Education for Civitas: The Lessons Americans Must Learn

Hanna Collection on the Role of Education
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

R. Freeman Butts
May 1997

Part I of this Working Paper was prepared by Professor R. Freeman Butts in the Spring of 1996. It was the basis for his lecture inaugurating an annual colloquial series on "Critical Issues and Enduring Ideas in Contemporary Education" held in honor of the late Robert Holmes Beck, noted philosopher of education at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. The lecture was delivered by Professor Butts to an all-university audience on May 2, 1996, just as the presidential campaign was making it clear that education would become one of its major political issues.

The text of Part I printed here is the longer draft from which his lecture was drawn. It has not been altered to take account of events that occurred during the summer and fall of the 1996 campaign or in the new Democratic Administration and Republican Congress that began in Washington in January 1997. However, an "Afterword" is appended as Part II of this Working Paper to call attention to pertinent developments that occurred during the year from May 1, 1996 to May 1, 1997, when this Paper was made available by the Hanna Collection on the Role of Education in Society of the Hoover Institution.

Dr. Butts is William F. Russell Professor Emeritus in the Foundations of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford School of Education (1976-78) and at the Hoover Institution (1980-86). His book, The Civic Mission of Educational Reform: Perspectives for the Public and the Profession, was published by the Hoover Institution Press in 1989. He was a Hanna Distinguished Fellow in Education at Hoover in 1993.

EDUCATION FOR CIVITAS: The Lessons Americans Must Learn / May 1, 1996

AFTERWORD: The Politics of Educational Reform / May 1, 1997

EDUCATION FOR CIVITAS: The Lessons Americans Must Learn
May 1, 1996

I am deeply honored to be asked to give the first keynote address in the colloquial series named for Bob Beck, In fact, I chose "civitas" as the keyword in the title of my remarks, at least in part, because of its classical resonance so dear to Bob. Civitas has common roots with the Latin words for "civis" meaning citizen and "civilitas" meaning the conduct and behavior expected of a good citizen. Civitas is now a perfectly good but seldom used English word, with two related meanings: (1) It means a political community or government, especially as found in a republic, and (2) it means the kind of citizenship a republic requires. I wish to speak of the lessons that Americans must learn about both of these meanings of civitas: the kind of education necessary for perpetuating and strengthening republican government and the kind of education that best promotes democratic citizenship. Throughout, I use the shorthand phrase "education for civitas" to include both meanings.

The lessons could be drawn from history, philosophy, politics, sociology, economics, or international affairs. In fact, these were intertwined in what we at Teachers College used to call the Foundations of Education. But in the time I have today, in this political year, I focus on the political lessons: What is the role of government in education and what is the role of education in preparing youth for citizenship in a constitutional democratic republic?

A Few Lessons from History

Remember that the very idea of a liberal education was originally linked with the practice and preparation for free citizenship--in the polis of democratic Athens and in the civitas of republican Rome. Each generation was to acquire the civic knowledge and commitments of "civitas." This was also the view of discerning founders of the American Republic and of their successors who decided that the responsibilities and the rights of American citizenship in a democratic republic should be defined by law and nourished by a common civic education and civic culture rather than by kinship, ethnicity, race, religion, class, or hereditary status.

Jefferson's "Text of Civic Instruction" for Public Schools

Let me cite some earlier views of the role of education for American citizenship. Who was the first American to propose a law that vested the very existence of republican government in a state-sponsored system of public education extending from primary schools through a state university? It was, of course, Thomas Jefferson who did so as legislator and governor of Virginia--just three years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Who proposed that the curriculum of that public education system from bottom to top should be civic-centered rather than kinship- or religion-centered? Thomas Jefferson.

And who finally engineered the passage in Virginia of Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom against the determined opposition of the conservative Christian coalition of his day? It was James Madison--just a year before he went to the Constitutional Convention to strengthen the Federal Government. And who said that "the essential principles of our government" set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights should be adopted as "the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction?" It was Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address as President on March 4, 1800 in the wake of what one American historian has called "the dirtiest presidential campaign in American history," as he sought to heal the wounds of the ferocious partisan bickering of the 1790s, a partisanship that screamed from the pages of an inflamed press and even broke out in physical brawling on the floor of Congress.

Referring calmly and presidentially to "the contest of opinion through which we have passed," Jefferson made it clear that now that the election was over he expected the rules of the Constitution to prevail:

"...all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions....But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists....[T]his government, the world's best hope...[is] the strongest government on earth."
Then, in one long sentence, Jefferson spelled out his view of "the essential principles of our government." These principles include:
"...equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; the support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies;...the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad;...freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of person under protection of the habeas corpus; and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles...should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust..."[Emphasis added]
Remember that these are the words of a president who was notable for his strong support, nay almost the very creation, of the idea of public education in a democratic republic. Soon after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in October 1776, where he served until elected governor in June 1779.

Jefferson was convinced that the Constitution of 1776 of the newly independent state of Virginia had not gone nearly far enough to reform the aristocratic institutions and class distinctions inherited from British rule. So, in 1779 he introduced bills for the abolition of primogeniture and entail of property, for religious freedom from the established Church of England, and for a complete system of public education extending from primary schools through a state university. Jefferson viewed these political, economic, religious, and educational proposals as intertwining means for regenerating at the state level the ideals of liberty, equality, and civic virtue that permeated the Declaration itself.

Through this "revisal of the laws" of Virginia, Jefferson hoped to change Virginia from a hierarchical English colony with its monarchical common law into an American democratic republic. His "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" envisioned a system of public education which would become the new crown jewel of democracy, the only "safe depository" for preparing youth for citizenship in a democratic republic.

And, in tune with his efforts to bring religious freedom to Virginia, Jefferson specifically recommended that the morality of citizenship be the fundamental and common ground for public education rather than religious belief or practice. He spelled out these views in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" where he argued that in addition to the three R's the basic content of the primary school curriculum should be suffused with civic history. Listen to his words describing the curriculum "wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction" and the "principal foundations of future order will be laid":

"Instead, therefore, of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of children at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious inquiries, their memories may be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history. The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds..."
He went on to pen some of the most memorable ideas, today too often forgotten, in the history of American education:
"But of all the views of this law none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. For this purpose the reading in the first be chiefly historical. History, by apprising them [the students] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and, knowing it, to defeat its views....Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories....An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education."
Yes, it is true that Jefferson was talking about "Euro-American centered" history. He was writing in 1781, before 200 years of historical scholarship were available to him and to his compatriots, but he was trying to take giant steps to broaden the meaning of schooling from its historic role as a religious and family function to a secular and civic function.

These same ends infused his 1779 legislative bill designed to transform the Anglican College of William and Mary into a secular state university. He proposed that the established professor of divinity be replaced by a professor of history, law, and government. And after he joined the College's Board of Visitors as governor in October 1779, the "Professor of Divinity" did indeed give way to a "Professor of "Law and Police."

But the time was not yet ripe for Jefferson's education bills to be accepted by the conservative religious and political forces in the Virginia legislature. It was not until 1818 that Jefferson was able to engineer the establishment of the state University of Virginia as a capstone for a public education system devoted to the preparation of an educated citizenry. His "mission statement" of six goals for the university pointedly listed political, economic, scientific, and moral purposes for higher education. There was no explicit religious goal. And the ten professorships (or departments) included the broadest range of fields of knowledge known to any of the American colleges of the day, but no professor of divinity.

Jefferson's third thrust for democracy was his original bill of 1779 proposing a Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It did not become law until James Madison roused the state by his vigorous campaign to approve it in 1786, Madison thus defeated the efforts by Patrick Henry and the conservative Christian coalition of the day to gain tax funds for the support of religious teachers of all Protestant denominations. Listen to the words of Henry's assessment bill of 1784. It would have required all persons "to pay a moderate tax or contribution annually for the support of the Christian religion, or of some Christian church, denomination or communion of Christians, or of some form of Christian worship." The rationale was clearly that civic morality must rest upon religious belief. But Madison campaigned the state with his "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" so successfully in the summer of 1785 that he was able to convince the legislature to pass Jefferson's bill for religious freedom in January 1786. It states that

" man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
Thus was Madison nurtured by Jefferson and prepared to frame the first two complementary clauses of the First Amendment of the US Constitution in 1789 whereby "Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Jefferson and Madison agreed that an assessment or tax for religious worship of any kind was the essence of "an establishment of religion" and that the government should not be intervening in any way except to protect the freedom of religion. No wonder Jefferson wished his own memorial to include this trinity:

Author of the Declaration of Independence
Of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia

Today, many Americans are searching for answers to the weakening of the moral and social fabric that threatens to unravel the political culture of the United States. Some are seeking a "quick fix" by restoring traditional "family values," or prayer in the public schools, or strengthening private and religious schools. But it is sobering to remember that even during the military trauma of the Revolutionary War, Jefferson and other founders of the American states were trying to figure out how to build a viable education for a free and independent community once they finally secured full freedom from Britain.

While the war was raging up and down Virginia, Jefferson was looking ahead and campaigning for establishing public schools free of religious control as basic foundations for building a cohesive civic society while honoring the diverse values of a pluralistic religious people. The glue was to be a public system of universal, free, common schooling whose basic purpose was to prepare all citizens for commitment to the democratic values of the public good, freedom for individual rights, justice, equality, diversity, truth, and patriotism. In fact, many patriots were campaigning for a national system of public schools that would serve the same ends. But that turned out to be even more chimerical than the idea of state systems of public schools.

As president, George Washington could never quite bring himself to be a strong advocate of state systems of public education, but the idea of a National University was a favorite theme of his and he even flirted with the idea of Congressional support for universal public education. In fact, in 1796 as Washington was retiring, the American Philosophical Society of which Jefferson was president, launched an essay contest on "the best system of liberal education adapted to the genius of the government of the United States." Not surprisingly, the two winners were Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans, Samuel Harrison Smith and Samuel Knox. They were not only strongly in favor of public education, but they both went much further to argue that there should be a national system of public educational institutions devoted to the public good, liberty, and equality under federal auspices.

The logic of these young Jeffersonians was impeccable: If state systems of public education were the proper seedbeds for the newly independent states in the 1770s and 1780s, and if those states after a decade of separate independence saw the necessity of a stronger federal union, then there should be a federal system of public education to nourish and support the new national political community of which the Federal government was the Constitutional embodiment. Impeccable logic perhaps, but unpersuasive politics for those times--as well as for our times.

Still, indulge in a little historical whimsy. What if this band of intellectuals along with Jefferson and his Democratic followers for the next fifty years had somehow managed to produce a set of national standards for civics and government based on Jefferson's "text of civic instruction" and had produced successive generations of trained teachers who could teach those ideas and instill those ideals in American children and youth in all the Southern as well as the Northern states for the next fifty years, might we have avoided the Civil War?

After all, it only took Germany and Japan fifty years to replace their totalitarian teachings with democratic learnings after World War II. And, right now, at the end of the cold war, there are significant international efforts going on to strengthen a new civic education and civic culture to speed the shift from communism to democracy in the newly independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Coincidentally, one of the most significant of these efforts is called "CIVITAS: An International Civic Education Exchange Program." And, perhaps, even here in the United States a strong program of education for civitas could help us stem the threats to our own civic polity, marked by political passivity on one hand and angry frustration, hateful racism, and nativism on the other. These were familiar ingredients that brewed the original mix of twentieth century fascism and communism in Europe and Asia. But more of this in a moment.

Before I go on, I cannot fail to note that Jefferson's original vision of transforming private religious colleges into secular state universities as a seedbed for developing citizens in a free government was also tried by Jeffersonian Republicans in several other states, but that process was ultimately frustrated by the Supreme Court's Dartmouth College decision of 1819 affirming the Federalist argument that the college's charter was a contract that could not be impaired under the U.S. Constitution. Still, the movement for free, public universities providing the civic leadership necessary for a healthy republic gained momentum. Twenty-one such institutions were established between the Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War in twenty states. However, this was done against the vigorous opposition from religious groups who waged a continuous battle to prevent the public universities from being established by diverting the public funds to religious institutions or to inject religious instruction into the new state universities.


Back to the home page Back to Center for Civic Education home page

Send comments regarding this page to