The Deterioration of American Civic Education

The Deterioration of American Civic Education August 3, 2012

Os Guinness is one of the premier orators and cultural critics in the western world today, and his latest book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, speaks to the demise of the proper American concept of liberty. Guinness, in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, is a foreign-born admirer of the audacity and genius of the American experiment.  A Free People’s Suicide examines American society and its slow and disastrous drift away from its historic moorings. The following is the third (see the first and the second) in a series of posts that feature and reflect on an interview with Dr. Guinness. 


You call on Americans to cultivate the essential civic character needed for ordered liberty and sustainable freedom. What exactly is America’s essential civic character? 

The habits of the heart are even more important than the law. I call it the golden triangle of freedom — and you can put it very simply. Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom. It goes round and round. If you just take the first leg, freedom requires virtue; only a virtuous people are capable of freedom in its truest sense. So you have a stress, for example, on character. Leadership in a free society requires leaders with real character. John Adams among others uses words like inimitable, indefeasible, all the words you would expect to line up in the category of freedom. But he uses it of the people’s right to know the character of their leaders. Modern Americans have abandoned that.

You can take the Clinton impeachment when various intellectuals wrote in the NYT that character is irrelevant and what matters in a president is competence. You could have a president with the morals of an alley cat as long as they had competence. That’s the modern emphasis, and it’s working itself out in leadership, in the affairs of Wall Street and the banking industry, and so on. There’s a real crisis of what it takes to keep freedom going.

You’ve said that the Founders envisioned more of a positive freedom, a freedom for, a freedom to be good and virtuous, instead of a freedom from, which is a freedom from the constraints of law and morality. In order for us to pursue a positive freedom for, however, it seems that we need a consensus view on who we really are. We need a theological anthropology, a rich and robust vision of what it means to be a flourishing human being in relation to others and in relation to God. In this postmodern milieu, where no ultimate answers are allowed, is there a way of having a vision of positive freedom without a theological anthropology, or do we need to reclaim the theological anthropology of our forefathers?

I don’t think there is. But of course that is not the business of the government. In other words, you have three primary nurturing institutions necessary for republican freedom. The family, the school, and the faith community. If those three fail to produce what you’ve righty called a positive view of freedom — and each of those three is outside the realm of government — then the whole experiment is in deep trouble. That’s exactly what’s wrong today. Take a crucial one — not freedom but human dignity. Ever since the Renaissance, there has been a humanism that was post-Christian but claimed to have just as high a view of human dignity as Christians had. But now you have the so-called anti-humanists who have come along to say, wait a minute, you’re borrowing Christian views of human dignity, but if there’s no Christianity you have no right to that. So you can see today that a science-based naturalism is giving us lower and lower and lower views of human dignity. So there’s a good example. Only the Jewish and Christian anthropology, view of human dignity, is keeping alive certain things like human rights.

So yes, you’re absolutely right. But my point is that it’s not the business of government. The government requires that, but it has no right to promulgate it in any way. The thing that the government should look after is civic education, and I have a key argument on that in the book.

You can even see within the Christian church itself a real crisis of ethics. You can see in the public schools the crisis of civic education. No one is taught what it means to be American. You take the American motto — which is also its greatest achievement, e pluribus unum — but the unum has collapsed. As you move across from Christian to educational to banking to leadership circles, there is a profound crisis on all sorts of levels. It’s not just the consensus that’s collapsed.

In a free society, everyone is born free, but not everyone is equal to freedom. They have to be “educated for liberty” – what used to be called liberal education. But since the 1960s, civic education in America has virtually collapsed. The government does have a responsibility there because of its leadership in the public schools. And if there is no civic education then there will be no American unum, and then the country will be profoundly in trouble.

Why has civic education collapsed in the United States? It strikes me that there’s almost an allergic reaction to being too pro-American. 

Consider the role the public schools played. They weren’t just free universal education. They were free universal schooling that taught the common core unities that all Americans should believe. That was the unum. Now if you go around to different parts of the country – colleges or churches or civic institutions — and say, “Write down for me the first ten things that are a part of that unum,” hardly anyone can get beyond one or two or three. It’s pathetic. Civic education has collapsed partly because of neglect and partly because many of the educational elites are against the notion of Americanism, which they consider coercive.


See the first post in this series for more information on Dr Guinness, and please check out his book, A Free People’s Suicide.

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  • L.W. Dickel

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “Brethren, may I inquire as to the rumor that I shall be a human sacrifice for the sins of humankind? Praytell, who in the goddamned hell came up with that Neanderthal bullshit!!? What are we, living in the fucking Stone Age!!?
    Blood sacrifice!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!? Art thou all fucking insane!!?
    Listen, brethren, as I tell you something of utmost importance. Stop immediately with the blood sacrifice bullshit. It’s barbaric, disgusting, sickening, immoral, vile, wicked and fucking outrageous . And makes us all look like a bunch of goddamn Cro-Magnon lunatics!!!”–Jesus Christ, the Thinking Mans Gospel

  • John Haas

    Not having read the book, I don’t want to make too many assumptions, but from what I’ve read here, this is a bit on the half-baked side. Just a couple examples:

    It traffics, as such treatises usually do, on a vague nostalgia for an age that never was. (See the works of historian Walter McDougall for more on that.)

    Evangelical and mainline church and Catholic authority over their members was always contested and never more than partial (they were divided on most of the big issues of any day, and the people could always vote with their feet or simply disobey) let alone the larger culture (which only paid obeisance when you told it what it wanted to hear).

    Guiness says of the public schools, “They were free universal schooling that taught the common core unities that all Americans should believe. That was the unum.” Not so: “e pluribus unum” referred to the states forming the union. That’s all.

    And, not surprisingly, Guiness doesn’t seem to have any sense for what’s really driving all this: the market. Call it what you want–respect for the bottom line, greed, what have you–the imperatives of the market require putting theological anthropology aside for what will sell. You can’t stop and ask yourself, “Gee, are these sugary sodas really good for kids? Maybe we shouldn’t be shoving pictures and jingles and soda machines in their faces constantly.” And if you’re a cash strapped school, you can’t turn up your nose at the incentives these companies offer you for hosting their machines (or advertising their products in class.)

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I would check it out, John. You might like it more than you think. Os really defies the left/right categories. There are portions of the book that will make people of all kinds uncomfortable; he’s quite critical of libertarianism, consumerism and selfishness.

      I’m sure Os knows that “e pluribus unum” refers to the states and the union, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it also referred to something more than that, and that there was a common set of civic virtues that bound Americans together as a general rule. He’s pretty critical of the Founders in the points where it’s important to be critical, but he also thinks there was a true genius in the system they devised. I would agree with him on that point.

      I would resist the notion that it’s merely the market that’s “really driving this.” The market and the culture both, in my view, each responding to each other and developing alongside in sometimes contradictory and sometimes consonant ways.

    • RedWell

      I’m in the same vein as John (though I don’t buy the market logic argument). For one thing, as a factual matter, “the school” was just not a huge element in socializing average Americans until the mid- to late 19th century. More to the point, the argument feels like the kind of boilerplate anxiety that is active at every point in US history. Guiness says, for instance, “As you move across from Christian to educational to banking to leadership circles, there is a profound crisis on all sorts of levels.” You could insert variations of this quote into every decade of US history. Peter Berger, meanwhile, offers a challenging counterpoint to this argument: in fact, for better or worse, our society may only function if we collectively assume a secular starting point from which to engage in political discourse ( Guiness may be correct (and I am sympathetic to the argument), but unless his prose weaves silky strands of irresistible conviction, there is nothing novel about his argument here.

      (PS: Kudos to L.W. above for winning the “Incoherent Post of the Week” award.)

    • Bobby B.

      I suspect that the debate Mr. Haas would prefer to have is between his nostalgia and those of his opponents. Interesting how he turns a discussion of civic education (love to see what curriculum he’d teach) into a Bloombergian rant on soda.

      • Bob Wiley

        “Bloombergian rant”–I’ll be using that expression.