Intro to Civic Education Debates

At the heart of the American experiment is the discussion of citizenship, a principal legacy of the political ideals of the American Revolution.

  • What are the rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship?
  • What values define active citizenship?
  • What are the best ways to cultivate and maintain these values in the citizenry, for young people, adults, or recent immigrants to the United States?

While the core questions around citizenship are as old as the republic and remain ever-present today, the relevance of civic education has laid dormant and is vigorously in need of a rebirth.

What is Civic Education?

The truth is: there is no single answer!

The debate about civic education first emerged in the 1920’s with the expansion of public education and bipartisan interest in preparing citizens to be knowledgeable and engaged,  as America assumed its role as a world power. The Commission on Social Studies in the Schools was formed in 1926 to bring together leading academics and political thinkers and explore the history and methods of civic education in the U.S., as well as with other modern nations. By the time it issued its report in 1934 (see original report), the Commission had served under three presidents, Republican and Democrat, and had seen its share of contentious debates. The final report, prepared by the political scientist Charles Merriam, eloquently articulated a national program for civic education that became a model for schools during the Depression and World War II. However contentious at times, the Commission achieved a working consensus that sought to balance scientific expertise and the democratic control of local communities.

Peruse the original Commission Report HERE.

Why Discuss The Great Debates?

In Judaism, students are encouraged to study the debates and conversations between sages, even when consensus is found, in order “to teach the generations that one should not be insistent in his/her opinions, for the fathers of the world were not insistent in their opinions.” (Mishnah Eduyyot 1).

At Civic Spirit, we strongly agree with the merits of studying dialogue as a way to illuminate the range of opinions on a particular topic and to cultivate empathy and respect. As such, we have curated an interactive series of key debates that we believe define the history of civic education. By focusing on a pivotal figure or momentous event, we hope to elucidate the complex political, social, and moral questions that have been perennial in American history. Each debate will present an introductory narrative as well as discussion questions and primary sources to enable teachers and students to find references and develop their own positions within these opposing schools of thought.

There are no clear definitions or solutions. Our hope is to encourage respectful disagreement as a vehicle for dialogue and a shared sense of civic tradition.

Read below for our first three debates.

Scientific Truth vs. Inherited Wisdom

Personal Success vs. Public Service
Liberty vs. Equality