On Civic Education

Ben Kleinerman recently posted a link to an article about the Jack Miller Center, its programs, and its grants which include funding for this publication. The organization is a wonderful success story for American civic education and I am delighted to be affiliated with it and pleased that Ben has highlighted it.

However, I don’t think that Ben does justice to the excellence of the Jack Miller Center effort or to our aspirations for this site. Ben’s description would likely resonate well with many affiliated with these efforts — so my criticism is not of Ben, personally, but of the fact that his description understates the value of the kind of civic education and civic reflection that we seek to encourage and that the Jack Miller Center has fostered.

The three mistakes, in my view, are these: 1) We are advocates for constitutional thinking, not partisans of the Constitution. Partisanship is a word we discussed and rejected when we developed the mission statement for The Constitutionalist because it is usually associated with some form of factionalism, a viewpoint that is partial and passionate. Partisanship and advocacy need not be the same thing, especially as the contributors to the civic education enterprise, better understood, will be advocates for different and contending arguments and will welcome this contestation. We aim for critical thinking that seeks to ponder the constitution of American politics as a regime, as a whole. We try to encourage thinking that goes beyond partisanship in both the sense of affiliation with existing parties and ideologies but also that goes beyond adulation of the Constitution. Constitutional thinking is diagnostic, critical and self-critical. 2) Relatedly, there is no one American political tradition or one American constitutional tradition. Rogers Smith, a well known political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and a scholar in the Jack Miller Center network, showed this clearly in a pathbreaking article on America’s multiple traditions. Nicole Mellow and I tried to elaborate Smith’s insight in a recent book. 3) Constitutional thinking does not venerate the Constitution but rather seeks to understand it, its limits, its aspirations and possibilities, the needs for possible reform, the sources and consequences of its infirmities, the requisites for constitutional maintenance, and the merits of revolution and alternatives to the existing constitutional order. Among us are some who think veneration is more important than I have just indicated — but if so, they make an argument from the point of view of one responsible for the constitutional order as a whole. They don’t assume anything but rather argue the point, so proponents of veneration themselves cannot venerate. This idea is well articulated in The Federalist, Number 49.

The failure of civic education in the United States may be the deepest source of the decay of American political culture today so evident in the fact of, and reactions of many to, the recent insurrection. The failure of civic education in the United States is the deepest source of congressional abdication of its constitutional duties in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. A failure of civic education is a deep source of the decay of democratic discourse in our time. A robust civic education is not partisan and it is not an effort to articulate or advance a single American tradition.

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