Fostering Civic Virtue: Character Education in the Social Studies
(C)1997 National Council for the Social Studies. May be reproduced without permission.
Prepared by the NCSS Task Force on Character Education in the Social Studies, Approved by NCSS Board of Directors, Fall 1996
Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.
No theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure.
To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness
without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.
The United States has been called the world's first new nation: the first nation to be founded not on bloodlines or kinship, but on a shared commitment to fundamental principles and ideals. Although, at times, these ideals have not been fully realized, the history of America may be seen as the ongoing extension of the guiding principles of our democracy more justly and completely to all citizens.
The framers of the Constitution understood well that advancing the ideal of "liberty and justice for all" requires a virtuous citizenry. When a people no longer relies upon bloodlines, a state religion, or autocratic rulers to ensure social cohesion, other sources must be found. In our society the principles of constitutional democracy protect and promote our individual rights and bind us together as a people.
This nation's commitment to inalienable rights, the cornerstone of our democracy, requires each citizen to uphold those rights for all others. Citizenship in this most diverse of societies is defined not only by an affirmation of democratic first principles, but also by a willingness to engage in civil debate and to work for public policies that serve the common good.
Preserving and expanding the American experiment in liberty is a challenge for each succeeding generation. No profession plays a more central role in meeting this challenge than the social studies teachers in our nation's schools. At the heart of social studies is the obligation to teach democratic principles and to inspire civic virtue in the young people who will shape our future. The aim of this position paper is to call for action in the social studies profession that will foster public virtue and moral character in America's youth.
It is not difficult to identify threats to the fundamental ideals and principles of our democracy. In the presidential election of 1996, less than half the voting age population voted-the worst turnout this century. In recent presidential and congressional elections, the lowest rate of voter turnout has consistently been found among 18 to 23 year olds. Among the general population, voter turnout has dropped almost 20 percent since 1960. In 1994, twenty-nine percent of college freshmen were committed to keeping up-to-date with political affairs-an all-time low, compared with a high of nearly fifty-eight percent in 1966. Today, only one in five Americans participates in community civic organizations. Among youth today, knowledge and understanding of the principles and values of our democratic system of government are at an alarmingly low level. It is clear that young people are increasingly indifferent to civic affairs.
Affirming Democratic Principles and Ideals
In a society such as ours, where citizens have been divided and diverse throughout history, it is essential that schools and communities foster a reasoned commitment to the founding principles and values that bind us together as a people. A commitment to democratic principles, a willingness to engage in the democratic process, and the affirmation of core values are key elements of the bond that joins us as "We the People." Today we have plenty of _pluribus _in the United States, but little _unum. _The Constitution protects the right to be different, and to debate differences freely and openly. The spirit of our nation also requires the affirmation of our civic ground rules, for a commitment to these principles and values is the foundation of the sense of civic virtue that is so essential to the well-being of our democracy.
The citizen must demonstrate a reasoned commitment to fundamental principles, such as popular sovereignty, rule of law, religious liberty, and the like. The citizen must also demonstrate a reasoned commitment to fundamental values, such as life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, equality, truth, and promotion of the common good. Students should both understand the nature of democratic principles and values and demonstrate a commitment to those values and principles in the daily routines of their private and public lives.
Civic education is not complete until students possess a set of appropriate civic dispositions. Civic dispositions are those habits of the heart and mind that are conducive to the healthy functioning of the democratic system. Examples include civility, open-mindedness, compromise, and toleration of diversity, all of which are prerequisites of a civic life in which the American people can work out the meanings of their democratic principles and values.
Civic Virtue and Civic Education
The fostering of civic virtue is a critical task for our nation's schools. It is also an often misunderstood and neglected component of the school curriculum. Traditionally, civic education has consisted of three components: first, the development of knowledge and understanding about our democratic institutions and principles and their history; second, the development of the intellectual and participatory skills necessary for competent participation in the democratic process; and third, the development of an appreciation for democratic values and principles that result in the civic dispositions essential for a vital civic life. This third component of civic education is closely related to the development of civic virtue.
Civic virtue refers to what Alexis de Tocqueville called "habits of the heart," that is, a commitment to democratic principles and values that manifests itself in the everyday lives of citizens. A focus on knowledge and skills alone is insufficient for the task of civic education. Civic education must also foster civic character in citizens. 1
Character formation is a complex process. An essential, and often neglected, dynamic of character formation is the provision of opportunities for students to observe and practice good character and civic virtue. In other words, homes, schools and communities must be places where adults model good character and children have the opportunity to live out the ideals of character and citizenship. Civic virtue must be lived, not just studied.
This is not to say that the formal study of the nature of character and civic virtue through such school subjects as government, history and literature is unimportant. The study of the traditional subject matter of the social studies provides the necessary conceptual framework for an understanding and appreciation of the democratic way of life. This subject matter can also be a rich source of attractive examples of the protection and enrichment of our democratic way of life as a result of the practice of civic virtue.
Teaching academic subjects and teaching character can be mutually reinforcing tasks. Intellectual virtues such as patience, diligence, responsibility, reflectiveness, and honesty are critical to the development of each student's academic potential. Thus, the teaching of personal virtue is often a contribution to the development of civic virtue. To teach academic subjects well is also to teach certain virtues relevant to personal and civic life.
It is inadvisable to make sharp distinctions between private and public virtue and between teaching academic subjects and teaching character. For example, a person possesses the personal virtue of honesty when that person can be counted on to be consistently honest in dealings with others. A person possesses the civic virtue of respect for the worth and dignity of others when he or she can be counted on to behave in a manner consistent with that value. It is clear, however, that honesty and respect for others are relevant to both civic and private life.
Education that provides students with a rich knowledge and understanding of their responsibilities as citizens in a democracy must be accompanied by opportunities for students to develop the disposition to act virtuously in their private and public lives. Many young people today have adequate knowledge of their civic responsibilities, but fail to live out these ideals. It is essential that young people be exposed to attractive models of civic virtue and have the opportunity to practice civic virtue in a meaningful and rewarding manner. Schools need to recognize the different learning processes shaping the civic "habits of the heart."
The Role of the School and Community in Fostering Character and Civic Virtue
The task of fostering civic virtue is not the exclusive province of social studies education, even though it falls most directly on social studies professionals. One precondition is a school environment consistent with the principles and core values of the ideal of civic virtue. To the extent possible, students' lives in schools should be based on fundamental democratic values and the practical application of democratic principles.
Careful attention to the school culture is critical if schools are to foster moral and civic virtue. The hidden curriculum of the school has the potential to teach important lessons about authority, responsibility, caring, and respect. The principles and values underpinning the day-to-day operations of the school should be consistent with the values taught to young people.
Schools should be places where clear expectations for student conduct exist and are firmly and fairly enforced. The expectations placed on students in schools, as well as the behavior of teachers, should be informed by basic democratic principles. Schools should also provide opportunities for young people to practice virtue. Students should be encouraged and given the opportunity to make positive contributions to the well-being of fellow students and to the school.
Teachers in schools that take the formation of character seriously bear a special responsibility for their own conduct. One important dynamic by which individuals acquire values is through exposure to attractive models of behavior. A school curriculum that attempts to teach values such as responsibility or respect is unlikely to be effective in the hands of teachers who are irresponsible in the performance of their professional duties and disrespectful in their dealings with students. Likewise, a school is unlikely to foster students' sense of justice when discipline or grading procedures are perceived by students as unfair.
The teaching of character also requires that schools forge positive links with parents and community members. Parents should participate in the dialogue over the values that schools will teach and should reinforce those values in the home.
Consistency of effort is very important. The community, including clergy and business, should also cooperate with parents and schools. Historical and cultural differences between communities may well result in differences in approach to civic education and the development of civic virtue. Such differences are a natural consequence of our national commitment to local control of schools. Acknowledging this is not, however, an endorsement of moral relativism. The development of local approaches to civic education must follow democratic procedures, involve all community stakeholders, and result in practices that are consistent with the democratic principles and values embedded in our Constitution.
Finally, all those involved with young people should affirm the importance of good character and good citizenship. Teachers and schools should recognize students who display good character and civic virtue. Recognition programs should be established in schools and the community and featured by local and national media.
Character Education and the Fostering of Civic Virtue in the Social Studies
The methods used to foster character and civic virtue will vary in some respects depending upon the community and grade level of the classroom. The fundamental position of social studies teachers should be that, while there have been failures in our nation's attempt to live according to democratic ideals, there is a common tradition worth transmitting to the next generation.
In the primary grades, teachers must focus on basic social skills and the development in children of habits such as civility and self-discipline that are necessary for working successfully with others. At the secondary level, there should be an increasing emphasis on the development of a mature understanding of the fundamental principles of our shared civic life and their history, as well as on the dispositions and skills needed to engage in the public debate over the practice of these principles.
Social studies teachers, along with other educators, administrators, and school support staff-custodians, bus drivers, office staff, cafeteria workers and others-must promote good personal character in their classrooms and schools. This will involve clear specification of the nature of good character; rewards for its display; awareness by teachers of the character they reveal to students; and alertness to opportunities to promote character through the dynamics of the classroom and school climate.
This position statement calls for a renewed effort by social studies educators, schools and communities to teach character and civic virtue. This is a critical time in the history of our democracy when the social fabric that binds us as a people appears to be weakening. The schools, and especially social studies educators, have a critical role to play in the reaffirmation of the fundamental principles of our constitutional compact.
The development of civic virtue in young people requires much more than traditional didactic methods of social studies instruction. The cognitive outcomes of education are vital, but character is not formed solely on the basis of the study of traditional subject matter. Although subject matter is an essential component of the reflective process that leads to a mature understanding of the nature of civic life, the focus of social studies education needs to be widened to encompass the quality of the civic experiences that classrooms, schools, and communities provide to students.
Social studies teachers have a responsibility and a duty to refocus their classrooms on the teaching of character and civic virtue. They should not be timid or hesitant about working toward these goals. The fate of the American experiment in self government depends in no small part on the store of civic virtue that resides in the American people. The social studies profession of this nation has a vital role to play in keeping this wellspring of civic virtue flowing.
Task Force on Character Education in the Social Studies
Charles Haynes, **Co-chair
**James Leming, **Co-chair
**Pat Nickell, **NCSS President