Education as Civic Engagement: Toward a More Democratic Society (Education, Politics and Public Life)

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Herein coincide the excellence, the virtues, of the good man and the good citizen. Thus in modern democracies society has a vested interest in preparing citizens to rule and to be ruled, as Aristotle pointed out. In democracies, therefore, and especially in civic education the virtues of the citizen are an important, and even a vital, aspect of the virtues of a good person. In this view, a good or virtuous citizen is nothing other than a good or virtuous person acting morally in the public or political sphere.

As we shall consider later, just what the virtues are that constitute, at least in part, that person is not easy to ascertain. The pursuit of this combination or matching of virtues can be considered a central and perpetual theme of civic educators. We see, for example, John Dewey picking up this theme in the 20th century. From the 18th century onward, commented Dewey, states came to see education as the best means of perpetuating and recovering their political power.

In other words, it is in democratic states that we want to look for the preparation of good persons as well as good citizens; that is, for democratic education, which in this context, to repeat for emphasis, is what is meant by civic education. Because that requires men to have the virtues both to rule and be ruled, we should not be surprised that ancient Greece, and especially ancient Athens, is the home of democracy. One of the requirements of any democracy is having the rule of law, because it demands, or should demand, that no one is above the law and that all are equal before the law.

Thus, before they could have democracy, the Greeks had to have not only laws but also written laws. Otherwise, those in power could declare the law to be whatever they wanted it to be. So the Greeks wrote down their laws, their statutes, on wood or marble tablets and placed them for all to see in the public squares. Of course, citizens and residents of the cities had to be able to read them, and so the rule of law called for public education to teach the people to read.

My Opinion My Vote Political Education Programme

Thus the ancient Greeks provide one of the earliest forms of civic education. The polis itself was thought to be an educational community, expressed by the Greek term paideia. The purpose of political—that is civic or city—life was the self-development of the citizens. This meant more than just education, which is how paideia is usually translated.

Education for the Greeks involved a deeply formative and life-long process whose goal was for each person read: man to be an asset to his friends, to his family, and, most important, to the polis. Becoming such an asset necessitated internalizing and living up to the highest ethical ideals of the community. So paideia included education in the arts, philosophy and rhetoric, history, science, and mathematics; training in sports and warfare; enculturation or learning of the city's religious, social, political, and professional customs and training to participate in them; and the development of one's moral character through the virtues.

Above all, the person should have a keen sense of duty to the city. Every aspect of Greek culture in the Classical Age—from the arts to politics and athletics—was devoted to the development of personal powers in public service. Paideia was inseparable from another Greek concept: arete or excellence, especially excellence of reputation but also goodness and excellence in all aspects of life.

European Association for the Education of Adults » Active citizenship, democracy and participation

Thus one could only develop himself in politics, through participation in the activities of the polis; and as individuals developed the characteristics of virtue, so would the polis itself become more virtuous and excellent. All persons, whatever their occupations or tasks, were teachers, and the purpose of education—which was political life itself—was to develop a greater a nobler, stronger, more virtuous public community. Citizens are taught to obey the laws; should they also be taught to challenge the laws and customs of the city?

Was that not one accusation against Socrates?

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Civic education in a democracy, though not in every kind of regime, must prepare citizens to participate in and thereby perpetuate the system and at the same time prepare them to challenge what they see as inequities and injustice within that system. What we observe, therefore, in civic education for democracy—that is, in democratic education—is a tension between the need and desire to perpetuate the roles, rules, standards, values, and institutions of the democratic system and the opposite; that is, the need and desire to challenge those very same roles, rules, standards, values, and institutions.

The possible solution to this tension is to suggest that no democratic system that cannot withstand scrutiny of its central values, institutions, and principles deserves to be perpetuated or perpetuated in its current form. At best they were ambiguous about democracy; at worst, they were hostile toward it.


Yet Rousseau had his doubts that men could be good men and simultaneously good citizens. A good man for Rousseau is a natural man, with the attributes of freedom, independence, equality, happiness, sympathy, and love-of-self amour de soi found prior to society in the state of nature. Thus society could do little but corrupt such a man.

Still, Rousseau recognized that life in society is unavoidable, and so civic education or learning to function well in society is also unavoidable. The ideal for Rousseau is for men to act morally and yet retain as much of their naturalness as possible. Yet prescribing those rules is not a subjective or selfish act. Enacting the general will is the only legitimately moral foundation for a law and the only expression of moral freedom. Getting men to ask this question and to answer it actively is the purpose of civic education. Showing how to educate men to retain naturalness and yet to function in society and participate untouched by corruption in this direct democracy was the purpose of his educational treatise, Emile.

If it could be done, Rousseau would show us the way. How could a man for Rousseau be a good man—meaning, for him a naturally good man , 93 , showing his amour de soi and also his natural compassion for others—and also have the proper frame of mind of a good citizen to be able to transcend self-interest and prescribe the general will?

How could this be done in society when society's influence is nothing but corrupting?


Rousseau himself seems ambivalent on exactly whether men can overcome social corruption. Society is based on private property; private property brings inequality, as some own more than others; such inequality brings forth social comparisons with others amour propre , which in turn can produce envy, pride, and greed. Only when and if men can exercise their moral and political freedom and will the general will can they be saved from the corrupting influences of society.

Willing for the general will, which is the good for all, is the act of a moral or good person. Its exercise in the assembly is the act of a good citizen. There seems little, if any, ambiguity here.

Learning for democracy: The politics and practice of citizenship education

One cannot make both a man and a citizen at the same time. Perhaps the contradiction might be resolved if we emphasize that a man cannot be made a man and a citizen at the same time, but he can be a man and a citizen at the same time. Doubtless, this will be a rare man, but raising a man to live a natural life can be done.

One might find the fully mature, and natural, Emile an abhorrent person. Is his independence fear of dependence and thus built on an inability ever to be interdependent? Whatever one thinks of Rousseau's attempt to educate Emile—whether, for example, the tutor's utter control of Emile's life and environment is not in itself a betrayal of education—Rousseau is a precursor of those progressive educators who seek to permit children to learn at their own rate and from their own experiences, as we shall see below.

Thus, political participation is a form of civic education good for men and for citizens. The occasion for discussing civic education as a method of both personal and political development is Mill's Considerations on Representative Government. So, progress is encouraged when society develops the qualities of citizens and persons. Mill tells us that good government depends on the qualities of the human beings that compose it.

Men of virtuous character acting in and through justly administered institutions will stabilize and perpetuate the good society. Good persons will be good citizens, provided they have the requisite political institutions in which they can participate. Such participation—as on juries and parish offices—takes participants out of themselves and away from their selfish interests. Good persons act politically as good citizens and are thereby maintained or extended in their goodness.

Following Tocqueville, Mill saw political participation as the basis for this national education. There was no national public schooling in Mill's Great Britain, and there were clearly lots of Britons without the requisite characteristics either of good citizens or of good men.

Mill was certainly aware of this. He was much influenced by Tocqueville's writings on the tyranny of the majority. Mill feared, as did Tocqueville, that the undereducated or uneducated would dominate and tyrannize politics so as to undermine authority and individuality. Being ignorant and inexperienced, the uneducated and undereducated would be susceptible to all manner of demagoguery and manipulation. So too much power in the hands of the inept and ignorant could damage good citizenship and dam the course of self-development.

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To remedy this Mill proposed two solutions: limit participation and provide the competent and educated with plural votes. These representatives and experts would not only carry out their political duties, but they would also educate the public through debate and deliberation in representative assemblies, in public forums, and through the press. To assure that the best were elected and for the sake of rational government, Mill provided plural votes to those with college educations and to those of certain occupations and training.

All citizens but the criminal and illiterate could vote, but not all citizens would vote equally. But education was the great leveling factor. Though not his view when he wrote Considerations on Representative Government, Mill wrote in his autobiography that universal education could make plural voting unnecessary , pp. In their absence, a person's years of schooling and nature of occupation would suffice to determine who would receive plural votes , Given Mill's prescriptions for political participation and given the lessons learned from the deliberations and debates of representatives and experts, however, it is doubtful that civic education would have constituted much of his national education.

Initially education in America was not publicly funded. It wasn't even a system, however inchoate. Instead it was every community for itself. Nor was it universal education. Education was restricted to free white males and, moreover, free white males who could afford the school fees. As a result, he created his own speller and dictionary as a way of advancing a common American language. Opposed to this idea of developing a national identity was Thomas Jefferson, who saw education as the means for safeguarding individual rights, especially against the intrusions of the state.

Through his ward system of education, Jefferson proposed establishing free schools to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, and from these schools those of intellectual ability, regardless of background or economic status, would receive a college education paid for by the state. Underneath such fine sentiments lurked an additional goal: to ensure that all children could flourish in America's democratic system. The civic education curriculum was explicit, if not simplistic.