A Cure for Superficiality

“Democracy needs to be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife.” ~ John Dewey, Twentieth Century Education Theorist

A friend of mine recommended New York Times columnist David Brooks’ recent TED presentation to me yesterday (David Brooks: The Social Animal) and after having listened to it I am pleased to pass it along to you, with a couple of thoughts of my own on the topic.

Brooks noted a passage from philosopher Alistaire McIntyre’s works, which I must paraphrase for you for lack of access to the source material: “We have the concepts of the ancient morality – virtue, honor and goodness – but we no longer have the system by which to connect them.” Brooks then notes that as a result of this disconnect we have a society in which most people live more or less superficially.

As you are likely well aware I have been circling this subject for the last few days, partly out of my desire to inspire those within earshot to a deeper consideration of and passion for living a thoughtful and uncommon life and partly to till the earth for future generations, and I am compelled to voice my agreement with Mssrs. Brooks and McIntyre on the necessity of reconnecting our modern civilization to the concepts of ancient morality.

Superficiality is a symptom of a deeper cause, and educating our citizenry on the virtues and their relatedness to sustaining the representative democracies we were so generously gifted by our forefathers is the only cure I am aware of at this time.

The highest leverage point I can see for making the required shift is found in our schools. Among the many adjustments that could be made, we must revitalize the notion that the civic mission of schools is the essential purpose of their existence. A study administered by the National Assessment Governing Board in 2006 (and the situation has only gotten worse in my estimation since then), two-thirds of the students scored below average on the national civics assessment and 72% of eighth grade students surveyed could not identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Houston, we have a problem.

Civic education should be woven into every aspect and level of education.

One of the unintended side effects of the passing of the Federal “No Child Left Behind” Act in 2002 was that instructional time on social studies was cut back in order to accommodate the new emphasis on math and science required by the federal law. This is tragic, especially when study after study shows that when children are exposed to well-presented civic education courses that they not only are more likely to vote, but they are also more likely to participate in their communities and work toward the resolution of societal ills.

Informing students about constructs of civilization, governmental systems and how society works is just as important as science and math, for without such an understanding we run the risk of losing the very freedoms which permit the free and unrestrained pursuit of knowledge in the hard sciences. We must improve on civics education.

You needn’t look farther than the toxic exchanges between political leaders to see that we need to improve on civics education in our country. Debate, dissent, respectfully handling opposing views and civility are important skills, yet in their absence the show must go on. Unfortunately it does so in an increasingly caustic, disrespectful, nasty and brutish way in the absence of a deep and well-considered base of civility.

According to research on http://www.civiced.org, students who receive a sustained and systematic civic education become:

  • more knowledgeable about their government and how it affects them
  • more interested in politics, the news, current events, and government
  • more capable of identifying public policies that do or do not serve their interests and the common good
  • more consistent in their views on policies
  • more critical of politics and government—developing a healthy skepticism that does not alienate them from participation but instead motivates them to participate in improving the system
  • more likely to participate in political and civic activities
  • more committed to fundamental democratic values and principles; and more tolerant of those who differ in their opinions.

Considering this, what really do we have to lose by restoring civic education to its rightful place?

6 thoughts on “A Cure for Superficiality

  1. Coco

    I’m still laughing. I loved his message and thoroughly enjoyed his delivery.
    Our form of government is impressive but to truly appreciate the value and difference it must be understood.Our lack of understanding is leading to a subtle but continual eroding of this intricately designed masterpiece of freedom.
    “Don’t it always seem to be that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!”


  2. Kolya

    You’ve illustrated this point wonderfully – I can see only gain from increasing civics education. It certainly provides an important setting and context for navigating through the world that we live in.


  3. Kai Newell

    True, true, true! We can’t raise good leaders without the civics studies. As a teacher I echo your concern. Really great thoughts, and I enjoyed the TED presentation.


  4. Rosa Maysen

    Very thought provoking. You offer a valid proposal as to how we can begin to reverse the plague of superficiality. The principle of disconnection can be applied to any level of superficiality. Thanks for a post I could really sink my teeth into!


  5. Colin

    I was lucky to have a good civics education. I feel it’s important to know where our country and governmental system came from, for several reasons. First, if you know what was, then you are more likely to see where changes will take you, and you will know whether those changes lose something superfulous, or something that is vital to the national fabric. Secondly, you will know of failed ideas from the past, so we won’t have to try them again and again! Thirdly (and importantly) you will understand the shared bond that we have as countrymen, and you will respect your fellow citizens and their views as important to the governmental process.


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