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The Matter of Civic and Moral Education

As schools and educators fine-tune curricula to meet standards and accountability targets, civic and moral education continue to slide further and further out of focus, creating a new gap in American education.

"There's a huge gap. Even when [educators] think about doing moral and civic education, it is an attenuated version," says Assistant Professor Meira Levinson. "There are many educators, policymakers, and parents [to whom] it doesn't even occur...that civic and moral education matters and that that's what schools are supposed to be about."

The growing lack of civic and moral education and awareness can be explained by several things, including schools' increasing wariness of controversy, apparent partisanship, and ideological (including religious) diversity. The combination of sensitive schools and an overarching focus on education as a tool solely to promote global economic competitiveness has seemingly deemphasized the need for civic and moral education in classrooms, according to Levinson.

When HGSE faculty members got together last spring to discuss a curriculum reform of civic and moral education, the overwhelming interest prompted the creation of the Civic & Moral Education Initiative (CMEI), now led by Levinson and Professor Bob Selman. Other faculty members involved in CMEI include Professors Howard Gardner, Dave Perkins, Julie Reuben, and Fernando Reimers; Associate Professor Mica Pollock; Assistant Professor Jal Mehta; Lecturer Richard Weissbourd; and Visiting Professor Helen Haste.

"This is an issue of not only human development but ethical and moral development and civic membership," Levinson says about the increased need for civic and moral education. "We have to remember that not only are our children's futures and own futures going to be affected by economic competitiveness and academic skills, but also by their civic and moral engagement and their interest and ability to lead lives that are meaningful to them and others and that are oriented to certain common norms, values, and principles."

Through six colloquia and two Askwith Forums this year, CMEI wants to ignite HGSE's intellectual conversation about civic and moral education. The first colloquium in late October examined the responsibility to civically and morally educate today and attracted 60 participants - even some from outside of Harvard. Levinson says that the turnout shows that people still care and hold the belief that they can make a difference, and that HGSE's long history in moral education is reawakening.

"Students that come to do a master's in education at Harvard are often motivated by principles - not just that they want to learn to be better policymakers or literacy coaches - they come because they have a passion about what education can do for people," Levinson says. "I suspect and hope that CMEI taps into those principles and values that inspired students to take years out of their lives to really gain knowledge because they are motivated by the possibility of education."

The second colloquium," Recovering African American Traditions of Civic Education," will examine African Americans' strong history of civic education. Levinson will talk about her experience teaching in an all-black school in Georgia, where she heard powerful lessons about communal responsibility that were different from those she had encountered before. The notion that empowered many African Americans was the struggle their forebearers went through to provide opportunities, and also an underlying obligation to continue the struggle and make use of opportunities, she says. Her research takes this concept further as she examined historically black colleges and universities, Freedom Schools, and churches where she discovered further evidence of this approach to civic engagement.

Although African American civic participation has been on the decline in recent years, Levinson says that there is a lot we can learn from the African American model of civic education and membership. "This is something we want to try to learn about and recapture and give strength to," she says. "It is an inherently American model and African Americans are so intimately part of the American story.... I do think there are possibilities for taking the African American civic narrative to help new citizens in the community take ownership and make it work for them."


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