Few thinking adults now question the assertion that civic education--like virtually all forms of education in America--has arrived at a dismal place. Yet, if renewed and redoubled efforts to improve the quality of education for Americans in other areas (such as math and science) have seen some limited successes, it seems that this minor triumphs may have come at a cost in other areas such as history, geography, literature and civics. In a world that seems in every important way to be getting smaller and to demand more knowledge of ourselves and of others, Americans seem--increasingly--to be at sea in their capacity to explain either.
Ben Boychuk, who is now Managing Editor of School Reform News
at The Heartland Institute
in addition to blogging for Heartland's Freedom Pub
and also over at Infinite Monkeys
, did a podcast interview
with Ashbrook Executive Director, Peter Schramm for Heartland's website addressing some of these questions. Specifically, Schramm was asked to consider the question of civic education and what his experience at the Ashbrook Center has taught him both about the need for improving civic education and the possibility for correcting the deficiencies he has noted. Central to that discussion, Schramm notes, is a question of WHAT rather than a discussion of HOW. In other words, this is a question of substance more than it is a question of methodology. There are no easy answers, in any event. Too often, as public attention turns to the issue of civic education, legislators and citizens alike become afflicted with a serious case of "do something disease" and laws are proposed that purport to address and correct the problem but, in truth, seem really only to add yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already over-burdened public education system. The truth is that such measures are, more often than not, of limited utility (at best) and, more often, they are beside the point.
Schramm notes that the state of Louisiana has a law on the books that is over 100 years old requiring the study of the Federalist Papers. This is a noble sentiment and, of course, there is nothing wrong in principle with such a law. Perhaps there is even something good about it and it could be recommended to the country as a whole. But if there are not sufficient teachers with the capacity to assist students in a meaningful reading and understanding of this work, such a law is very limited in what it can expect to achieve. Moreover, Schramm insists that when it comes to legislating about civic education there is a fine line between a heavy-handed, agenda-driven, spirit of propaganda and a high-minded spirit of free inquiry into the ideas that formed our nation. Schramm calls for a civic education that is presented in a manner respectful of the spirit of freedom that informed our Founding--one that recognizes the potential of free men to govern themselves (and this includes their minds). A serious education is one that is respectful of the freedom of thought that is necessary to preserve real freedom--not one that peddles in platitudes and the force-feeding of pious-sounding but over-thin pablum about it.
In short, Schramm describes the kind of education available to willing students in the Ashbrook Scholar program and in the Masters of American History and Government program. If you are unfamiliar with the substance of those programs (and grow weary of my poor attempts to impress upon you their unique and lasting value), by all means take the time to listen to this podcast. If you think you already know a good deal about the Ashbrook Center's programs, I still recommend tuning in to remind yourself of just how engaging and rigorous it can be. You will make yourself a little jealous of these students . . . but reflect that much of what is available to them is also, by the good efforts of their staff, available to the rest of us through this website. We can all be (and, really, should be) Ashbrook Scholars of one degree or another. As Schramm notes, the things they study do not cease to be captivating or diminish in their charm as the years pass . . . indeed, their charm grows in proportion to the degree to which one applies one's mind to the effort of the study.
A laboratory of freedom, to be genuine, must be respectful of the freedom of thought that produced freedom in the first place. Freedom is a habit both of word and deed. Freedom is what is taught at the Ashbrook Center.