Civics Lesson

Asking the schools to mold good citizens—again

Diversity and Distrust: Civic Education in a Multicultural Democracy by Stephen Macedo

Harvard University Press, 2000, $45; 384 pages (including notes and index).

As reviewed by Rogers M. Smith

In 1862, the Illinois superintendent of public instruction contended that the “chief end” of public schooling was “to make GOOD CITIZENS. Not to make precocious scholars … not to impart the secret of acquiring wealth … not to qualify directly for professional success … but simply to make good citizens.”

The strength of Stephen Macedo’s Diversity and Distrust is its insistence on evaluating public schools on the basis of whether they are indeed making good citizens. That goal was controversial in 1862, and it is perhaps even more so today, for good reasons. It is not clear that most Americans really want schools to pursue this end, at least not at any cost to the goals of fitting young people with economically valuable skills or stimulating intellectual achievements. It is also not clear just what “GOOD CITIZENS” are, or how schools can be crafted to help “make” them.

Macedo appreciates the force of those concerns but is ultimately undeterred by them. Though a sincere advocate of broad tolerance and expansive personal liberties, Macedo has long been a sharp critic of the view that our common political life should merely provide means for all to pursue their individual, private goals, whatever those may be. He has insisted that we cannot make our political system work unless people share a sense of the importance of responsible, democratic self-governance and have the intellectual and moral traits such governance requires. Hence he has argued that American constitutional institutions presuppose and must foster “liberal virtues.” These are qualities of mind and character that make American markets and electoral systems work reasonably well, chiefly because they make Americans, at their best, reflective, law-abiding, mutually respectful people.

The heart of his case in Diversity and Distrust is that Americans need schools that do more than just teach reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and Internet surfing. They also must prepare students for a civic life in which they will have to work with fellow citizens of very different views to develop policies and institutions that can advance shared goals of peace, prosperity, and democratic deliberation. To fashion good citizens, Macedo maintains, our schools must blend students from very different backgrounds and expose them to a variety of perspectives. They must also convey in curricula and in everyday practices a sense that not everything goes, that the American system is not simply a vast shopping mall where the only standard is what individuals want now. Instead schools must teach that there are shared liberal democratic values and virtues that seem essential for the system to flourish.

Macedo recognizes that both conservative advocates of privatized or voucher-based schools and left-multi-culturalists regularly attack views such as his by invoking scenarios in which a healthy “diversity” is steamrollered by a uniform, homogenizing “civic education.” Patting himself on the back perhaps a bit too often for being “tough-minded,” Macedo insists that, properly constructed, a civic education fostering liberal virtues is compatible with a great deal of diversity—and that what it is not compatible with does not deserve our respect or solicitude.

To make this case, Macedo must address our schools’ history of educating children in ways that have actively undermined liberal democratic values. In many ways, American schools were historically structured to favor Protestantism; to train blacks, immigrants, and working-class native white men for low-skill, low-wage work (when they were educated at all); and to prepare women to be wives and mothers. Macedo contends that, at their best, American schools nonetheless expanded avenues of opportunity and inculcated intellectual and moral qualities that are now widely regarded as desirable. They also fended off genuinely unrepublican and illiberal features of, particularly, 19th-century Catholicism. He urges us to build on these aspects of our traditions.

That argument works fine philosophically, but it does not fully confront the political dynamics that shaped schools in repressive ways. Perhaps they are irrelevant to our times, but such optimism requires more support than Macedo provides. We need an analysis of the often cauldron-like politics of education today to determine whether Macedo’s ideals are ever likely to emerge from the stew.

At the level of practice, Macedo must consider whether public schools actually foster the traits of citizenship he values or whether they can be made to do so. Alternatively, he must also examine whether arrangements like voucher systems for parochial and private schools would be better vehicles for his goals.

Americans need schools that do more than just teach reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and Internet surfing.

His answers here are less than fully satisfying, but it is hard to fault him. It is simply not clear how to measure empirically whether students have developed the qualities that Macedo sees as traits of good citizenship. Consequently, it is hard to assess how today’s public schools compare with their predecessors (with their stratified, segregated, often exclusionary educational structures), with contemporary Catholic schools (that sometimes abandon problem students), or with experiments in school choice and vouchers (all still relatively new and limited).

Diversity and Distrust calls vociferously for a “transformative liberalism” with “spine,” but it leans more toward protecting the status quo than toward advocating major transformations. That is in part because Macedo actually thinks that civic education should occur in large part indirectly, via institutions other than the public schools. It is also partly because, as the Illinois superintendent indicated, public schools were created to some degree with Macedo’s goal in mind. Macedo arrives at his position, however, because he simply does not know how to redesign public schools to do a better job of making “GOOD CITIZENS.” He is in the end a public philosopher with a solid knowledge of constitutional law, not an expert in technical institutional reforms. His main ambition in this book is to persuade us that, as a matter of normative political theory and public-policy analysis, we should pay more attention to the goal of fostering good citizenship than we have seen in many recent education discussions. This is a somewhat modest ambition; and though Macedo writes accessibly and clearly, he is at times too repetitious in driving home his clear, accessible case. Nonetheless, in the end he has a case that deserves to be taken very seriously, by those who are inclined to distrust it just as much as by those who find it expressive of their civic ideals.

–Rogers M. Smith is a professor of government at Yale University.

As reviewed by Stephen G. Gilles

What sort of civic education is necessary to sustain our liberal democratic regime and the freedoms it enables us to enjoy? This is Stephen Macedo’s central question in Diversity and Distrust. Macedo charges that many critics of public education mistakenly assume that good citizens “spring full-blown from the soil of private freedom,” while others, forgetting the “civic dimensions of political life,” define liberal democracy exclusively in terms of individual liberties. Liberal statecraft, he argues, should “promote not simply freedom, order, and prosperity,” but “the capacities and dispositions conducive to thoughtful participation in the activities of modern politics and civil society.” Nevertheless, Macedo understands that “Catholic schools may advance many of our civic aims more effectively than do public schools,” while many public schools are places of “permissiveness” and “extreme individualism” in which the supreme virtue is to be “nonjudgmental.” In other words, these schools have ceased educating children to be the “self-restrained, moderate, and reasonable” citizens Macedo says he wants.

But then Macedo attempts to link skepticism about public education with indifference to civic education. Here his argument is unpersuasive, simply because those most critical of the current public education system—Catholics, Christian fundamentalists, inner-city African-Americans, and home schoolers—don’t disavow basic moral and civic education. Their claim is that they can do a better job of instilling moral values and civic virtues in their own schools and homes. And they’re right. A wealth of evidence shows that children educated in non-public schools are more tolerant and engaged in civics than their public school counterparts.

Does Macedo conclude, then, that the overriding importance of civic education argues in favor of giving families vouchers for religious and private schooling? Not by a long shot. To his credit, he endorses voucher experiments for poor children in failing inner-city schools. But he bridles at a general voucher system. To see why, one must understand Macedo’s ultimate goal: to give every child a secular, politically liberal education. A voucher system would threaten Macedo’s civic ideal by enabling millions of religious and conservative families to educate their children in line with their civic ideals.

The crux of Macedo’s book is his conception of “civic” virtues. In addition to well-accepted traits like respect for law and for the rights of others, Macedo writes expansively about “tolerance, mutual respect, and active cooperation among fellow citizens,” readiness to “think critically about public affairs and participate actively in the democratic process,” and commitment to “the supreme political authority of principles that we can publicly justify along with all our reasonable fellow citizens.” Citizens must possess these virtues, he says, if liberal democracy is “to thrive and not only survive.” Macedo describes his chosen virtues soothingly, but a closer look reveals their radicalism. Under the guise of teaching “tolerance,” the government can insist that “all children learn about the many ways of life that coexist in our polity.” On this reasoning, a state could require children in, say, a Jewish day school to learn about Islamic and Catholic ways of life. To be sure, Macedo would insist that any mandatory curriculum be a balanced one. Nevertheless, his expansive view of civic toleration would authorize governmental intolerance of traditionalist religious educations that protect children from in-depth exposure to other ways of life until their own faith has taken root.

Macedo’s expansive view of civic toleration would authorize governmental intolerance of traditionalist religious educations.

Consider next what Macedo means by “critical thinking”: the disposition to “reflect critically on [one’s] personal and public commitments for the sake of honoring our shared principles of liberal justice and equal rights for all.” Accordingly, children should be made aware of “the possibility that religious imperatives . . . might in fact run afoul of guarantees of equal freedom.” “Critical thinking” thus requires adherence to Macedo’s political credo, and teachers should be alerting their students to how, for example, Catholic teachings about abortion and the male priesthood “run afoul of ” equal freedom for women. Yet, Macedo would say, it is unreasonable for Catholic parents to be alarmed at this prospect, because teachers would be obligated not to deny the truth of the Church’s doctrines “as a religious matter.” What protection is that against subversion of a child’s religious beliefs, when the point of the entire exercise is that good citizenship requires rejection of the Church’s positions?

This brings us to the final item on Macedo’s civic wish list—that every citizen commit to playing by the rules of Rawlsian “public reason” in political debate. The idea is that we should rely on widely shared ways of reasoning and avoid special philosophical or religious doctrines. One may offer a secular rationale for a religiously grounded view (for instance, murder is wrong because personal security is in everyone’s self-interest), but one may not make overtly religious arguments (murder is wrong because human beings are made in God’s image). Why not? Because faith “cannot be subjected to public scrutiny.” The breathtaking implication of Macedo’s views on “public reason” is that children should be taught that it is wrong to inject religious convictions into public discourse. This transparently one-sided ideal may be popular among university faculties, but it is anything but genuinely “public.” Far more people are guided by faith, experience, and what Holmes called their “can’t helps” than by the canons of public reason. Yet we have the most successful liberal democratic regime in history. Why then should we impose the divisive strictures of “public reason” on religious families?

This is not to deny the vital importance of civic education. But civic education, properly conceived, involves teaching children to appreciate our genuinely “core” liberties and institutions—not conscripting them as foot soldiers in the secular elite’s ongoing struggle against religious and social conservatives.

–Stephen G. Gilles is a professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Law.

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