by R. Freeman Butts

The theme of our Convocation this year, "Liberal Education for Informed and Active Citizenship," is very heartening for me. Let me tell you why. Five years ago at our 1990 Convocation, the theme was "Cultural Literacy and the Core Curriculum." After some initial presentations, we broke into six small groups, much as we are about to do today.

I made some notes on what those groups reported back to the general session. Only two of the groups mentioned anything about citizenship as a theme for a liberal arts core curriculum in high school or college. And in both cases the comments were negative.

The reporter for Group #2 told the general session, "We tip-toed around the core curriculum. We agreed on history, other cultures, diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism. We disagreed about a federally imposed curriculum." (N.B. The movement for national standards in core subject matter fields had only recently been unveiled at the bipartisan Charlottesville summit by President Bush and the fifty governors, including Bill Clinton.)

The reporter for my group told the general session, "We spent most of our time on citizenship, but we didn't mean to.... We didn't want to talk about citizenship. We wanted to talk about the curriculum and stuff like that." Now, I undoubtedly caused their frustration, because I had asked the group what they thought of a speech delivered to the alumni of the University by Governor Robert M. La Follette, Sr. in 1901. His theme was "The Wisconsin Idea." Let me read a few sentences:

...[T]he greatness of a state does not lie in its area, its commerce, its... accumulated splendor. It lies back of all these in the character of her citizenship....

I do not know to what extent in this new century the obligation of the student to the state is made part of the daily thought of university life, but I well remember when it found expression in every convocation and was heard from time to time in every classroom....[The student has] an abiding pay back in earnest, persistent, conscientious effort for good government, the debt due to the state.

....before all things, the university owes it to the state to give it good citizens....[T]he student should never be permitted to forget while here that he is primarily training for the duties of citizenship....

When this mighty power for the general good is once fully felt throughout the state...the university will not longer come cringing past an impudent and arrogant lobby, as a supplicant to the state....[Does he mean the Legislature?]

With the university as a great recruiting station, the ranks of patriotic citizenship shall ever swell with increasing numbers, armed for the state's best service....Not since the days of the sixties have greater issues called for truer men....Strike always for the state and you will strike for the right.

Now, at the end of the twentieth century, we may note that "Old Bob" addressed the alumni as "men," or we may smile tolerantly or smirk mockingly at his rhetoric of patriotism. Or, we may simply dismiss the idea of liberal education for citizenship, as was done at our Convocation five years ago. We may even agree that "civics" and "citizenship" were the most boring subjects we had to take or sit through in high school and so in effect say, "In college we can skip all that dry stuff about three branches of government, separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, etc. We can study what we want to study -- to get a job and all that other good stuff that goes with college life."

But wait a minute. Have you considered how the political "earthquake" now rumbling from Washington through Madison to California will affect us as this fall term begins? How should we think about the efforts to change the role of government envisioned by the New Deal of the 1930s and the "days of the sixties?" (the nineteen sixties that is) Is civics really all that remote and boring?

For example, consider the mood of the current "political revolution:"

1. Reduce the role of the federal government by cutting federal powers, regulations, and funds for education, health care, welfare, and the environment, and turn such matters over to the states, sometimes with the help of federal funds, sometimes not; abolish the U. S. Department of Education and national service through AmeriCorps, reduce or abolish federal loans and grants for college students, prevent the federal government from prohibiting guns near schools. Is this what the civics textbooks mean by "federalism"?

2. Next. After power has been passed to the states, reduce the role of state government in education and social services, increase local control, or better yet privatize management. This means, among other things, offering public-funded vouchers to parents to choose the private or religious schools they want for their children, but not public funds for women to choose abortions for pregnancies they don't want, or funds for poor women on welfare for children they do want. Is this what the civics textbooks mean by promoting the "public good" or protecting the individual rights of "freedom" and "privacy"?

3. Further. Teach traditional family values, require the teaching of creationism along with evolution, and promote prayer in the public schools by enacting the "Religious Equality Amendment" to the U. S. Constitution. Is this what civic textbooks mean by the separation of church and state? Or what the First Amendment permits or requires?

4. Still further. Reduce or abolish affirmative action for minorities and women in education and employment; drastically limit immigration and abolish educational benefits for legal as well as illegal aliens; reduce the emphasis on multiculturalism in schools and colleges. Is this what civics textbooks mean by America's historic civic values of "justice," "equality," and "diversity"?

5. Finally, the courts are also wrestling with the role of government. For example, in a recent case, U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, the Supreme Court debated whether we Americans are a people of 50 sovereign states or of one nation. The Court narrowly decided 5-4 that "We the People" are one nation, although Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the dissent as though we should still be operating under the Articles of Confederation.

Now, add to this political revolution the public's current disenchantment with politicians of both major political parties and, underlying all else, a sense of apathy regarding government. About 30% of eligible citizens take the trouble to vote. And the proportions of younger citizens who vote is even smaller. Is this what civic textbooks mean by "popular sovereignty" and "democracy"?

Civics is boring? Or should we view 1995 as a year of unique opportunity to revive the study of civics as one of the most challenging subjects in the K-12 curriculum as well as in college liberal arts? Maybe both high school and college students should be studying a new kind of civics that deals in a candid, lively, and scholarly way with the fundamental issues underlying the past and the future of constitutional democracy. Maybe we should even require such study in a core curriculum of liberal education offered in schools and colleges throughout the land.

First, a word about history. Remember that the very idea of a liberal education was originally linked with free citizenship -- in the polis of democratic Athens and in the civitas of republican Rome. The primary purpose of a liberal education was to prepare citizens for their roles in a political community governed by law rather than by kinship, class, religion, or hereditary status. Each generation was to acquire the civic knowledge and commitments of "civitas," now a perfectly good English word that has two related meanings: a political community known as a republic and the kind of citizenship a republic requires. This was the view of discerning founders of the American republic and, especially, of Thomas Jefferson in his efforts to establish a state system of public education in Virginia topped by a state university.

Now, let me say a few words about two recent publications designed to improve preparation for citizenship in the school curriculum with these titles: CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education (1991) and the National Standards for Civics and Government (1994). They were produced by the non-partisan, non-profit Center for Civic Education funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and U.S. Department of Education.

CIVITAS was produced after prolonged discussions by a 20-member Framework Development Committee of academic scholars and professional educators, extended consultations with a 24-member National Review Council of leaders of citizen groups, chaired by Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and with the advice of a 60-member Teachers Advisory Committee drawn from all 50 states. It is not a "federally imposed curriculum." With wide consensus among all these groups, it was agreed that CIVITAS should consist of three major topics: Civic Virtue, Civic Participation, and Civic Knowledge and Skills:

I. Civic Virtue
Civic Dispositions and Civic Commitments
Fundamental Values and Principles of American Constitutional Democracy

II. Civic Participation
Historical Perspective
Civic and Community Action

III. Civic Knowledge and Skills
The Nature of Politics and Government
Politics and Government in the United States
Formal and Informal Institutions of Government
The Role of the Citizen
Rights and Responsibilities

Despite its unfamiliarity in modern usage, CIVITAS revives the term "civic virtue" not only to call to mind one of the enduring values underlying the founding experience of the American Republic, but also to highlight those dispositions and commitments needed by American citizens as they confront an increasingly complex, fractious, and interdependent world.

Don't discount the power of "virtue" in a period when Bill Bennett's Book of Virtues remained on the best seller list for more than 80 straight weeks. Or when Colin Powell's book has become instantaneously wildly popular, not least because he calls for a revival of patriotism as a civic virtue. The public is listening, reading, and applauding "virtue."

Note also that two new scholarly books are being published this month: Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character and Citizenship in American Society, edited by Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard, and The Content of America's Character: Recovering Civic Virtue, edited by Don Eberly, president of the Commonwealth Foundation. The question is, How is civic virtue faring in our politics today?

In my view, the most distinctive aspect of CIVITAS, which makes it so different from most civics textbooks or curriculum frameworks, is this emphasis upon civic virtue, incorporating the fundamental values of American constitutional democracy as subjects for study as well as for eventual reasoned commitment by citizens.

Civic values are in a real sense prior in importance to the more familiar constitutional principles or structures of American government that are set forth in most civics textbooks: popular sovereignty, the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, civilian control of the military, and federalism. But notice again. Even those usually dusty and dull topics are undergoing fundamental, historic reexamination these days.

Let me mention briefly the seven civic values that CIVITAS proposes should be the core of the study of civics: the public good, freedom of individual rights, justice, equality, diversity, truth, and patriotism.


Drawing upon the classical republican tradition of politics, the founders of the American republic used the term "civic virtue" to mean the willingness of citizens to subordinate their private interests on behalf of the public or common good. But the founders also drew upon the 17th and 18th century liberal tradition, which viewed the chief end of government to be the prime protector of the individual rights of citizens in a democratic republic. CIVITAS says that both the classical republican tradition and the traditional liberal view of citizenship are legitimate elements in the spectrum of American civic values and both have a place in our broadened view of education for civic virtue in the future.


There are two kinds of individual rights: (1) The freedom of the person and of private action involves the right, the opportunity, and the ability of every person to live a life of dignity and security, and to seek self-fulfillment as an individual or as a member of a chosen group without arbitrary constraint by others. (2) The freedom of the mind and of intellectual inquiry involves the right, the opportunity, and the ability of every person to speak, to read, to think, to believe, to express, to learn and to teach without arbitrary constraint or coercion by others. These are the great freedoms proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights -- life, liberty (personal, political, and economic), and the pursuit of happiness.


The basic idea of justice is that which is fair. It includes but is not limited to the "justice system." All people should be treated fairly in the distribution of the benefits and burdens of society and the correction of wrong and injuries, but justice also defines the very moral basis of a democratic society, what must govern the conduct of persons in their relations to one another if the society is to be self-sufficient and well-ordered. Justice establishes the claims of what is publicly right as prior to the claims of what is privately good, as defined by different individuals or different groups in conformity with their own particular desires. A just social system sets the boundaries within which individuals and groups may develop their own distinctive pluralistic aims and desires.


The idea of equality runs through the historic American creed of value claims in a democratic political community and now permeates international covenants of human rights from the United Nations Declaration of 1945 to the Women's Conference in Beijng of 1995. America's Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" must now be taken to mean that "all persons should be treated as though they are equal" in their claims to the other democratic civic values. Although the physical or mental condition of all persons at birth may not be equal, they should all have equal rights to develop themselves to the fullest extent possible, politically, legally, socially, and economically.


Respect for social and cultural diversity is one of the glories of the American political system. Cornell University historian, Michael Kammen, makes a useful distinction between an "unstable pluralism" and a "stable pluralism." An unstable pluralism occurs when cleavages in a society are so strong that they threaten the very authority of the polity itself. This happens when each racial, ethnic, religious, or regional group forms its own political party, or militia, or its "own faction, each sect its own school, and each dogmatist his own ideology." The vicious conflicts in the states of the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union along with those in the Middle East and Africa issue global warnings of the dangers of unstable pluralism.

By contrast, a stable pluralism is based upon a strong underpinning of political legitimacy: " best insured by the rule of law -- law made within a framework of an explicit constitution ....[S]table pluralism in a democracy also requires a strong and lasting inventory of psychological legitimacy: understanding, acceptance, and pervasive confidence in the composite system necessary to make it run smoothly rather than by fits and starts."


The reliability and validity of public knowledge are major requirements in a democracy. Trust in the veracity of government constitutes an essential bond between those who govern and those who are governed. The First Amendment not only protects freedom of expression for the individual but also insures freedom for public discussion as a fundamental protection of constitutional government itself. This freedom requires "untrammelled" access to knowledge that is true, valid, and reliable, as the Bascom Hall plaque proclaims. But there is still the problem of "winnowing and sifting" the significant truth from the "plausible falsehood" or the "beguiling half truth" so dear to the rough and tumble political process in an open society. That's where civics comes in.


Any defensible conception of citizenship and civic virtue must take account of the extraordinary dynamic force that patriotic sentiments play in American national life. In its best sense, patriotism binds the diverse segments of American society into an integral democratic polity. In its worst sense, it inflames a nationalistic chauvinism, setting one group against another in rivalry to prove who are the true patriots.

Fifty years ago, noted Wisconsin historian Merle Curti, in his pathfinding book, The Roots of Loyalty, defined patriotism as "love of country, pride in it, and readiness to make sacrifices for what is considered its best interest." He echoes LaFollette's call for the university to be a prime element in forming the "character of citizenship." Too often, the voice of sacrifice, apart from military service, stands mute. Notice the response General Powell is getting as he calls for a sense of duty, discipline, and obligation as the very essence of civic virtue.

The schools cannot alone instill the necessary values of personal obligation and responsibility when other major social institutions concentrate on promoting their private interests. Most people believe the schools must play a major role, but they disagree on whether compulsory salutes to the flag in school should be required or whether the "desecration of the flag" should be punishable by fine or imprisonment.

We should take special note that these democratic civic values, long suppressed by dictatorial regimes of both right and left, are now being reasserted in spectacular fashion by millions of people throughout the world - in Eastern Europe, in the former states of the Soviet Union, even in the Middle East.

But it is not reassuring to witness the key role that students and intellectuals have played in demanding free elections in the recent democratic revolutions abroad and then to realize how few American youth even bother to vote. Nor is it reassuring to read that a high school student is quoted in the press the day after President Bill Clinton helped to dedicate our new California State University at Monterey Bay last month: "There are no good politicians out there. They're all crooks."

It would be the ultimate irony of modern history if Americans, young or old, were to give in to political alienation or apathy just at a time when much of the rest of the world is clamoring for democracy and freedom in the idioms of Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln.

So CIVITAS argues that American students should study these civic values with a view to reasoned commitment based on command of relevant knowledge and the skills of democratic participation. Simple exposure to a mass of undigested, fragmented knowledge can lead to apathy, indifference, or political gridlock just as ignorance can. Similarly, hyperactive unthinking participation on behalf of single-minded special interests can also lead to the undermining of the public good.

I believe the civic values set forth in CIVITAS and adapted in the National Standards for Civics and Government can provide a potentially powerful educational antidote for our current sour mood of "antipolitics." (See my handout from Education Week of January 18, 1995).

The National Standards were issued in November 1994 at a press conference hosted by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and held in the U.S. Supreme Court building. Like CIVITAS, they were prepared by the Center for Civic Education with the consensus of literally hundreds of educational professionals on State Review Committees who hold a broad range of political views, including Mike Hartoonian then of the Wisconsin State Department of Education and Julia Frohreich of the Madison schools. In contrast to the criticisms recently levelled at the National Standards for United States History, the civics standards have been widely acclaimed across the land.

They set forth the key organizing questions that students at various grade levels from kindergarten through high school should study and be able to answer if they are to become rationally committed to the fundamental values and principles set forth in CIVITAS. They are:

I. What is government and what should it do?

II. What are the basic values and principles of American democracy?

III. How does the government established by the Constitution embody the values and principles of American democracy?

IV. What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs?

V. What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?

Substantive scholarly answers to these questions are to be found in CIVITAS, a volume of some 650 pages on display here along with a copy of the Standards. In CIVITAS every topic presents a conceptual perspective, an historical perspective, and a contemporary perspective.

Moreover, I am pleased to note that an international conference on civic education in June was entitled CIVITAS@Prague.1995. It was attended by 400 participants representing the education, governments, and mass media of 50 countries. Two of my handouts discuss the Prague conference and its efforts to promote democratic values around the world through civic education.

Borrowing shamelessly from the Prague example, I herewith propose that the Bradley Learning Community establish a core freshman course that might be called CIVITAS@UWMadison.1995. It might be offered as an integral (or even required) part of the Bradley certificate programs in Integrated Liberal Studies, Global Cultures, and Environmental Studies, dealing with the role of democratic citizenship in local communities, in nations, and in the world.

CIVITAS certainly fits nicely with the goal of "community learning" that Chancellor David Ward has outlined in "A Vision for the Future" of the University in the next decade. One of his priorities is "Updating the Wisconsin Idea," which surely must include the "character of citizenship." And Dean Philip R. Certain has explicitly stated that one of the four goals of the College of Letters and Science is:

Education for Citizenship. The Jeffersonian ideal of a liberal education is that it enables the citizens to choose from among them leaders best able to serve the democracy. This is also the essence of the Wisconsin Idea: education in service to the state. In addition, the liberal arts education must prepare students to understand with sophistication both a technological world and a world with rapidly changing economic, as well as physical, national boundaries. Graduating college students face a chaotic world that has lost its grounding in a shared sense of social and political order and values. A liberal arts education must help its graduates develop the tools to play influential roles in this world.

Looking backward as well as forward, Dean Certain clearly links the L&S goal of citizenship with LaFollette's vision of "The Wisconsin Idea" of 1901, and it shares the common values of education for citizenship of the Meiklejohn Experimental College of 1927-1932.

If Michael Hinden tells you at lunch today that the Bradley Learning Community's goal of "linking citizenship and service" is consistent with the Integrated Liberal Studies program, which in turn grew out of the Experimental College experience, I will certainly agree with him. And I will agree that the five skills which BLC says are needed to prepare students for the year 2000 include Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication, Community-Building, and Commitment to Learning. But I dare to suggest to BLC that a sixth "C" should be incorporated more conspicuously in its list of five "Cs."

You guessed it: Citizenship, the theme of our Convocation. To this end, I believe the two publications I have discussed today, CIVITAS and the National Standards for Civics and Government, can be very useful aids in formulating a new kind of civics for high school and college learning communities.

And, finally, I would add still a third "text of civic instruction" for required reading in this historic task. At the opening general session of the 68th annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges in Boston on January 10, 1982 a special award was made to the Meiklejohn Education Association. I would like to read a portion of it to you:

"The Association of American Colleges wishes to take special note of the recent publication of a new edition of The Experimental College by Alexander Meiklejohn. This book is a classic in the literature on liberal education. Like all classics, its import is timeless. First published fifty years ago, it still speaks today with remarkable clarity to the problems and needs of liberal learning....

"The book, newly edited and abridged by John Walker Powell, is judged by the Association of American Colleges to be worthy of special commendation to those who are concerned with the preeminent mission of liberal learning in higher education. As it recognizes the value of this work, the Association also wishes to acclaim the meritorious service to liberal education of the Meiklejohn Experimental College Foundation which conceived and supported the project to republish it, of John Walker Powell, a member of the founding staff of the Experimental College, who edited and abridged the original with affectionate dedication to Meiklejohn's memory, and of the Seven Locks Press which had the vision to publish it.

I was honored to accept this commendation on behalf of the Board of Directors of MEA at the 1982 AAC Conference attended by 600 leading college educators. I expressed our great appreciation for this remarkable recognition of a book written fifty years earlier by "one of the all-time greats in American liberal education." And I expressed special regret that John Powell could not be present to acknowledge the citation. Despite great odds and ill health John responded gallantly to the urgings of us alumni that he complete the job of editing this account of our "incandescent experiment" at Madison fifty years earlier.

I had been told to be uncharacteristically brief in my response, so I did not have time to explain to that audience why I believed that this book should be required homework for college faculties and students who seek to transform undergraduate general education into a genuine liberal education. But I did have a chance to do so in a publication which was the centerpiece of that conference of the AAC, a special issue of its quarterly journal, Liberal Education (Winter 1982). The theme was "The Civic Purposes of Liberal Learning." It contained articles by Robert O'Neil then president of the University of Wisconsin system, Mervyn Cadwallader, then chancellor at UW-Platteville, and one which I wrote entitled "The Revival of Civic Learning Requires a Prescribed Curriculum."

I conclude this morning as I concluded that article:

"The prescribed curriculum [of the Experimental College] was interdisciplinary, to be sure, but the purpose was not simply to acquire knowledge [across disciplinary lines]; it was primarily civic and moral: to prepare students to take their places as free and responsible members of the American community, to think about important and significant problems required for creating a just and free civilization, and to build a sense of civic community in a segmented society and fragmented world.

"I believe it is entirely possible that the idea of a pluralism of sub-colleges [or 'learning communities' in large universities]...could become a regnant feature of American higher education in the coming decades. This, in fact, was Meiklejohn's basic recommendation in 1932.

"I would not argue for a reincarnation of the exact curriculum of the Meiklejohn college of fifty years ago [now going on seventy years ago from its inception]. The faculty of each sub-college will inevitably design its own curriculum. After all, Meiklejohn himself announced to the assembled alumni twenty-five years after the closing of the Experimental College that he deeply regretted that the curriculum of the sophomore year had not concentrated on the 'best reading material available for the study of American freedom,' namely the Federal Constitution and the judicial opinions by which it has been interpreted. And, he expressed the hope in 1957 that 'if any one of you or any number of you should someday share in starting another experimental college, or in making more experimental one which is now conventionalized, I hope you will consider the suggestions I am now making.'

"The goal is not to try to return to some past model but to design fresh and new prescribed programs that will help secure the future of a free and democratic political community. Nothing less will do than requiring all college students to undertake the scholarly and critical study of those underlying civic principles and civic values necessary for generating and regenerating an informed and effective citizenry in the coming decades.

"As a member of the Fiftieth Anniversary Convocation of the Experimental College Alumni who met in Madison in June of 1982 and who still look forward to the revitalization of the liberal college in the future, I hope that the academic world of the 1980s is indeed 'ripe for a new generation of Meiklejohns' -- although for those of us who studied with him from 1927 to 1932 in Madison, we secretly know that there can only be one Meiklejohn."

I believe that many of those ex-college alumni would join me in urging BLC, ILS, and L&S to work closely with the School of Education, the LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs, and the whole University in a joint effort to impel the state's entire school system to fulfill completely the civic promise of "The Wisconsin Idea" of 1901 -- at least by the year 2001.

A Paper Delivered at the 10th Annual Convocation of the Meiklejohn Education Association in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Program in Integrated Liberal Studies and Bradley Learning Community of the College of Letters and Science and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters October 5-8, 1995 by R. Freeman Butts.

R. Freeman Butts was a student in the first class of the Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin,1927-29. He went on to acquire a B.A. in Humanities in the College of Letters and Science with a major in philosophy in 1931. He was a Resident Fellow and part-time Adviser in the Experimental College during its final year, 1931-32, while earning an M.A. in the School of Education. After the close of the Ex-College, he earned a Ph.D., majoring in the history of education and minoring in philosophy in 1935. His dissertation subject was "The Historical Development of the Elective Principle in American Colleges and Universities." It grew directly out of his Experimental College experience. Alexander Meiklejohn and Max Otto were members of his dissertation committee along with three faculty members of the School of Education. His first published book was The College Charts Its Course (1939), based on his dissertation.

He was a faculty member at Teachers College, Columbia University from 1935 to 1975, becoming William F. Russell Professor in the Foundations of Education in 1958. He was a Visiting Professor in the School of Education at Wisconsin-Madison in 1945 and 1949 and received one of its Alumni Achievement Awards in 1993. For twenty years he was Director, then Associate Dean, for International Studies at Teachers College.

His teaching, research, and writing have been principally in the history, politics, and philosophy of education, international education, and civic education. His recent books include The Revival of Civic Learning (1980), The Morality of Democratic Citizenship (1988), and The Civic Mission of Educational Reform (1989). He was a chief author of CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education (1991) and was Senior Consultant and Advisor for the National Standards for Civics and Government (1994). Since 1981 he has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Civic Education, a non-profit, non-partisan organization affiliated with the California Bar.

He received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Indiana University in 1993 and is a current member of the National Board of Visitors, School of Education, Indiana University (1994-1997).