Electives didn't cause the crisis of democracy. Gen-eds won't save us
This article drove me nuts. It's embarrassing in that it makes intensely strong claims with absolutely no evidence, which is pretty standard in the genre. This was the same stuff that Arthur Schlesinger and other Cold War liberals were howling about in reference to "identity politics" and multiculturalism in the 1980s: that American sociopolitical consensus rested on a common civic canon of literary, philosophical and political references--and it was just as undemonstrated then.
Two claims in particular are just absolutely without evidence:
1. That the specific content of civics classes as they appeared in high school and university curricula prior to 1990 produced specific kinds of national and democratic dispositions in the students that took them. In fact, there's two issues: 1) these guys almost never look at the broad range of what civics classes were at the universities and public high schools that the vast majority of Americans attended; as you observe, they just look at Columbia or Stanford and take the content of those required gen-ed civics core courses as standard when they absolutely were not even in the good old days; 2) where's the specific dispositional evidence--that in the past a nation went into those classes an unruly bunch of people separated by class, race, socioeconomic status, etc and came out Americans? I mean, would anybody be remotely confident about saying "Give me 15 students and I guarantee you that by the end in my boot camp civics requirement I will have made unified Americans out of them in a way that will hold for life regardless of what's going on out there in the world?" Find me a professor or teacher who makes that claim and you'll have found someone who is really high on their own supply and very likely committing pedagogical malpractice in the process.
2. That the specific forms of partisan rivalry and disunity of the last twenty-five years have been caused by the rise of elective curricula and the fading of the civics class. First off, the *elective* spread through higher education like kudzu starting in the 1920s, for god's sake. Charles Eliot at Harvard won that fight at the end of the 19th Century. Second, where's the evidence that civics classes were the last survivor of a required core? (Or for that matter that "Western civilization" in the Stanford mode was the last survivor and was taught *as* civics rather than as less-applied history?) If they're right, disunity and partisanship should have been on a steady rise from the 1930s onward, which doesn't fit American political history in any form, no matter how blinkered. Second, as you point out, there are SO many other explanations. At best they have a really weak-ass correlation posing as a cause, and even the correlation is pretty dubious.
I'm vaguely prepared to accept some of the Bowling Alone family of arguments that there was some form of civic consensus that everyday contact between people secured that later "big sorts" under the pressure of neoliberal inequality have unravelled--Rosenblum's Good Neighbors is a very nice further iteration of that. But this kind of stuff is lazy piffle on every level; the authors either are just on the make for their own institutional schtick or this is some kind of elaborate ideological frame-up job that keeps them from having to look at the real causes.
Great post. I am up for teaching in the spring, for the first time, a gen-ed “intensive writing” course on a rather vaguely-defined history of ideas from mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, for honours sophomores. It won’t change American democracy, but, like you, I’ll try to approach with the more modest goals that for each student at least *something* they read (and I’ll be including poetry, painting and music as well as philosophy) resonates, such that maybe twenty years later they remember something and take it back off the shelf to have another look, as I have often done from the best courses I took as a student (which I didn’t always immediately recognise). I can’t teach democracy, but maybe some ability to reflect on ideas and art will accomplish something...
Democratizing the school, the university, and especially the workplace would be vastly more important than any one course in “civics” or “civilization.”