- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

Edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti
Yale University Press, $35, 358 pages

Poll a group of social scientists about the most perplexing problems facing our country and you'll find that high on their list would be the problem of "restoring civil society." Faced with a wide variety of symptoms falling percentages of voters going to the polls, shrinking numbers of Americans joining social clubs and political organizations, and fewer people wanting to know their neighbors social scientists try to figure out how to get Americans involved in their communities and in politics.
What can the schools do to teach students the importance of being active in our republic? In "Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society," Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti, both affiliated with New York University, have assembled a wide variety of essays from education professors, political scientists and legal scholars to answer this question. That the authors achieve no consensus on what should be done shows how difficult it is to teach morality in our schools.
In her preface, Diane Ravitch explains that civics courses should be something more than simply memorizing the three branches of government, or understanding the difference between a senator and a representative. "Unless the schools provide our children with a vision of human possibility that enlightens and empowers them with knowledge and taste, she writes, "they will simply play their role in someone else's marketing schemes. Unless they deeply understand the sources of our democracy, they will take it for granted and fail to exercise their rights and responsibilities."
None of the authors in this book, however, discuss what should be taught about democracy. Instead, they look at different facets of moral questions they believe schools should address.
Consider patriotism. Surely if we are to have a functioning democracy, most Americans should believe that America is a great country that needs improvement. But as Stanford University education professor William Damon shows, propose teaching patriotism in the classroom and most professors will cringe. He cites University of Chicago professor Martha Nussbaum, who argues against teaching an "irrational" patriotism "full of color and humanity and passion," but calls for telling our children that they are "citizens of a world of human beings." Instead of being proud to be Americans she believes that our children should be told that "they happen to be situated in the United States."
But if liberals have problems with patriotism, conservatives might well question some of the moral principles championed by the left. For example, an essay by Rosemary C. Salomone of the St. John's University law school suggests that among the "shared social values" everyone can agree on is "concern for the environment." Far too often such "concern" expresses itself in courses that go beyond a decent respect for the earth to tell students that they are guilty of rapacious overconsumption and can only expunge their guilt by endorsing a radical environmental agenda.
If the left rebels against the traditional virtues and the right exercises a weaker veto over blatant politicization of the classroom, what is left to teach? According to University of Toronto emeritus professor Stephen Holmes, the only noncontroversial virtues that can be taught in the public schools are tolerance for other people's views and a belief in equality of opportunity. All other virtues, Mr. Holmes writes, must be avoided if a public school is to avoid controversy. Among the virtues too controversial to teach, according to him, are "honor, integrity, perseverance, industriousness, humility, cooperation, sensitivity, purity, or temperance … The list is a minimum of common qualities, not a full and satisfying educational regime."
What is also clear is that, in an absence of a shared moral consensus, schools are succumbing to what Jonathan Rauch calls "bureaucratic legalism." Take two issues not addressed by this book. Mandatory requirements in Maryland and other states that students must complete a number of hours volunteering before graduation are supposed to teach that volunteer activities are worthwhile. But by making voluntarism a punishment, schools are sending a very mixed message about being a volunteer.
Similarly, "zero-tolerance" rules don't reach students' democratic virtues, but instead prepare students for a life in a bureaucracy, where the commands of regulators cannot be questioned or challenged. I know of no case where an assistant principal punishes a student under a "zero-tolerance" rule for possessing a nail clipper or an aspirin, and then says, "Oh when you're 18, you can vote against politicians who support these rules."
It may be that teachers can prepare students for democracy in small ways: by being good role models, or by teaching about great American heroes. But what's clear from the fine essays in this book is that it is impossible for public school teachers today to teach civics as objectively as French or trigonometry.

Martin Morse Wooster is an associate editor of the American Enterprise and the author of "Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds."

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