Arthur Levine

On Teaching Civic Virtues

VTR Date: June 3, 2005

Dr. Arthur Levine discusses how schools can educate for citizenship.


GUEST: Dr. Arthur Levine
VTR: 06/03/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and in a sense this is a continuation of an earlier program with today’s guest, one on educating educational leadership in America.

For the question I want now to put to Arthur Levine, the innovative President of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College, is whether, at a time when – much to our disadvantage – Americans seem to be less and less familiar with our nation’s history … and particularly our heritage … whether and to what extent our schools can, indeed, educate for citizenship, can and should teach civic values, civic virtues, if you will … what simply was called Civics all of those generations ago when I went to school. And Arthur you head an institution that teaches teachers and I wonder if you think we can, should try to go back to that time when we tried to teach civics to our youngsters.

LEVINE: I’m not sure we’re doing any worse in teaching civics today than we have in the past.

HEFFNER: I’m surprised to hear you say that.

LEVINE: It depends on what one thinks of as civics? And how one measures the outcome. Right now …


LEVINE: … if one looks at college students, 63% are involved in community service. You know that’s a pretty good civic accomplishment. What I think they’re not doing is, they’re not voting and when you ask about voting … a few years ago we gave a list of college students … national sample … a list of maybe 50 names of people … and asked them “Who do you like? Who don’t you like?”.

Number one on the list of who they don’t like was Ted Kennedy. Number 2 was George Bush. In the whole list of people … the most negative ratings were politicians. Only one in five college students believes that government will do the right thing. They’re most negative about politics, politicians and government.

But they’re very active on the local level. And I remember one student saying to me, “Look I can’t do anything about the theft of nuclear weapons from Abu Bijan, but you know what, I can clean up the local pond. I can help in a hospice. I can tutor a kid.”

HEFFNER: Now do you agree with that point of view?

LEVINE: No. And I, I favor more action at the national level. But it’s not, it’s not a dis-involvement from civic affairs that we’re talking about. It’s a dis-involvement from politics.

HEFFNER: That’s … that’s very interesting, but what could be more important than politics … where you start and where the decision is made as to the candidate who says, “I’m going to put money into these various local activities”, or not.

LEVINE: What they say in general is that don’t trust politicians, they lie all the time.

HEFFNER: Well, we know that.

LEVINE: If I vote I only encourage them. (Laughter) Which is not my philosophy. But it … it’s what seems to dominate. What it means is there’s this sleeping giant for the right candidate to mobilize.

HEFFNER: That’s an interesting thought. A sleeping giant who is likely to be listening or watching or ready to take a cue?

LEVINE: MmmHmm. And, the only thing we’ve seen that touched it … and this clearly wasn’t it … was the Dean campaign, which managed to bring all kinds of people into the political process who’ve never been involved before, who didn’t want to be involved before … used media like the Internet, rather than television ads. I think we’re gong to see more and more of that. We’ve seen in the explosion of blogs … we’re seeing all kinds of communication, we’re seeing a loss of traditional communication … like network television, in terms of involvement. I think it’s a question of how to mobilize.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s, that’s particularly interesting. I showed you this cartoon … just a moment ago … where I put it, I don’t know … I’d love to be able to put it up on the screen. And now you see I’m so well educated …

LEVINE: Mmmmm.

HEFFNER: … such an activist, I can’t find the doggone thing, but Daphne Doelger had cut it out of one of the local papers, showing a couple of obvious high school kids who … one of them is commenting on civics …and saying “Isn’t that a car? Isn’t that an automobile?”

You obviously don’t have the picture that I have in my head of kids who really are not being taught about and know very little about the structure, the nature, the history of this country.

LEVINE: And, I guess I put it differently. Do they understand how the Supreme Court works? Probably not. They understand about the hierarchy of courts in this country, I doubt it. They understand which things Washington does and which things the states do.

HEFFNER: You doubt that, too.

LEVINE: I don’t think so. But I’m not sure people ever knew that. The most interesting thing, the most interesting experience I’ve had in a while was bringing back to a group of graduate students a list of people that current college students had never heard of. A majority have never heard of Hubert Humphrey. And a majority had never heard of Barry Goldwater. And the graduate students were just clucking … clucking … just offended by that lack of knowledge.

And then I said, “Hands. Who’s Father Coughlin? Who is John Nance Garner? Who is Wendell Willkie?” The fact of the matter was these were all people who came well before their time. And the same is true of the kinds of people we’re talking about right now. There was at least a 30 year gap … some times a 40 year gap … between the John Nance Garner’s and the kinds of students that I see. And the same thing is true of the Barry Goldwaters and the Hubert Humphreys in current students.

HEFFNER: Sure, that has to do with being around at the time, being familiar with names. Although, theoretically we are supposed to be teaching our children something of their nation’s history. And I’ll make a bet right now that you knew a heck of a lot more about your nation’s history and I did when we were the age of the kids who … civics? “Oh, that, that’s a car”. No?

LEVINE: I suspect we did. But you and both love history. One of my favorites was … Lynne Cheney and I were once on a panel when I was still at Harvard. And Lynne Cheney was lamenting the fact that students didn’t know the exact year of World War I. And she said …

HEFFNER: World War I … was there a first World War?

LEVINE: I read something about it, somewhere. I think there was. And she said … and you know, that was the goal of the Harvard Red Book of 1845. The Harvard Red Book was written in 1945.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

LEVINE: Not 1845. And I corrected her and said that my respect for her hadn’t diminished as a consequence of being off by a 100 years. I think people have never, ever had those things in mind, or learned those things in the same fashion.

My daughter came home. What’d she study in history? The sixties! The sixties? Well, the sixties were 35 years ago. It was the same thing as me studying the Roosevelt Administration when I went to school.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Arthur, you already put your finger on some things that were so important and then you let them go by. And lean on this notion of name recognition, which is so understandable.

The question of what are the functions of our different branches of government? How do you argue out today the question of appropriate reactions to the filibuster if you don’t have some real sense of what the Founders meant by separation of, imbalance of powers?

LEVINE: That’s the meat of the issue. The one issue …I guess the issue I was trying to get off the table, was the fact that once upon a time we did this beautifully and now we don’t do it well at all. I don’t care whether we did it well in the past, I can see cracks in what we did in the past just as in the present. Can we do better at this? Absolutely.

HEFFNER: But wait a minute. Wait a minute. We did it then. My understanding is that now we do not teach civics.

LEVINE: We teach social studies. The question becomes can we do a better job preparing people for this? Can we make it more interesting? The kinds of textbooks we have now give names, dates, who won, who lost, without any understanding of the underlying issues. Can we teach that? Absolutely. I think a better understanding of history builds better citizens.

I think a better understanding of the institutions that we all live with builds better citizens. I think the curriculum has not done that for most students in most parts of the country. And I think we can radically improve what’s being done.

HEFFNER: A) why isn’t it doing it now? Why did it stop doing it?

LEVINE: And that’s very different.

HEFFNER: You say we never did it.

LEVINE: Yeah. So, let’s talk about what we could do. Because I think we both want that. It isn’t necessary that it had been better in the past for us, do it again. What is necessary is that we do it.

HEFFNER: Well, look, it’s the difference between our ages … come on.

LEVINE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But, okay, let’s focus on doing it. Can it be done? Do you think we can teach … I mean we’re doing a program years, and years and years ago with Mario Cuomo about teaching moral values in the schools. And it was a very interesting question about whether it was appropriate to, whether this was the teachers … whether it was in the purview of the teachers responsibilities and ability to do so. And then what values were you going to teach. Well, if you’re going to take “civic understanding”. Can we do it in the schools? Is there room now? Are you … let’s talk about the future. Is it being done in social studies?

LEVINE: It isn’t effectively being done because we both know that kids leave without knowing that kind of stuff. What would work? And what strikes me is … and this isn’t traditional schooling. How about if we did some simulations? These are kids who know how to … they know how to use computers. What would happen if we could bring them legislative problems, tell them they had to get a Bill through; and show them what happens when you try to get a Bill through.

What would happen if we showed them they had to argue before the Supreme Court? And they can make different kinds of arguments. If we can make it real in that fashion, I think we could teach civic education.

HEFFNER: Why don’t we?

LEVINE: We don’t’ have that kind of medium. We don’t … we’re still using text books. We’re using some visits to places …


LEVINE: We’re doing some simulations. Let’s invest in those products.

HEFFNER: Are students, at Teachers College, being taught how to …to and then how to … do that? Or are you saying that the textbook situation is such a difficult hurtle.

LEVINE: Textbooks are certainly a big hurtle everywhere. If one looks at … America’s textbooks are being determined by Texas …

HEFFNER: And California.

LEVINE: And California … but Texas, first.

HEFFNER: Texas, first, always, come on.

LEVINE: Texas has the far more limited choice of textbooks. They choose a more limited range of textbooks. But what I’m talking about is the fact that Texas has a school book committee and every publisher in the United States, because that committee is going to choose the textbooks, has to gear their textbooks to what will be done by that committee. So we have … one state in California added, that are going to determine what textbooks our children use in schools all over this country.

HEFFNER: Now I know this was true a generation ago. You’re saying it’s still true now.

LEVINE: And even worse because what we’re facing now … is we’re more divided politically. The Red and the Blues are splits. We split on all kinds of issues. Kansas, for example, requires that we teach evolution science in our schools in that state. They’re required to teach “intelligent design” as, as a requirement. So today we’re looking at all kinds of issues. The hottest issues are in civic culture. And therefore the most rigid sets of standards are being imposed by different groups.

HEFFNER: That a rather a) tragic, b) hard to believe situation. You’re saying in a sense that unless California, second; Texas, first, unless they take the lead, our textbooks, which basically limit what most teachers are able to do in the classroom … we’re not going to make the kind of progress we’re talking about.

LEVINE: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: That we need.

LEVINE: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Should we just shut up shop?

LEVINE: Of course not.

HEFFNER: Then what?

LEVINE: What we can do, and by the way … you ask the question “at Teachers College, are we doing it?” And part of what we try to teach students to do, and I think we have a fairly good program, is we try to teach them to think beyond the textbook. And I think we’re fairly effective at doing that. We try to teach them to bring other exercises to the classroom that allow them to expand the ways students learn.

We are very strong in terms of practice programs, so you get to do this and study with the best teachers who exist in the city.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that made much more difficult by the emphasis now on standardized tests? Isn’t that kind of innovative personal approach made much more difficult by the need to get the students through the …


HEFFNER: … upcoming standard tests?

LEVINE: Absolutely. Standardized tests, I think that’s going to be a temporary, meaning a 10 year inconvenience. More than inconvenience, hurtle. What’s happening now is, states have set standards that children need to graduate. And move from grade to grade. And we quickly put tests in place to try to measure those standards. The, the match between them is very poor, so the result is, instead of teaching to the standard, one teaches to the test.

What’s going to happen over time is those tests should be invisible. Those tests should mirror the standard. There should be a variety of ways that we assess kids and how they’re progressing. I think the testing now is primitive and it’s going to become more sophisticated over time. So we won’t have the kind of problem you and I are talking about right this minute.

HEFFNER: What leads you to feel that way. What, what is it that’s happening. I know you’re not going to say that without having some good reason.

LEVINE: Oh. I think what’s happening now is the reaction that you just offered. And the most interesting reaction is coming from parents in wealthy communities. And what I expect to see is a series of lawsuits all across this country over testing. And, again, not coming from poor kids who are failing the test. But coming from affluent parents who don’t like the test and want their schools to do something else. We can’t get rid of the tests. We can change the tests.

HEFFNER: Arthur, what makes you feel that the courts will be the proper place, or “the” place where the resolution comes about.

LEVINE: I think that the courts may not be the appropriate place. What will happen is that school systems won’t want to fight these battles …


LEVINE: … and they’ll do a better job of assessment. States won’t want to fight these battles, once it’s parents …or moved from parents to school systems fighting the states. In the same way that a state like Utah will challenge “No Child Left Behind”, we’re going to see school systems and parents fight testing. And, again, I favor assessment. I favor assessment that actually measures what we’re trying to achieve.

HEFFNER: Do you think it’s possible, given the battle that has gone on over “Leave No Child Behind”, is it possible to have the kind of assessment program that you would be in favor of? Once you go in that direction.

LEVINE: I think “No Child Left Behind” is going to get lost. I think we’ll keep the basic language in place. We’ll begin watering down requirements. I expect education to fall off the national agenda. And what will drive it is this … the people who put education on the agenda are the Baby Boomers.

They make up 40% of our electorate, I’m sorry … they make up 60% of our electorate.

HEFFNER: Indeed.

LEVINE: Anything that the Baby Boomers want, if they can agree as a group, is national policy. And they wanted good schools for their kids. Well their kids are progressing beyond schooling now and the most urgent problem they’re facing is their parents. Their parents are older. Their parents are in less good health. And what they’re going to ask for now is elder care, health care and Social Security. As a generation, it’s going to be a problem. Red, Blue … it’s going to be a problem.

HEFFNER: Taking their attention off of the schools.

LEVINE: And you can see it already. Education was the number 1 issue in the 2000 election. In the 2004 election it moved to fifth. And I expect it to keep dropping.

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute, is that all good?

LEVINE: No. That’s all bad. (Laughter)


LEVINE: We haven’t finished education reform yet. The only problem we have is we’re leaving all of our urban children behind. And until we do that job we will not have finished the reform movement.

HEFFNER: But you see you, you put this shift … you raise the question of the shift in interest as a solution to the problem of “No Child Left Behind”.

LEVINE: It’s not a solution. It’s reality. What I would like to see is no child left behind funded. I’d like to see the testing provisions improved, so that we have real assessment. I’d like to see the money for failing schools be allocated to actually help them improve themselves. We have now as a system whereby … and our testing system is sort of like … “imagine a patient who had an incurable disease … AIDS … the patient goes to the doctor and the doctor says ‘Oh, my god you have AIDS, come back in five years.”

You come back in five years and you’re tested again, and they say, “You still have AIDS”. There’s been no treatment, nothing done in between. And the result of the second analysis or second verdict, is that we say, “Our doctors and hospitals have failed.” That’s what we’re doing to education. We’re testing people. We’re providing no money from “No Child Left Behind” to actually improve those schools. And that’s what I want to see done.

What I want to see is tweaking of annual yearly progress. What I want to see is support for special education, the way Congress wanted … promised to provide it before and didn’t. Those are the kinds of things I want. I don’t want the era of accountability to end.

HEFFNER: Now, if I sit back and say, “Arthur Levine …


HEFFNER: … “tweaking” … that’s a wonderful, wonderful word. Can we afford … I mean this … are the dollars there, could they be there to tweak education as you suggest and to meet the other needs that you were talking about of Social Security, of healthcare and etc.

Do you think; is it your conclusion … not as an economist but as a grown, mature human being who’s been around the track, that we can do all these things?

LEVINE: What I think is, if we invest the money that we’re putting into Iraq into social programs, into our children, into our future, we can afford a lot of things we’re not doing now.

HEFFNER: You know that’s an interesting point that I, I hear over and over again, but when I look at the numbers. They don’t really add up, Arthur. What’s going into Iraq is an incredible sum, but what we’re talking about here, education … and Social Security and Medicare and health insurance and so forth and so on, so that we could have a decent society … that’s not covered by the money that’s going into Iraq. We can’t kid ourselves

LEVINE: No. What we can do is reshape some priorities and re-shape some programs. One of the things that ultimately going to happen … and I don’t care if we talk about personal investment accounts for Social Security. Really the means testing it. The reason is there are going to be too many of us …


LEVINE: … those 60% electorate, are actually going to retire over a very short period of time. And we’re going to have to find some way of allocating money that we haven’t found yet. So that when I talk about “tweaking” or when I talk about changes … yeah, we could change those programs and make them achieve the purposes they set out to achieve.

We could change Medicare … other countries around the world have managed to have successful health programs for all of their publics and manage still not to go bankrupt.

HEFFNER: Well, that last point, if you come back here as I hope you will, next year … five years from now … whether I’m sitting in this chair or not … the question of whether they are not going bankrupt and whether we can avoid going bankrupt is very important. Let’s not just dismiss it. Our friends in the New York Times in the last two days … David Brooks and now today, Tom Friedman …both addressing the probable inability of our European fellows to continue to do what you and I want us to do.

LEVINE: And again, I think it’s a matter of priorities. Which things are most important. What do we want to emphasis. Who should our tax system focus upon? Who should we seek to help? Who should there be benefits for? Those are all important questions, and I view education as a matter of national defense.

HEFFNER: That … that’s dropped off the radar, isn’t it? Because there was one time when we talked about education and national defense in the same breath. We understood that we needed to be educated to defend ourselves.

LEVINE: It’s more true than ever. We did it after Sputnik … all the education legislation now was funded after Sputnik … was done under the banner of national defense. But the fact of the matter is, if we have the kind of divide in populations that we have now in terms of educational achievement, we’re taking about an essentially unstable society. If we’re talking in addition … what we need is we’re going to compete internationally … we need our children to graduate with higher levels of skills and knowledge than any generation before in history. If we’re going to find a place in the world with other nations, we need people to understand what a global society is like. What it means to be civically involved. Those issues are critical. If that isn’t national defense I don’t’ know what is.

HEFFNER: Yet, suppose the answer is … you’re just asking a question. Suppose the answer is “No”, we’re not going to do this … we’re not going to do that, we’re not going to do the other thing, we’re not going to be the society that you want. You want everything. So do I.

LEVINE: I don’t want everything.

HEFFNER: Sure you do.

LEVINE: No. I’m asking for changes. I would change the tax code. I would change benefits. I would change penalties for … I would change taxes on large inheritances. I would change … I think that much of our policy in this country favors the wrong groups. Now, when we talked about national defense and education … yeah, let’s not do it. And what’s going to happen is our jobs are going to go to Bangalor and what’s going to happen is our kids won’t be able to compete. What’s going to happen is our businesses won’t be able to staff themselves. What’s going to happen is nobody will speak Persian, nobody will speak Farsi, nobody will speak Arabic, nobody will speak Darri, and the result is we will find ourselves continually isolated from the rest of the world.

HEFFNER: You know what else will happen? I won’t be able to read a sign that says, “Say good-bye” because your time is up. Thanks so much, Arthur Levine, for joining me again.

LEVINE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.