7 Comments

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.

Expand full comment
author

I agree with this, and on the last point what really gets me is the almost willful refusal to contemplate Stanford's own place in the firmament of American society, as if the free market just happened to influence Stanford through curriculum alone and not, say, through the institution's function as a part of the Silicon Valley/startup world and its larger role in elite formation and reproduction. Is the idea that, say, senators who graduated Stanford twenty years ago were deformed by not having heard The Right Opinions delivered at the right time? Because I defy anyone to have that sound a grasp on how to deliver a message.

Expand full comment

I mean, I'm prepared to hear that the narcissism and civic disregard of certain Stanford graduates and hangers-on have something to do with Stanford's abandonment of anything like an idea of the public good, but then again I'm not real sure that Stanford ever had that, Western Civ or no Western Civ.

Expand full comment

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...

Expand full comment
author

The twenty-years-later experience is another topic I have in my drafts and I think this is a good time to excavate it. The other part of your comment I particularly like is that we *dont know* what our effects will be! That’s the point of education as opposed to indoctrination!

Expand full comment

Democratizing the school, the university, and especially the workplace would be vastly more important than any one course in “civics” or “civilization.”

Expand full comment
founding

Brilliant analysis!

Expand full comment