully; adapt readily to changing conditions and new challenges; collaborate effectively with others in producing creative solutions to novel problems; meet their commitments conscientiously; … interact easily and harmoniously with others from different … backgrounds … vot[e] regularly in elections, participat[e] in cooperative efforts to improve their communities, and welcom[e] opportunities to join with others to address needs and solve problems … [and hold] stronger ethical principles, greater empathy for the problems of others, and a clearer sense of the purpose and values to guide their lives.

These are all behaviors or skills; like the other goals Bok outlines for higher education (including job-market preparation, ethical principles, finding purpose and meaning, and so on), they can be observed, measured, and practiced. And they are inherently dynamic; instead of an accumulation of static facts, students can deploy these skills in new and changing environments. Students can learn citizenship, Bok claims, the way they learn the other skills that will help them as adults: through learning how to do things, not necessarily through accumulating facts. Citizenship—like work, service, and inquiry—is a dynamic practice, not an achieved status.


College Worth Fighting For

By Ryan Boyd

Knowledge does matter; people who don’t know facts about the opportunities, goals, and limits of government cannot act effectively or responsibly in it. The battles over knowledge itself in recent decades are fierce, so it is tempting to focus on establishing a shared stock of facts.

But knowledge is foundational, not aspirational. For all the passionate assertions about knowledge leading to belonging, engagement, and patriotism, Hirsch provides virtually no actual evidence that knowing (as opposed to being able to do) provides the belonging and unity he’s looking for.

Yes, Americans are divided not just by what they believe is right but by what they believe is true. But that division runs both ways: people learn facts from their political communities as well as develop political commitments from truth claims.

Belief matters, too. Believing in the principles of the Constitution and American culture is an important element, as is believing in principles like equality, tolerance, and respect. But if democracy is about sharing that polity, it has to be about sharing the polity with those who believe differently. It can’t logically depend on a broad set of uniformly shared beliefs.

Sharing a polity is something people need to do, not just know or believe. It is therefore best fostered as a set of skills or capacities: something that can be learned, practiced, measured, observed. Some of these skills are practical (how to vote, run for office, write a speech, or sign a petition); others are intellectual (how to talk across disagreement, assess evidence, make good judgments). Like any skills, these require both values and knowledge, but the most important piece—the secret sauce—is the ability to put values and knowledge to use.

How, then, should we best educate an American citizen? Some knowledge, some critical and common beliefs, for sure. But mostly through cultivating skills for thinking, reasoning, talking, listening, engaging, and doing.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: High school students in masks enter school (2020). Photograph by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action / Flickr