By Margaret Stimmann Branson
Center for Civic Education
5146 Douglas Fir Road
Calabasas, California 91302, USA
A paper delivered to
The International Conference on Education for Democracy
Serra Retreat, Malibu, California, USA
October 3, 1994
The euphoria which accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall and the initial successes of fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe, Latin America and South Africa has been succeeded by more sober assessments of the scale and scope of the tasks at hand. Some scholars contend that there is a moral crisis of democracy and that the crisis is worldwide. In an article in Foreign Affairs for August, 1994, Charles Maier, Professor of European Studies at Harvard University writes of the malaise that currently sours public opinion in the countries of Europe, in Japan and North America. He discerns a "profound shift" of public attitude along three dimensions. First, there is a sudden sense of historical dislocation and disorientation that far exceeds the sensation of letdown that usually follows some supreme experience. Secondly, there is a disaffection with the political leadership of all parties, a broad distrust of political representatives regardless of ideology and a flight from politics. Finally, there is a profound shift in people's attitudes toward the future, a skepticism about doctrines of social progress.
Zbigniew Brzezinski's assessment of the present state of the world echoes that of Maier's. He too believes that discontinuity is a central reality of our contemporary history. In his recent book Out Of Control, Brzezinski decries what he describes as "the massive collapse" of all most all established values, especially in the "advanced parts of the world". He contends that an ethos of consumerism now masquerades as a substitute for ethical standards while our societal criteria of moral discernment and of selfcontrol have become increasingly vague.
Fortunately Brzezinski and Maier are not content just to wring their hands, decry the present and despair of the future. They"and we"must look beyond the disquiet of this moment in history and towards what should and can be done through education to strengthen democracy. As Brzezinski observes, "it is ideas that mobilize political action and thus shape the world....Ours is the age of global political awakening, and hence political ideas are likely to be increasingly central." Those political ideas can be a source of intellectual cohesion or confusion. They can be a vehicle for consensusbuilding or the wellspring of enmity. They can be a means of strengthening democracy or of diminishing it. As educators or persons concerned with educational policies, we are in "the idea business. We want to see that democracy not only is better understood but that it is strengthened and extended throughout the world. h) This conference has as its purpose finding ways and means to strengthen and extend democracy through education. To accomplish that purpose we need to begin by assessing where we are now and to consider what research on political attitudes and behavior tells us about the need for improving education for democracy.
A Brief Review This review of recent research is confined to studies of the political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of Americans. Others at this conference will address studies pertaining to their countries or regions of the world.
Let us begin by looking to findings from three regularly repeated surveys that provide us with trend data, as well as with a current reading of Americans' political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
Every year for the past 26 years, Phi Delta Kappa, a professional education association, has conducted a survey of the public's attitudes toward the public schools in cooperation with the Gallup Poll. Questions included in the survey are developed by an advisory panel composed of leaders of more than 25 other educational groups. The 1994 Gallup Poll provides some interesting data about the political attitudes and behaviors of the American people. Briefly summarized these are the highlights of the survey.
1. For more than a quarter of a century, Americans have been asked to rate their local public schools' performance on a scale of A to F (Excellent to Failing). Despite the drumbeat of criticism of public education, more than four Americans in ten give their local schools an A or a B. They are less sanguine, however, about the nation's schools as a whole. The majority (72%) accord them a "passing" grade of C at most.
2. As the American people had in earlier Gallup Polls, they again in 1994 made clear their approval of national standards and the establishment of a basic curriculum for all schools. More than eight Americans in ten (83%) held a standardized national curriculum to be either very important or quite important. About seven in ten (73%) not only believed that there should be standardized national examinations based on a national curriculum, but they thought that students should be required to pass those examinations for grade promotion and graduation from high school.
3. Americans also had definite ideas about the subjects or disciplines which should be taught in schools. A majority (62%) thought more emphasis should be given to history and United States government. h) 4. The public also gave strong support for what has been called moral, ethical or character education. They endorsed nondenominational instruction about the world's religions and they identified personal traits or virtues which they believe should be taught. The vote in favor of teaching the virtues listed below was practically unanimous, with the single exception of "thrift""and even this oldfashioned virtue was judged worthy of inclusion by 74% of respondents.
SHOULD BE TAUGHT NATIONAL TOTALS % Respect for others 94 Industry or hard work 93 Persistence or the 93 ability to follow through Fairness in dealing with other 92 Compassion for others 91 Civility, politeness 91 Self-esteem 90 High expectations for oneself 87 Thrift 74In the 1993 poll, a different list of character traits (some better described as attitudes) was offered, with the following results: honesty, 97%; democracy, 93%; acceptance of people of different races and ethnic backgrounds, 93%; patriotism or love of country, 91%; caring for friends and family members, 91%; moral courage, 91%; the golden rule, 90%; acceptance of people who hold different religious beliefs, 87%; acceptance of people who hold unpopular or controversial political or social views.
5. Americans were less agreed about whose culture ought to be paramount in their increasingly diverse society. One American in 10 believes that, while diverse traditions should be taught, the common cultural tradition should be emphasized; a similar number (11%) believe that, while both the common culture and diverse cultures should be taught, diversity should be given more emphasis. Roughly half (53%) of those polled believe that a common cultural tradition and diverse traditions should be given equal attention.
6. The 1994 Gallup Poll also provided us with one potentially significant insight into the political behavior of Americans. It found that more people are currently involved in local school activities and reform efforts than at any time in the past decade. Over the last decade the frequency of many forms of public contact with the schools has doubled or nearly so. Areas showing the greatest gains are attendance at school board( meetings, attendance at meetings dealing with school problems, and attendance at plays, concerts, and athletic events. Even adults with no children in school now claim to participate in the life of the schools to a considerable degree.
This involvement in schools may be something of a mixed blessing, however. While interest in schools and willingness to participate in their governance is laudable, the motives of some activists is open to question. There has been a concerted effort on the part of certain special interest groups, such as the religious right, to see that their members are elected to school boards so that particular agendas can be promoted or that programs or curricula which they disapprove can be eliminated. Last year (1993) attempts to censor public school texts or educational materials surged by 50% to 376 incidents across the nation. Demands that library or classroom materials be removed or restricted were successful 41% of the time.
A second longitudinal study of student attitudes and behavior is worthy of attention. For 28 years a consortium of collegiate research institutes have cooperated to publish The American Freshman, a report of national normative data on firsttime, fulltime students attending American colleges and universities. The most recent report (1993) is based on responses from more than 220,000 students at 427 institutions of higher learning.
Findings from this report include: 1. Students today are more willing to identify themselves as being to the left or right of the political center. The number who professed to be "middle of the road" dipped below half (49.9%) for the first time since 1972. That stands in sharp contrast to a high of 60% in 1980 who considered themselves to be centrists. The movement from the center went both left and right. The right, however, picked up the majority so that the number of college students identifying themselves as right of center now stands as one in four. When students were asked to place themselves on a leftright continuum, however, very few tended to extremes as the chart below indicates:
FRESHMAN SELF-DESCRIBED ALL COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES POLITICAL VIEWS far left 2.5 liberal 24.7 middle of the road 49.9 conservative 21.4 far right 1.5
Interestingly enough no significant differences were found among students in two year or four year colleges, Catholic or nonsectarian schools or in predominantly black institutions.) 2. The responses of students when asked to identify activities in which they had engaged in the previous year (their senior year in high school) provided some surprising results. While only 18% said they had discussed politics, almost 40% said they had participated in demonstrations.
3. The vast majority (67.7%) had performed volunteer work. That finding, as a matter of fact, comports with other surveys. It confirms the timehonored American tradition of voluntarism that has been remarked on by observers before and since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his classic Democracy in America.
4. When asked to identify objectives in life which they considered to be essential or very important, students put personal goals far ahead of public or civic goals. They want to become authorities in their own fields, raise families, and make money. "Keeping up to date with politics", "promoting racial understanding" and "influencing the political structure" are objectives for less than 40% of the students.
5. Student attitudes toward specific political issues are reflected in the following chart. Some of the responses obviously reflect the movement toward the right which was mentioned earlier.
FRESHMAN WHO AGREE STRONGLY ALL COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES OR SOMEWHAT government not protecting consumer 71.9 government not controlling pollution 84.4 raise taxes to reduce deficit 31.4 too much concern for criminals 67.6 increase federal military spending 23.4 abortion should be legal 62.4 abolish death penalty 22.1 marijuana should be legalized 28.2 prohibit homosexual relations 36.2 employers can require drug tests 79.6 control AIDS by mandatory tests 61.7 federal government do more to control 81.8 national health care plan needed 76.8 nuclear disarmament attainable 64.3 racial discrimination no longer problem 14.0 discourage energy consumption 74.7 individual can do little change society 32.5 wealthy should pay more taxes 71.9 prohibit racist/sexist speech 62.7 AMERICAN FRESHMAN: National Norms for Fall 1993, p. 25.
A third survey which commands attention is one conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. A decade ago, Times Mirror embarked on an ambitious effort to learn more about the beliefs and behaviors of Americans which underlie political labels and drive political action. Results of their most recent study were released in September, 1994. This extensive survey involved 3,800 adults, 18 years of age and older. The results echo the sentiments of Maier and Brzezinski referred to earlier.
The Times report begins with the following words:
The American electorate is angry, selfabsorbed, and politically unanchored. Thousands of interviews with American voters...find no clear direction in the public's political thinking other than frustration with the current system, and an eager responsiveness to alternative political solutions and appeals....The public also has become more polarized on issues of social policy and cultural change. Increased indifference to the problems of the poor and minorities, resentment toward immigrants, and more cynicism about what government programs can achieve characterize the changed public disposition.
Not only has there been a marked change in the public disposition, there's also been a marked change in Americans' attitudes toward both their major political parties. Allegiance to both the Democratic and Republican Parties has declined. It is clear that Americans no longer organize their political thinking in accordance with party membership. Increasingly they are inclined to describe themselves as independents, and some"perhaps one fifth of the electorate"would even bolt to a third party, given the opportunity.
The word "distrust" might be an appropriate one to describe the current attitude of American electorate. They are especially distrustful of politicians. Increasingly voters say they want traditional politicians to step aside. Experience in politics today tends to be seen as a liability rather than as an asset. Support for term limits has been evidenced in state election after state election. At this moment, even the reelection of the Speaker of the House is in jeopardy. That is something almost unheard of in American history. One selfproclaimed candidate for the presidency in 1996 is capitalizing on the current antiincumbent mood. Lamar Alexander, former Governor of Tennessee and Secretary of Education touts the advantages of parttime citizen legislators. He would even limit sessions of Congress to no more than half a year at most, if he had his way.`) There also is widespread distrust of the news media, especially television news. A very large percentage (91%) of Americans believe that the press is an impediment rather than an aid to the solution of society's problems. This finding in the TimesMirror survey is reinforced by other studies, notably the Harwood Study of Citizens and Politics which will be discussed in more detail later. Many citizens believe that the media are partly responsible for the public's distaste of politics. The emphasis on conveying short, quick pieces of information disconnects Americans from the substance of politics. Sound bites trivialize events and issues. They present what E.G. Dionne, himself a journalist, calls "false choices."
Another charge which Americans are leveling at the media is that they fail to present or interpret events objectively. Far from being neutral observers, members of the press give events a "negative spin." They spread rumors, report unconfirmed information, feature scandals and play up arguments over small points between campaigners and among officeholders. In sum, citizens today distrust what the media put in the marketplace of information, because they are wary of the manner in which issues are presented, as well as the fidelity of the reporting. As one citizen put it, "Negativism gives people more reason to avoid politics." Another citizen said "So much negativism comes out in the media about politicians that some people figure, `What's the use?' People just don't want to be associated with what is always presented as a mess."
Yet, despite their disaffection for political parties and professional politicians and their disenchantment with the media, the TimesMirror survey found that Americans continue to believe in their exceptionalism. Sixtyeight percent of those interviewed agreed with the statement that "as Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want." A substantial majority (62%) also agree with the statement "I don't believe that there are any real limits to growth in this country today." Those positive, "can do" attitudes have persisted over the decade that the TimesMirror survey has been conducted. It is interesting, however, to note that in the 1994 study middle income Americans expressed more pessimistic attitudes about future growth in the United States than did those in the upper and the lower income brackets.
Turning from findings of survey research, let us consider briefly
what we can learn from studies conducted by other means. First
let's look to findings from ten focus group discussions with
citizens conducted under the auspices of the Kettering Foundation
and in conjunction with the Harwood Group. In the early '90's,
ten focus groups met in ten different cities across the United
States. The results of their indepth discussion are known as
"The Harwood Study", and they have been detailed in Citizens and
Politics: A View from Main Street America and in David Mathews
recent book, Politics for People.
Focus groups have been gaining popularity in the United States. Focus group studies are different from polling and from survey research. In a focus group, representative groups of citizens talk through issues thoroughly. Researchers, therefore are able to learn not only what people think about politics, they can learn why they hold those views and how they think about issues at hand. As one researcher put it, focus groups "let us hear the tone and texture of what the public is saying."
What did those who participated in the Harwood Study have to say? Here are some of their more important political attitudes and beliefs.
1. They rejected notions that as citizens they were apathetic, instead they said they were "mad as the devil" about a political system that had pushed them out of their rightful place in governing the nation. They believe they have been shunted aside by a professional political class of powerful lobbyists, incumbent politicians, campaign managers and a media elite. They perceived the political system as presently constituted as "beyond public control." Even so, they were astute enough to realize that "greater popularization is not necessarily greater democratization." If citizens participation is romanticized as it sometimes has been in the past, the result may not be a stronger democracy. It may even lead to greater frustration and cynicism. In other words, Americans no longer are naive enough to think that if enough "Mr. Smiths" go to Washington, to the state house or to the city council, all will be made right.
If there is discontent among the electorate, research tells us that it extends to elected and appointed officials, as well. h) Hubert Humphrey's characterization of the problem probably is as accurate today as it was when first he made it. To enhance democratic government, Humphrey said,
"We must look beyond mere mechanical refinements of the legislative process or of the executive operation. What we need to understand more clearly is the relationship of the people in a representative democracy to its government. The `citizenship gap'"that deadair space, so to speak, that vacuum"between the people and their government....is a greater threat to our government and our social structure than any external threat by far."
From the politicians' perspective, citizens themselves bear major responsibility for any "gap" that may exist. Officials tend to see their role and relationship to the public in almost exactly the way the theory of representative government says they should: as guardians of the public interest. They believe people can vote them out of office, if they fail to live up to their responsibilities. Otherwise, officials believe they should be left alone to do the job they were "hired" to do.
Officials often are as frustrated with the public as the public is with them. The public, they allege, is generally uninformed, more emotional than reasonable, indifferent to problems which they do not believe affect them personally and unwilling to give serious thought to policy issues. For those reasons most of the officials interviewed in the Harwood study did not seek public comment; rather they waited to hear from the public. This lack of public government interaction is consistent with the conception of themselves common to most officeholders. They perceive of themselves as guardians, arbiters of contending interests, decisionmakers, people to whom others bring their troubles and concerns. Officeholders also believe that they have some responsibility for educating the public. Too often "educating the public" really means telling them what officials think should be done. "Education"in the minds of elected officials"like that in some classrooms"is on an "if you want to know, I'll tell you basis." Too often meetings"televised and live"result in information flowing in only one direction. Even the physical attributes reinforce the idea that "I speak; you listen and perhaps you may question politely, when I'm finished."
Many officeholders, however, are not content with the `citizenship gap' that has just been described. Their doors are open and special interest groups are always eager to come in and claim that they can explain what the public wants or what the public is thinking. Too often they fill the vacuum which Hubert Humphrey referred. The real obstacle to effective interchange of ideas between the electorate and officeholders, however, is citizens who do not know how to exercise their rights and responsibilities and/or who do not believe in themselves and their power to influence public policies. Officials are quite aware of how little citizens appreciate their own importance. They say that they really need and want to hear from the public. And yet, as David Mathews puts it, "each group stand likeh) teenagers at their first dance, backs to the gymnasium wall, not quite sure how to approach the other party."
It is obvious from the surveys of attitudes just reviewed that a considerable portion of the blame for misunderstanding and malaise can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about democratic forms of government and about how citizens can participate in civic life more effectively. Although the constitution of almost every state in the United States proclaims education for citizenship as a major objective, the fact is that sustained and systematic attention is not given in our elementary and secondary schools to what citizens need to know and to the skills they need to develop. Nonetheless, there are some promising recent developments, especially in the areas of curriculum and school and classroom climate.
In 1993 Richard Niemi of University of Rochester and Jane Junn of Rutgers challenged a view political scientists have held for two decades or more that civics and government courses matter little in the education of each new generation of adults. Their study was based on a more extensive test of political knowledge of high school seniors than any previous study. Their test called for understanding and interpretation as well as recitation of fact and figures. Their study also attended multiple schoolrelated factors such as home, minority status, gender, and socioeconomic status. Niemi and Junn found that civics classes themselves "had a small but resilient impact on the civic knowledge of seniors." Even more important is their finding that what students are taught is of consequence. Course content is meaningful and retained when it is relevant to students' lives, when it is considered in the context of current events, and when it helps learners develop a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the world in which they live. Curriculum that enables students to see connections among theories, concepts, facts and figures and real world politics not only has a much longer "shelf life". Such a curriculum also affects students attitudes toward government and their propensity for participation in civic life.
It is not possible to do more than mention three other recent studies which speak to the importance of instruction in civics and government for increasing the political tolerance of adolescents.
We are fortunate to have Richard Brody of Stanford University with us as a participant in this conference. Some of us have been fortunate enough to hear him in other settings in which he has reported on his studies of secondary education and political attitudes. We know that he would be pleased to discuss his research with interested persons attending this conference.
Dr. Brody examined the effects on political tolerance of the We the People... curriculum, developed by the Center for Civic Education. "Political tolerance" refers to citizens' respect for the political rights and civil liberties of all people in theh) society, including those whose ideas they may find distasteful or abhorrent. The concept of "political tolerance" is important because it encompasses many of the beliefs, values and attitudes that are essential to a functioning democracy. For example, while majority rule is a basic principle of democracy, without attention to the rights of those in the minority it can degenerate into tyranny.
Brody's study was designed to determine the degree to which civics curricula in general, and the We the People... program in particular, affect students' political attitudes. The report was based on analysis of survey responses of 1,351 high school students from across the United States. Among the most important findings were:
1. Overall, students in high school civics, government and American history classes display more "political tolerance" than the average American.
2.Students in classes using all or part of the We the People... curriculum are more tolerant than students following other curricula.
3. The We the People... program fosters increased tolerance, because it promotes higher levels of self confidence and the perception of fewer limits on students' own political freedom.
4. Among We the People... students, those involved in the simulated congressional hearing competitions demonstrate higher levels of tolerance. The higher the level of participation the more likely students were to oppose limits on free assembly, due process rights, and freedom of speech, press, and religion.
Equally important are the conclusions which Brody has reached based not only on his own extensive experience, but on his synthesis of the research of colleagues. Brody tells us:
Political tolerance can be taught. It can be taught at home by parents who respect their children's right of dissent and who encourage their children to express themselves politically. It can be taught in school by teachers who increase students' interest in politics, who communicate the idea that political opinions are worthwhile, that dissent is to be encouraged and not stifled, that oddball ideas are worth considering, and however wrong they ought not be suppressed. Tolerance can be learned from experiences that expose one to the norms of American society. And tolerance can be learned from experiences that require the individual to both explain and defend his or her point of view and listen carefully to the viewpoints of others.Political tolerance can be taught, but it is not easy to learn. It asks a lot of the individual to come to the realization thath) his or her own freedom depends on freedom being accorded to the politically weird individual, even to antidemocratic, and, perhaps, dangerous groups. But political diversity and even ideas that fail may be necessary for democracy to grow, develop, and prosper. This is a hard lesson to teach but attempt to teach it we must. As teachers we can take encouragement that some ways of teaching democratic values succeed.
Table 1: Effects of Center for Civic Education We the People... Program Participation on Measures of Political Tolerance.
All tests were statistically significant. For detailed explanations of scales see Secondary Education and Political Attitudes: Examining the Effects on Political Tolerance of the We the People... Curriculum. Final Report of a study conducted by Richard A. Brody of Stanford University for the Center for Civic Education, October 1994. Table 2: Effects of Center for Civic Education We the People... Program Participation on Selected Political Values.
Another study of political tolerance was conducted by a team of political scientists and a specialist in curriculum and instruction at the University of Minnesota. They developed a four week unit for junior high school students which explored linkages among democratic values, legal principles and their application to unpopular groups in society. Their analysis demonstrated a statistically significant increase in political tolerance linked directly to knowledge of the curriculum and to heightened awareness of individual rights. They concluded that "reconstituted curriculum" which helps students comprehend the consequences of intolerance can increase students' willingness to extend rights to disliked groups. These University of Minnesota researchers concur with Richard Brody that "political tolerance can be taught", but they conceded that their study provided just "a glimmer of hope." What is needed to increase political tolerance, in their opinion, is civic education which includes a systematic examination of the role of dissent in a democratic society, a better understanding of diversity and the more active engagement of students in their own learning.
Although the content of a curriculum, or what is taught, is of enormous consequence in education for democracy, attention needs to be given to the manner in which that content is presented. Some researchers contend that the way content is presented and learned may be the most important variable. Philip Jackson summarized their findings in the Handbook on Research in Curriculum (1992)
The kind of classroom environment created by teachers and their attitudes toward the subject appear to influence how their students react to the subject. Diverse teaching strategies and routines, active student participation in the lesson, cooperative learning activities among students, and positive interpersonal relationships between the teacher and the student have been shown to foster student interest.
A classroom or a program which fosters the active involvement of students also increases their learning and promotes political tolerance, as we already have seen.
In conclusion what does current research tell us about the need for improving education for democracy? The first answer to that question is that need is great and that education for democracy is"or ought to be"a priority throughout the world. A second answer to that question is that more and better research is needed. While there are some useful studies, such as those cited in this paper, we do not know all that we should about how best to educate for democracy. Studies to date have addressed many different variables. They seldom have been replicated. There is an absence of extensive measures of political information, a dearth of detailed examination of the content and timing of the study of civics and government and a lack of knowledge about school and classroom climate and strategies which are most supportive of education in and for democracy. Clearly there is a lot of work for all of us to do.