Educating for liberty? The shortcomings of contemporary civic education theories

Article Highlights

  • What should civic education entail?

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  • In developing a theory of civic education, liberal theorists struggle to determine to what extent intolerance should be tolerated.

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  • Can a commitment to pluralism and a unified civic culture be reconciled?

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Introduction Educating for liberty? The shortcomings of contemporary civic education theorists

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It is widely accepted that some form of civic education is necessary to sustain America’s liberal-democratic regime and the freedoms Americans enjoy. However, when we get to specifics about what a civic education should entail, this easy consensus falls away. As civic theorist and Brookings Institution scholar William Galston has observed, “Public education . . . is close to the heart of Americans’ understanding of democracy, and debates about education are bound to reflect competing and evolving conceptions of what democracy requires.”[1]

Yet, it was not until the late 1980s that academic political theorists truly entered into the dispute over civic education. When they did—beginning with Amy Gutmann’s 1987 book Democratic Education—it was in light of two important developments in American political life: the precipitous decline in political participation after the 1960s and the simultaneous rise of ‘culture war’ politics. These developments alarmed political scientists in general, but some political theorists found the increasingly visible and vocal social conservatism of the Right during the Reagan Administration particularly threatening to the Rawlsian vision of a just—redistributive, publically secular, and pluralistic—society. In response, they turned to public schools in the hope that they could produce politically engaged citizens committed to liberal democracy.

However, many educators of the time, faced with the polarizing effects of the culture wars, largely retreated from a robust civics curriculum that elevated liberal-democratic values and took particular positions on such divisive issues as the place of religion in public life. Instead, educators preferred to encourage tolerance for diverse views among their students.[2] This popular “values clarification” approach to moral education in the 1970s and 1980s aimed to guide children through a valuing process that would help them identify and defend their own values rather than instill in them any specific values.

As proponents of this approach explain, when we choose and consistently defend our own values, “we experience greater meaning in our lives. We are less apathetic and flighty, more purposeful and committed.”[3] This value neutrality in civic education would also help protect students’ autonomy against the potentially coercive commitments to religious doctrines or ethical positions enforced by their parents. The primary task of both educators and parents is to promote freedom by encouraging children to choose their own morals and lifestyles without adults prioritizing or denigrating those choices.

For political theorists of education in the 1980s, value neutrality was problematic because it did not concern itself with inculcating any civic values, no less values conducive to liberal democracy. In theory, students could choose to affirm racism and sexism or choose to accept a religious or political doctrine that demands the remaking of the American political order. It is this latter possibility—embodied in the perceived political threat from religious fundamentalism—that theorists took to be the most salient threat to civic education.

In the same year that Gutmann’s Democratic Education was published, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit handed down its decision in a controversial case—Mozert v. Hawkins—which crystallized the tension within liberal theory between toleration for plural and irreconcilable worldviews and the need for a citizen body committed to liberal-democratic values.[4] In Mozert, Christian fundamentalist parents sued the public schools in Hawkins County, Tennessee, for the removal of a textbook series they claimed interfered with their ability to pass their religious views onto their children because it suggested that Christianity was only one of many equally valid worldviews.

Adopting a standard liberal neutrality response, the court rejected the parents’ request on the grounds that mere exposure to different worldviews was not detrimental to any particular faith. But, in this instance, the plaintiffs had anticipated the response and argued that value-neutral liberalism was itself precisely the sort of comprehensive worldview that it claimed to circumvent by refusing to pass judgment on different ways of life.[5] Value-neutral liberalism taught children that there are no absolute truths and that making autonomous choices is a paramount good—in sum, an ethical system that was in direct competition with the parents’ religious beliefs.

Responding to Mozert in a seminal article in the Harvard Law Review, Nomi Stolzenberg argued that the parents had a legitimate grievance in complaining that a school curriculum of neutral exposure belittled their religious values by treating them as subjective preferences, in essence espousing a worldview that eschews all comprehensive worldviews.[6] Stolzenberg forced political theorists to confront the possibility that this “neutral” exposure was in fact highly value-laden. The central difficulty with which they had to grapple then became: to what extent should intolerance be tolerated and how can a commitment to pluralism and a unified civic culture be reconciled?


1. William Galston, “The Politics of Education,” in The Public Schools, eds. Susan Fuhrman and Marvin Lazerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 57.
2. This move closely parallels what Michael Sandel has described as the liberal retreat during the mid-twentieth century into the language of rights to avoid confronting questions of ends. See Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), ix-xvi.
3. Howard Kirschenbaum et al., “In Defense of Values Clarification,” Phi Delta Kappan 58 (1977), 743–46; 744. For early arguments against this method, see John S. Stewart, “Clarifying Values Clarification: A Critique,” Phi Delta Kappan 56 (1975), 684–88.
4. Another important case for this debate is Wisconsin v. Yoder. In this case, the US Supreme Court granted an exception to compulsory schooling laws to Amish parents who wished to remove their children from school at age fourteen so they could receive manual training to prepare them for life in the Amish community. The case was little-mentioned by theorists of civic education until Mozert v. Hawkins, when it was largely seen as a problematic form of accommodation for religious minorities. See Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 US 205 (1972) and Mozert v. Hawkins County Public Schools, 827 F. 2d 1058 (6th Cir. 1987).
5. Mozert v. Hawkins.
6. Nomi Stolzenberg, “‘He Drew a Circle That Shut Me Out’: Assimilation, Indoctrination, and the Paradox of Liberal Education,” Harvard
Law Review
106 (1993), 627–29.

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