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Civic education.

In "Tug of War" (Research, Fall 2003), James B. Murphy argues that "the attempt to inculcate civic values in our schools is at best ineffective and often undermines the intrinsic moral purpose of schooling."

Murphy's first argument relies on the empirical claim that civics classes are ineffective because they do not "foster desirable knowledge, attitudes, and conduct." He cites "influential research by [M. Kent] Jennings and Kenneth Langton [which] found that the high-school civics curriculum had little effect on any aspect of civic values." Murphy is referring to a 1968 article that derived its conclusions from asking students just six miscellaneous factual questions.

Murphy concedes that this picture has been complicated by Richard Niemi and Jane Junn's book Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (1998). As Murphy summarizes their argument, Niemi and Junn "found that, although the civics curriculum had much less effect on civic knowledge and values than did the home environment, civics courses did make some difference.... However, as with earlier studies, Niemi and Junn found that civics courses had virtually no effect on attitudes."

In fact, Niemi and Junn write that "the evidence points strongly in the direction of course effects" on students' attitudes as well as knowledge. They analyzed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment, which asked only two questions about values or attitudes. Thus the authors recognize that they have little data on attitudes. Nevertheless, the courses seem to raise students' scores on the only two attitudes that were measured: confidence in government and belief in the value of elections.

Niemi and Junn further cite an extensive body of research--all produced after Jennings and Langton's work--showing that civics classes do help to make young people into knowledgeable, engaged, and/or concerned citizens.

More recently, Judith Torney-Purta's analysis of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement's civics assessment (given to 90,000 14-year-olds in 28 countries) found that civics instruction correlates, controlling for demographic factors, with improved civics knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Likewise, according to The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait (a survey of Americans conducted in 2002), students who reported that their teachers led discussions of politics and government were more involved in their communities and more attentive to the news than other students.

To be sure, there are principled disagreements about what makes a good citizen. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of common ground, as evidenced by the detailed recommendations in the Civic Mission of Schools, a report issued jointly in 2003 by the Carnegie Corporation and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). This report was written and endorsed by self-identified liberal and conservative scholars and representatives of groups as diverse as the Heritage Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Murphy reminds us of the potential tension between teaching the truth and trying to make the right kinds of citizens. However, his reading of the empirical literature is inaccurate and incomplete, and he overlooks a broad consensus on goals. There is much more basis for optimism about civics than he admits.

PETER LEVINE

University of Maryland

College Park, Maryland
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Title Annotation:Correspondence
Author:Levine, Peter
Publication:Education Next
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:538
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