Liberal Education

Yet Another Plea for Civic Virtue

There exists a plethora of writings  about citizenship, or "civic virtue," in a democracy. Articles, books, reports, and commentaries proliferate, and the theme is continually stressed in the multiple activities of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U ). I cannot promise to go beyond the common wisdom. My purpose in writing is really quite straightforward. First, I believe a summary of the leading features of the history of civic virtue, to include newer multidisciplinary approaches, allows us some perspective on where we stand today and what a next step might be. Second, and more prosaically, I simply wish to add my voice to those who are greatly disturbed by the current state of American political behavior: the misuse of plebiscitarian constitutions, as in California; misleading statements by politicians; a disregard of compelling and complex global and domestic issues; the appeal to selfish and short-sighted aims; and the influence of special-interest groups and individuals. This is but a short list.

The history of civic virtue

Baldly stated, civic virtue pertains to the conception of a good society as supported by the rights and duties of citizenship. The subject has a long pedigree. Normally traceable to Hellenic thought, civic virtue also comes  down to us through writings from Renaissance   Florence. It is sometimes named the "Atlantic  tradition" or the "Commonwealthman." Its focus is the city-state or "republic," and while a republic need not be a democracy, such it has become in the free world. New scholarship has uncovered French and Swiss variations. A recent and enthralling body of work explores the contributions of Jewish sources,  and we find references to a "Hebrew Common wealth" in the early modern period.

Historically, "rights" are defined as the  freedom from tyranny. "Liberty" is the preferred  word, and liberty can be either the liberty of individuals, a late idea, or, de facto, the freedom of groups (such as the barons of Magna  Carta). More narrowly, it can be a territorial  enclave where the king's writ does not run, as at the medieval abbey or "Liberty" of Bury St. Edmunds in the east of England. Over and over again the theme of oppression, monarchical or religious, is repeated. Ancient Greek writers have left us with a wealth of information, factual and philosophical. The abuse of power is poignantly explored in the books of Samuel and Kings, and debated (cautiously) in the commentaries of the Talmudic Sages. One Roman Catholic priest of the sixteenth century cited Torah in an argument against the authority of the papacy. He was placed under house arrest. The Dutch, as the most accomplished Christian Hebraists in seventeenth-century Europe, found plentiful analogies in the story of Israel in Egypt to justify their revolt against Spanish domination. The theme of liberty appears in places not normally encountered in a casual reading of  history, as in the short-lived success of Swedish   nobility to impose constraints on seventeenth -century absolute monarchs.

Limiting the potential excesses of central government, however, is but a first step on the path to civic virtue. A danger is that once liberty is secured, the temptations of private life and withdrawal take precedent over virtue. Consequently, a second and necessary step requires the citizen to safeguard liberty through the responsible exercise of republican obligations, such as voting. Rights are paired with duties, even if this requires foregoing personal pleasures, even if austerity is a necessary by-product. The warnings of irresponsible voter behavior are plentiful in the history of civic virtue. The historian Thucydides ascribed the downfall of Athens to leaders selected by voters readily misled, and Plato offered an alternative "republic" to replace the one whose demise he witnessed.

The historical irony cannot be missed. If the exercise of civic virtue is only possible through constraints on political authority—"power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," in Lord Acton's uncompromising reproach to Bishop Creighton in 1887—it also requires constraints on personal conduct.

Within the conception of civic virtue, if  power tends to corrupt, so does money. Warn ings about the consequences of private wealth or "luxury" surfaced early in the political histo ry of the West—as far back as the Greek states, in fact. For those above the ranks of the laboring  classes, commerce and finance, later to be  followed by industrialism, created new sources  of income and directed individual energies to the enjoyments of private life. Self-interest,  said Adam Smith, actually conduces to the general good. Unconvinced, other Scots of the eighteenth century, discovering the delights of  a prosperous metropolitan culture after a l ong  history of clan rivalries, debated the choice between virtue and pleasure. Was luxury actually   inconsistent with civic virtue? Could not 
the two happily coexist? The Enlightenment  scientist J.B. Priestly also sought a happier out come. A poor society has crime, he said, but a rich one has only vice, which once led a colleague of mine to wonder why in today's affluence we have both.

Civic virtue and the American republic

Nowhere were the issues more discussed than in the circumstances leading to the founding of the American republic. The most famous documents dating from that period are the Federalist Papers containing the views of  Hamilton, Madison, and Monroe writing as "Publius." The new nation was more of a " republic" with a limited franchise than a "democracy." It was, furthermore, a federated republic; yet whether the new leaders supported a strong federal government or favored states' rights, all agreed that selfish interests were a threat, and citizens must be virtuous.  One historian has argued differently, finding a Protestant theology of the good more imp ortant than republican traditions (Shain 1994). In either case, whether civic virtue was the dominant consideration or religion, the emphasis was on a shared conception of the common welfare.

Obviously, much in the mainline thinking about civic virtue could not survive in the United States after 1800. An austere life of self-sacrifice was hardly to be expected, especially in an individualist society. The moralists were correct. Luxury was an ever-present concern. There were also gender issues. The exercise of civic virtue was not only a prerogative of men, it was also virile. Military obligations were included within its definition. The citizen must be a patriot prepared to fight for liberty. While women are today included in the nation's provision for defense and war, the requirement that all citizens undergo military training is no longer obligatory in America, although it is elsewhere.

Beliefs and practices regarding the conventional role of women as keepers of the hearth,  a role given added emphasis by Romantics such as Rousseau, lingered for a very long time . But in order for the republic to become a democracy, not only women bu t all the constitutionally excluded had to be candidates for virtue. The heinous practice of slavery could not endure in a genuinely free society, nor could Native Americans remain second-class citizens, although citizenship for those still suffering from the effects of racism in the United States had to await the coming of the civil rights movement but a half century away from the present. The necessary observation, however, is that in a plural society, and one in which immigration is continuous, the exercise of civic virtue can never be taken for granted. The mainline republican tradition assumed the existence of stable and relatively homogenous city-states. Broadening that tradition to encompass nation-states composed of diverse populations is the distinct challenge of the modern period.

Historians dispute whether the American republic was actually individualistic at the time of its formation. But whatever the outcome of that particular dispute, America is regarded today as the most individualistic of the advanced democracies, the one in which social democratic policies are most disputed. It is also the most consumer-directed society of the Western democracies, where possession and, as it happens, debt made worse by predatory lending and low savings are pronounced. The autonomy of the individual versus the authority of government is a standing political issue, as much in 2012 as it has ever been. Consequently, from the perspective of traditions of civic virtue, "luxury" and withdrawal from the responsibilities of citizenship are omnipresent. The sociologist Richard Sennett (1976) has termed this "the fall of public man." Others have spoken about a new "narcissism," a habit of focusing exclusively on one's own self. We have what a political scientist calls the phenomenon of "bowling alone" (Putnam 2000), although this notion has been modified. People still bowl in groups. But the point is that a century of Sigmund Freud has kept us centered on psychological issues regarding self-management, family adjustment, and the overcoming of personal traumas.

More recent approaches

Hitherto, discussions about civic virtue have been the province of philosophers, economists, political scientists, and historians. But the subject of citizenship has now greatly broadened to include disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology. A lexical shift has moved discussion away from exclusive concentration on the "Atlantic tradition." "Polity" has been supplanted, or joined by, "society." References to "civil society" are now more frequent than are those to civic virtue. Essentially, depending upon whom we cite, "civil society" refers to the spheres of behavior and values lying outside government proper, or, as in the special French case, to the manifold relationships between the individual and the state in a nation with pervasive etatist  and dirigiste inheritances. Until the end of the seventeenth century, "civil society" and "civic virtue" actually overlapped, but we notice a separation of terms beginning in the writings of Friedrich Hegel or in some Scottish authors of the eighteenth century who stressed family, community, and interpersonal relationships. AAC&U  has taken an active part in sponsoring work that emphasizes the importance of psychosocial factors in the formation of a healthy citizenry. These include community participation and interethnic dialogue, with the caveat, however, that engagement in certain highly stressful and public activities can have detrimental effects on personality (Tritelli 2011).

Urbanologists, since their concern is with the built environment, offer an additional perspective. One group is alarmed by the threatening and disorienting effects of crowding and the destruction of neighborhoods. The culture of the city leads to withdrawal and to a desperate need for self-preservation. We are urged to return to the "walking city," the friendly and reassuring urban configurations of centuries past. But a different group of planners, in a burst of optimism, put faith in a new regionalism of polycentric cities, where innovations in transportation combine with new communications technologies to promote a culture of cooperation, instant connectivity, and mutual dependence—all of which promote civic virtue.

The use of phrases such as "civil society" often shades into discussions of civility, the codes of manners that regulate both interpersonal and group relations. To any number of commentators, civility is always in short supply. The history of manners is beguiling, taking root in medieval and Renaissance manuals of decorum, narrowing from universal prescriptions about conduct to Victorian cla ss-based etiquette books and other such  advice columns on correct behavior prevalent in our own time. Norbert Elias (1978) has p rovided a remarkable if somewhat disjointed history of the evolution of manners. After centuries of  brutal and even disgusting personal habits, the   advent of civility produced a new emphasis on self-restraint. The subject of codes of manners has opened up other channels of arresting inq uiry. The sociologist Erving Goffman (1971),   for example, has enjoyed exposing the unwritten  codes governing interpersonal behavior, those truths (if that is what they are) that remain unsaid because to say them is both embarrassing and a threat to social relation ships. Clifford Geertz  (1973), in his celebrated account of the Balinese cockfight, pursued a s imilar line of thought, exploring how social rivalries are contained by sublimating them  into a terrible fight between animals. Attention is then diverted from the possible dangers that would occur if participants vented their true feelings toward one another. "Civility" has an obvious political referent insofar as any kind of decision making first requires mutual respect and tolerance.

Education and civic virtue

So the problem of the conditions under which the exercise of civic virtue is possible is as intense as ever, more so as the variables increase. And as they increase, so does our confusion. All voters—if they vote—are puzzled by the issues and party politics of the present. Clearly we require a thread through the labyrinth, and that thread remains what it has always been: the special undertaking of any educational system. Civic virtue has to be systematically acquired and learned. The founders of the American republic regarded education as the key to the formation of a democratic polity. This is often said. Education was the means for creating "Americans" out of the diverse and polyglot peoples of the continent, transposing them from subjects of the British crown to citizens of a republic. Just at the moment, an indispensable educational undertaking appears desperate. There is no need to amplify the familiar details.  Everyone reads about the diminished resources  for all levels of public education; the high drop-out rates, unsafe learning environments, and widespread cheating on assignments; the decline in quality and the disparities in achievement between groups; the teenage pathologies such as delinquency, pregnancy, eating disorders, and the adverse influences of certain peer pressures; and the unhappy consequences that arise from broken homes and poverty. As if this were not sufficient, serious quarrels exist over curricula, and many schoolteachers are caught in partisan and sectarian crossfires.

The consensus is that most schools today are not performing their historical obligations very well. The National Assessment of Educational Progress for 2011 concludes that a quarter of high school seniors are deficient in civic knowledge and skills (depending, I think, on exactly what is being tested). Reports from CIRCLE  (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) find wholesale inadequacies. The fear that young people are reading less, voting less, and making fewer efforts to b e informed is widespread. Findings about the withdrawal of the young from the political process have also been reported in Sweden, where a startling proportion of young people—perhaps as high  as 20 percent—express no concern whether the country is governed democratically or autocratically. At the core of such findings is a suspicion that the absence of civic virtue is inclining voters to ignore the political process as futile, as only serving the desires of groups strong and rich enough to make demands. Does everyone understand that cynical attitudes undermine the conception of a republic of free citizens?

We have what is daily identified as an urgent educational problem in a great bowl full of urgent problems. Yet despair is hardly a solution. We have openings. If, for example, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais (2011) are correct in maintaining that the generations of Americans born since 1982 (a pool of more than ninety million) look more favorably upon a positive role for government than their immediate predecessors, our schools and universities have renewed opportunities.

Service learning has an important part to play. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a coalition of forty organizations, is at work on improving civic education in grades K–12. Service to others is learned through participation in voluntary programs such as Teach for America or the Peace Corps. The understanding gained from discussions of "civil society" and "civility" is invaluable; it broadens our understanding of the mainline tradition of civic virtues, and provides additional support for the kind of education needed to fulfill the requirements of civic virtue.

Teaching about politics

Nevertheless, there remains a problem of focus. I would therefore suggest that once we have identified all the variables that affect civic virtue, that buttress or undermine its principal purpose, that update our understanding of the meaning of being a citizen in today's republic, we are still required to turn our attention systematically to the critical task of explaining how government actually works. My plea is for the centrality of teaching about politics in any program of general education, in lower and higher education—a tough request to make in an age where strong arguments can be advanced for teaching virtually any subject. Government is the ultimate source of authority in any society, but civic virtue accounts for its ultimate legitimacy in a democracy. Every citizen is directly and profoundly affected by how a society governs itself, how it makes decisions for the collective good, and how it holds leaders accountable.

How many young people approaching majority, or even adults for that matter, have a solid perception of the political process, how legislative decisions are made, how tradeoffs are arranged, the nature of party politics, the role of bureaucracy? How many possess a detailed understanding of the structures, agencies, and institutions of government, of the nature of regulatory bodies and how they regulate, of the role of journalism and how to understand and evaluate media, its objectivity, its distortions, its half-truths, and its inattention to contexts? Interest groups and their special aims—surely a place can be found for them? Additional topics, especially relevant to polities whose constitutions or practices include them, are initiatives and referenda, recall provisions, gerrymandering, term limits, and the rules governing the passage of legislation. The role of legislative committee structures and caucuses might also be included. Since so much information is now obtained through the Internet, the benefits and distortions of information gained in this way also deserve a place in advancing civic virtue.

I have in mind a very comprehensive agenda relating to how governments function, in theory and in practice, with some attention to comparative analysis. This is a heavy but necessary burden to place on teachers, and special preparation would be required. As always, the obstacles to understanding are the emotional comforts of simplicity, the not-so-hidden arts of persuasion, the commercialization of information and its transformation into entertainment in an "age of luxury" and, more dangerously, an age of economic instability and external danger. Ignorant and fearful populations are readily suborned. The global history of the last two centuries provides terrible examples of voters led astray with calamitous results. Surely we owe the youth of this nation an emphatic explanation of why their welfare is intimately connected to that of others and why a proud democracy rests upon a discerning electorate united in a shared understanding of the political process.


Elias, N. 1978. The Civilizing Process.  New York: Urizen Books.

Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays.  New York: Basic Books.

Goffmann, E. 1971. Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order. London: Penguin Press.

Putnam, R. D. 2000. Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sennett, R. 1976. The Fall of Public Man.  New York: Knopf.

Shain, B. A. 1994. The Myth of American Individualism, the Protestant Origins of American Political Thought.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tritelli, D., ed. 2011. "Civic Engagement and Psychosocial Well-Being." Special issue. Liberal Education  97, no. 2.

Winograd, M., and M. D. Hais. 2011. Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor emeritus of history and former director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California–Berkeley. This article is adapted from the 2010 Annual Lecture of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

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