Campus & Community

HGSE group brings civics back into curriculum

7 min read

As schools around the country work to meet academic requirements in reading and math set by the No Child Left Behind Act, some educators worry the trend ignores a critical part of a child’s learning: civic and moral education.

What are our responsibilities to our family and friends, our peers, our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings across the globe? How do we decide what is just, and what can and should we do when we encounter injustice? How can ordinary people effect change in society via government institutions, the media, community organizations, new technologies, or collective action? These are the kinds of civic and moral questions that young people should be learning to ask and answer, but that are sadly neglected in many schools today, according to Meira Levinson, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

How to shape a curriculum around civic and moral development, how to support students at HGSE interested in these topics, and how to expand the topics’ visibility at HGSE and beyond are some of the questions Levinson and other professors at the HGSE are examining.

The group began last spring, as a handful of academics got together to start assessing the amount and types of courses offered in civic and moral education at HGSE. While they discovered that many professors offer courses that address these topics, and many students — to judge by course enrollments and dissertation topics — are interested, what seemed to be missing was a sense of a wider, common conversation. As a result, the meeting soon blossomed into a wide-ranging initiative.

“When we met, it quickly turned into something bigger. We wanted to create something that allows students to explore these issues more deeply, but also we thought it was really important to help ourselves and our colleagues, both at the Education School and beyond, think about the goals and importance and place of civic and moral education in the overall educational landscape,” said Levinson.

What developed was the Civic & Moral Education Initiative (CMEI), which with support from HGSE Dean Kathleen McCartney has begun sponsoring a series of seven colloquia exploring the question “How can we effectively educate for civic and moral responsibility in and for the 21st century?” Levinson leads the group along with Robert Selman, Roy Edward Larsen Professor of Education and Human Development and professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

The discussions are a good fit for Levinson, whose work examines the civic achievement gap, the disparity in individuals’ civic and political knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are tied to race, ethnicity, and class. Levinson argues that the U.S. civic achievement gap is as serious as the one associated with reading and math.

While in the 1960s students received roughly three civics courses by graduation from high school, she offered, today typically only one semester of 12th-grade government is taught.

“In many urban districts there is little better than a 50 percent graduation rate, meaning close to a majority of those students who have dropped out by the 12th grade are getting no civic education. Our lack of attention in general to covering civic and moral education issues certainly contributes to the civic achievement gap, but it is much broader as well. Civic engagement, civic competencies, the skills and values that one needs to be an effective and empowered democratic citizen, really just aren’t on the table.”

Both organizers cited as a positive step the recent election and influence and symbolism of the campaign of President-elect Barack Obama, whose message, they said, of engagement and inclusion resonated with a wide audience.

“I have to think that at least some people may be more excited and interested because of Obama’s candidacy and election,” said Levinson. “Both the way his political campaign was run and the message that he has been pretty consistent about sharing have certainly brought civic engagement much more to the fore than has been true in the last ten years.”

The group’s first discussion was held in October and was led by HGSE visiting professor from the University of Bath Helen Haste, who explored a number of issues related to the field, including how civic and moral education is impacted by the Internet and the way people use new technologies to build civic communities and communicate their ideas. In November, Levinson, who taught middle school students in Boston and Atlanta before coming to Harvard, offered her perspective on African-American traditions of civic education.

In the most recent talk on Dec. 12, Selman led a panel that questioned whether students could learn about civic engagement by examining historical cases of attempts to destroy it. In evaluating the program Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO), a professional development organization for educators, he told the crowd that he and his colleagues reviewed its case-method approach to learning. The program uses historical epochs and events, like the steps leading up to the Holocaust, as a means of guiding teachers in their conversations with their students about the kinds of messages they receive from society, or the times when people find themselves in “we versus they” situations, and what, if anything, to do about them.

Examining the curriculum and even conducting some of their own interviews with students, said Selman, helped him understand some basic developmental questions.

“We decided to use our research partnership with FHAO as a way to understand how kids thought about issues like inclusion and exclusion,” said Selman, who noted that the research suggested that “by high school, most students can understand that when faced with a we/they situation in school — like ostracism — they can take steps to improve the school climate.”

Yet, he also stressed, “it is important for students to be neither too idealistic nor too cynical in the strategies they can imagine choosing. … Seeing connections and differences to choices made by ordinary people in periods when civil society is threatened is what a program like Facing History can help teachers teach.”

Levinson and Selman both note that the definition of civic education involves teaching students to appreciate how historical consciousness, ethical reflection, and civic participation may connect to one another. The basic tenets of participatory democracy, they agreed, are also essential.

Also on the recent panel was HGSE graduate and current history teacher at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School Joshua Landwher, who explained some of the strategies he uses in teaching his students civics lessons from the past. Studying things like the texts from the founding fathers, World War I propaganda, or the Treaty of Versailles, he said, helps his students forge connections between history and civics.

“I have [my class] try to work on formulating a Versailles Treaty … an end to the war, a just peace or a victors’ peace,” Landwher said, adding that the students are exposed to the moral and ethical lessons of history in part by putting themselves “back into these places and [moments in time].”

The CMEI colloquia series has been heavily attended by students and faculty from HGSE and other Harvard Schools, as well as by members of universities and organizations in the Greater Boston area. In addition, students at HGSE have begun to organize their own CMEI-affiliated group.

As the series continues next year, organizers hope to invite a representative from the Obama administration to talk about reshaping and reinvigorating civic engagement in a new political landscape. The group also hopes to create a cross-program concentration in civic and moral education at HGSE.

Perhaps the best indication of how important the topic has become arrived at last week’s discussion in the form of approximately 20 young students from Landwher’s history class. They scattered themselves on the floor to listen to the presentation, choosing to, as their teacher put it, “participate and engage civically.”