By James Bernard Murphy
Introduction: What Is Civic Education?
A fierce debate about civic education in American public schools has
erupted in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many
liberals and conservatives, though they disagree strongly about which
civic virtues to teach, share the assumption that such education is an
appropriate responsibility for public schools. They are wrong. Civic ed-
ucation aimed at civic virtue is at best ineffective; worse, it is often sub-
versive of the moral purpose of schooling. Moreover, the attempt to impose
these partisan conceptions of civic virtue on America’s students violates
the civic trust that underpins vibrant public schools.
Here is how the recent debate has unfolded and what we might learn
from it. In response to demands from teachers about how to deal with the
messy emotional, racial, religious, and political issues occasioned by the
September 11 attack and its aftermath, the National Education Associa-
tion (NEA) offers a Web site titled “Remember September 11.” The site is
full of materials about how to counsel distressed students; how to place
September 11 in some kind of historical, cultural, and international con-
text; and what moral lessons might be drawn from the attack.
moral lessons range from “Remembering the Uniformed Heroes at the
World Trade Center” to “Tolerance in Times of Trial.” Similarly, the Na-
tional Council for Social Studies (NCSS) offers lesson plans for “9/11” on
its Web site
: these materials range from “The Bill of Rights” to “My
Name is Osama,” the story of an Iraqi-American boy taunted by his peers
because of his name and Muslim customs. Although the materials offered
by these organizations vary widely, their pervasive theme is well articu-
lated by the president of the NCSS: “[W]e need to reinforce the ideals of
tolerance, equity, and social justice against a backlash of antidemocratic
sentiments and hostile divisions.”
* For comments on an earlier draft of this essay, I am indebted to Mark Stein, Lucas
Swaine, Shelley Burtt, Stanley Fish, Mary Beth Klee, Ellen Frankel Paul, and the other
contributors to this volume. I also wish to thank my indefatigable research assistants and
copyeditors, Karen Liot and Emily Mintz. I began this inquiry in response to questions
about the relation of academic to moral excellence from the late Patty Farnsworth, to whom
I dedicate this essay.
Available on-line at http://neahin.org/programs/schoolsafety/september11/materials/
hshome.htm [accessed April 30, 2003].
Available on-line at http://www.socialstudies.org/resources/moments [accessed April