Civic Virtue, School Reform, and the Creation of Real Wealth

written by H. Michael Hartoonian


When the past no longer illuminates the future,
the spirit walks in darkness

Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America

What have we learned by enacting laws against bullying or noncompliance with racial integration; or laws addressing curriculum standards or student assessment, school funding, and the testing of teachers?

Primarily, we have learned the recurring lesson that command and control processes are costly, inefficient, and, for the most part, don’t work. Yet, at great cost, we persevere like Sisyphus getting little pay-back for our efforts, except the rhetorical satisfaction of convincing the uninformed that something is being done to improve our schools.

This fetish with control, however, is by no means unique to education. As a people we seem to believe that more laws and regulations are the answers to a whole array of mistakes and ethical compromises. This is consistent with the father of our Constitution, James Madison, and his thinking about social order, suggesting that if people were angels we wouldn’t need government. We are far from angels, and in need of some oversight and enlightenment. But we should also understand that there exists within our society an inverse relationship between learned levels of rightful behavior and laws that restrict freedoms. It’s a simple proposition: if we don’t act ethically, restrictive laws will be enacted. If people try to escape their ethical responsibilities and rely totally on the rules, they become subjects, even to their own desires. If the ethical is ignored, the legal, however intrusive, will be cumbersome and ineffective. Unless we understand this dynamic between law and ethics we will continue to wear away the moral underpinnings of the nation and force even more laws to be passed. What is altogether true about civic virtue is that one cannot delegate an ethical decision. Not God nor any system or institution can claim your moral duty.  Only ignorance can do that.

Would more regulations have really help to avoid personal and national deficiencies when rightful behavior is ignored? Do we understand our common ethical duties? Consider:

  • The General Services Administration (GSA) grossly overspending public funds on conferences inLas Vegasand elsewhere.
  • Secret Service officers compromising the life of the President and national dignity on his visit to Columbia because they spent their time with prostitutes.
  • Bankers, brokers, and mortgage seekers either selfishly or in ignorance propelling this nation into the worst economic collapse since the 1930’s.
  • Private contractors inIraqandAfghanistanspending billions of US dollars with little accountability or even basic bookkeeping, and
  • A President taking our nation to war without a plan to pay for it as well as sending just a very few younger citizens to put their skin in the game while telling the rest of us to just “go shopping.”

We seem to believe that all of these questionable ethical matters and more can be addressed simply through more and better rules and oversight; as if a free people had no limits on being policed. The truth, though counterintuitive, is closer to what President Washington wrote in his first inaugural address:

No wall of words, no mound of parchment can be formed to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.

He was even more emphatic in his Farewell Address:

Virtue is the necessary spring for popular government.

Democracies fail because the people become corrupt once they believe that they can have whatever they want, and at little personal cost.  This was one of Aristotle’s most powerful arguments.  He believed that people were innately incapable of behaving ethically.  The founders of our republic were of a similar mind and would keep power from the people in a Constitution devoid of a Bill of Rights. However, in the ratification process a bill of rights was attached to the original document. The rationale for passage was most powerfully provided in the Federalist’s Papers, where the argument for enlightenment and oversight was made in the name of the fourth branch of government – the people – and to their ethical supervision the nation was and should forever be entrusted.

But people are not naturally virtuous. Addressing this dilemma,Jeffersondeclared that if the people are not discreet or enlightened enough to govern themselves, the answer was not to take power from them, but to enhance that indiscretion through education. Send people to school to become better – not better off – just better.

Education and Virtue

Authority resides in the person to whom an order is given, not the person in authority.

Chester Barnard

The Functions of the Executive

With the exceptions of such people as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, as a society we still get it wrong regarding the purpose of education in our republic. The goal is citizenship first, then, and only then, items like employment and self-discovery can be added. What families, schools, and firms need first are citizens.  Above all, students need a place to practice citizenship and bring attention to rightful behavior and the ability to make the community better “…in order to form a more perfect union.” People may be born in a democracy with inalienable rights, but governments must be instituted to protect and sustain those rights – like rights to life, freedom, and property. Such governments are based on the notion that people can control their desires, and live within such practical virtues of civility, patience, hard and smart work, honesty, and self respect.  But these behaviors are not innate; people must learn that they have the authority to govern themselves. They must be intentionally taught how to hold the office of citizen. By the 21st Century, however, we have moved so far from the schools original intent, stated by Mann and Jefferson and in such documents as the Land Ordinance of 1785 (establishing elementary schools in the territories) and the Morrill Act of 1862 (establishing Land Grant Colleges) that we refuse to think seriously about the school’s first purpose – civic virtue.

Education is, and must be, different in a democracy because its task is to develop citizens. Few individuals are lucky enough to be born or live in those places on earth where they have a choice between being a citizen and being a subject. But birth right, by itself, does not equate to responsible citizenship. Students must practice citizenship within a democratic context where they can sharpen their critical skills of debate.  At its core, democracy is simply an argument. Thus, to be a citizen, one must learn what the democratic argument is about and how to participate in that argument. And, this must be done within a context of perspective, reason, and criticism – all conditions of holding the office of citizen.

Formal education plays the key role in this complex process. In overview, it works this way. Parents bring children into nature. The community brings children into culture. And, the school brings children to question that culture. Those questions and the arguments therein are the foundation of the democratic education.

The perspectives gained through the study of history and the other Liberal Arts become a necessary condition for creating loving critics of the democratic culture. The sufficient condition, however, comes from the perspective, knowledge, and skills gained through immersion in civic debate. That debate as defined in the research by Hartoonian, Van Scotter, White, and others, is about how citizens can better balance the democratic value tensions of Freedom verses Equality; Unity verses Diversity; Common Wealth verses Private Wealth; and Law verses Ethics. It is only in the balance that a democratic republic can thrive. And, enlightened citizens are the only people who can sustain the ongoing debate and in so doing sustain the republic.


Poverty of the Imagination

“All too often we sleepwalk through life, turning right at this stone, left at that tree, nodding to someone here, chatting with another person there, our sensorial and imaginative powers barely tapped.”

Yi-Fu Tuan


Attempting to navigate a mystifying ethical landscape, most educators are buffeted about by corrupting winds that now seem rational. So they give in to the mindset of fear; accepting blame for society’s weaknesses, and assuming that they will be protected by the law if only they obey. What is being lost at an alarming rate is our power to imagine and build a clear bond between liberty and virtue – virtue is a republic’s first literacy. As Martin Luther King Jr. showed in his letters from the jail in Birmingham, without knowledge of the tensions between law and ethics, and the ability to debate and act on moral issues in order to eradicate unjust laws, we would still have slavery and women would not be allowed to vote. The issues facing us today are no less serious, yet we believe that making rules will elevate individual behavior. This is analogues to believing that motivation is the same as purpose and identity.  The carrot and stick approach may work on subjects; it cannot on citizens. Citizens understand the limits of law when using the criterion of virtue, as well as the limits of belief when using the reason of law.

The researched litany on how rule-governed standards, tests, and policies have failed students, teachers, and parents is known to most policy makers and teachers. Led by these studies, we can most dramatically note this failure, by wholesale changes made in the No Child Left Behind law (2011). Law-makers, in the face of legal and administrative collapse, changed the law. On the other hand, educators missed their opportunity to push back the law even more. They had an opening to rid schools of unworkable rules and the questionable behavior of publishers, tutors, and others. But, they seemed incapable of crafting counter historic, scientific, philosophical, or ethical claims regarding the inadequacies of the new obligatory programs – programs that deny the complexity, subtlety, and irony of learning and teaching. It may well be that the most obnoxious structure is no structure at all, but virtue and intellectual growth demand freedom and together they provide the only true defenses against corrupted political systems and unethical markets.

The problems are deep and profound in education. Students are steeped in a set of societal values that are best presented by the media, ads and consumers that support them. Those values include: materialism, sexuality, athleticism, and physical potency. Remember the 2012 Super Bowl ads; they were prize winning and focused a spotlight on our values. To make matters even more interesting, these ads and programs are viewed in homes where often the parents are missing – physically, emotionally, or intellectually.  As Charles Murray observes in his 2012 book, Coming Apart, over half of the children born in the nation (2010) are born to single, mostly white mothers, and the percentage of children in our public schools is increasingly poor. When will schools have the courage to counter these contemporary societal data? Again, parents bring children into nature, communities bring children into culture, and schools should bring children to question that culture. That’s the nature of the democratic mind, and the democratic society. The problem today may be that we do not have a democratic society, we have a consumer society.

The poor have more economic and intellectual headwinds because funding for our schools is directly tied to the property values and general affluence of local districts and not to the needs of the community, nation, or children. Educators do fight for resources and bonding referenda are commonplace. But in this market, funding is a hard sell for most schools; first, because only 24% (2010 US Census) of households in the average American school district have school age children. And second, Americans, including school leaders, can’t articulate the public purpose of the public schools, thus constructing funding rationales on employment needs of the child or vaguer notions of international competition. Almost all contemporary conversations about education focus on the individual, that is, grade level achievement and work ready skills. The 76% of households without children are not convinced. Also, these are not the things that citizens of smart nations want for their children. They want their children to be far above grade level and to study the liberal arts so they can be inventive, think, speak and write, be leaders of commerce, members of the political and social élites, and live meaningful lives. What we want for the brightest we should equally want for all our children. Schools don’t seem to understand this, and as the public schools become ever more private in their focus on the individual child and employment skills, it is problematic as to whether the public school is, indeed, public. In addition, citizens hear critics make the claim that schools are unattractive, rule driven, and unfriendly to deep learning. Not the attributes of an enlightened community or nation.


Place and Space

“There’s no place like home.”


The Wizard of Oz

How can we start to change this condition? Here’s a humble suggestion: start in ways that will begin to change the school’s culture from a space to a place. Space is scary and uninhabitable. Most of the earth is space; too cold, too hot, covered with water, too high, too dry. From the beginning, the most important human work has been to build and protect a home – to change space into place, because space debases you; place embraces you. People do live in some inhospitable environments, but they do so by shaping a place that will protect them. Place or home is constructed every time we move and set-up a new habitat. We clean, hang pictures, cook and eat meals, etc. until it feels like home and not a space. The attributes of place or home include: aesthetics, meaningful communication, love, justice, respect, and the understanding that as you contribute to make your place better, you become better yourself. In school, as in other institutions and the nation as well, the first priority of citizens in a republic should be to build a better place. Home or place comes first. The degree to which schools put children before the attributes of place, or any member before the democratic institution; to that same degree we corrupt them. Our first job is to understand the responsibility of contributing to a better place – be that place a school, family, community, or nation. The work of building place is what people must learn to do. And in that work, they will become better – better people, better workers, better citizens. But, this is not instinctive to humans. It is, however, as Sigmund Freud suggested in his, Civilization and Its Discontents, what separates humans from animals.

How can we begin to resolve some of the school’s problems by changing it from a space to a place? Let’s consider a few changes, starting with lunch time in school. It is twenty minutes long, it is eaten at long crowded tables, where conversation is almost impossible, food is eaten in a hurry, and much of it is wasted for want of time, aesthetic quality, and taste. Because of this condition children develop poor habits and diets, and if not corrected at home will lead to stress, inability to concentrate, and even obesity. Animals feed; humans dine; particularly in school where they are learning rightful behavior. Dinning is a communion. It is a sharing of respect and ideas. Why shouldn’t lunch time be forty five minutes long? Why not dine at round tables with table cloths?  Why not pass food to each other family style? Why not invite retired and other individuals from the community to dine with students? This significant change in the school’s journey from space to place – dining – would impact student behavior far more than any controlling laws about obesity, bullying, or classroom etiquette.

Animals have sex; humans make love. With the popular media as their guide, students exhibit sex in the ways they dress, talk, and behave. Boys with pants too low and girls with blouses or tops too low, show a lot of skin and not for love’s benefit. With funding cuts in curricular areas that might help students understand the difference between love and sex, to say nothing about understanding the subtleties between such ideas as right and good, beauty and truth, fairness and justice, unity and diversity, identity and character – music, literature, art, languages, history, philosophy and religion – they are left unarmed to battle the baser messages of the community. To understand the depths of love in the human character is a priority among the young.  They have many questions about loving, being loved, who to love, and what to love. These are universal human concerns captured in literature, songs, art, and the cultures’ heritage. What’s love got to do with meaning, work, play, and place? We have to be able to engage these questions using the rich resources of human history; not the shallow messages of television ads. And we should practice love, for example, in the way we dine, the way we teach, the way we learn, the way we communicate, and the way in which we shape all the institutions or places to which we belong.

Animals die; human beings pass on. It is important for children to use the future as a measure of living life today. In much the same way that saving resources today is another way of having the ability to spend in the future, the habits of today determine the quality of life tomorrow. The future leaves its footprints in the present. We cannot deny the future just as we cannot deny death – of others, of ourselves or our culture. What we do today is passed on even into the deep future. Here’s the question: “Do you have anything that you are willing to die for?” The corollary, of course, is: “Do you have anything that you are willing to live for?” Those are questions that animals cannot ask, but by definition, humans must be able to discuss and answer at a profound level of understanding. We may be brainwashed into believing that we should die for our heritage or historic values, but death, often manifested in fear, selfishness, and regret, is most humanly realized in the gentle knowledge that your place is in order and the future is attended to. Our march toward death is a human march only when its cadence is received from the distant future – from that landscape where our children and our best ideas will live. We measure ourselves most effectively when the future holds us up for inspection. When we understand what it is that we “pass-on.” Consider some motive questions that are asked by our children.

Where will I live?

What will I do?

Who will I love?

How will I bring meaning to my life?

What will I contribute to the future?

Do we believe that our children are not interested in these inquiries about the future? Evidently not, because we respond to our children not with the aesthetics of art and the languages of real learning, but with the mind numbing anesthetics of testing, standards, and a false disciple devoid of disciples. As our society is busy teaching our children about feeding, sex, and death, our schools must be teaching the aesthetics of justice, love, life, and the essence of passing on the best of who we are.

There is a dynamic of the democratic place that must function well before enlightened citizenship can ensue. As defined by Ray Carey in his book, Democratic Capitalism (2004), the elements of this dynamic or model are freedom, structure, human development and learning, and integrity or high principles.

Place engages these four elements and in a particular way. First of all, everyone within a place must be inclined to continue their learning. This learning is encouraged and supported by family, school, community and the larger society, if, and only if, each institution is a place and not a space. Second, within every institution, everyone is expected to follow simple principles of ethical relationships, such as respect, civility, patience, fortitude, industry, communication, and thoroughness. Third, the ethos of place is to increase freedom and decrease structure. As citizens manifest the principles of fair play and live within an ethical framework, they help to build individual freedom and at the same time reduce the structure of regulations. Rightful behavior is rewarded with freedom. The issue, of course, is that this dynamic of more freedom is dependent upon a context of integrity and a common mindset that continuous learning is necessary for all. And why should we be so concerned about living in such a place? The answer centers on the creation of wealth and the meaning of citizen.

The concept of citizen presented here brings together political and philosophical assumptions that form a theory which we can call multidimensional engagement. The first assumption, which is personal in nature, focuses on the role of citizen. This is in opposition to understanding the individual as subject. In a political sense, one can only be a citizen or a subject. This means that an individual, by choice, can be a citizen of a school and at the same time a subject of the state. In a democracy, however, one should choose to be a citizen of all the institutions in which he or she is engaged. It is rare indeed to even have the choice of being a citizen, for citizenship is only possible within a democratic structure. And, as we know, democratic structures are complex in their non-formal alliances, subtle in their social constructs and information sharing, and extremely slow in developing. Moral and material infrastructures, from roads and public education to assumptions about truthful public dialogues are all necessary conditions for success. The sufficient condition for democracy, however, is the individual’s attitude, or mind-set, demanding political legitimacy in and from the people–people who are capable of coming together and governing themselves, and capable of electing representatives who are, in turn, accountable to the electorate. Thus, the citizen carries a personal or private mind-set that is very different from the worldview of the subject.

The citizen while being a loving-critic of the republic is also the prime creator of both common and private wealth (where wealth is understood as the creation of excellence).

The subject, on the other hand, is an individual ready to follow orders, consume wealth, and live a life of social isolation. Education must make the most of these differences; diminishing the role of subject while enhancing the identity of citizen. But, the effort to regulate instruction through standards and tests is a loud statement telling the world that students and teachers are seen as subjects, unable to handle the freedom of citizenship. Of course, the behavior of consumers, bankers, business leaders, and politicians suggest that the identity of “citizen” is universally endangered.

The second assumption, which is public in nature, rests upon the relationships that must exist between individuals and institutions or between and among institutions. The theory, simply stated, is that in a democratic republic, the several institutions that constitute the community, and the individuals within them, must understand and practice reciprocal duties with one another. It also asserts that the citizen is a citizen of all the institutions to which he or she belongs. For example, an individual is a citizen of the family, school, firm or business, and place of worship, as well as of the city, state, and nation. In fact, if people do not see themselves as citizens of the institutions in which they work, play, learn, and live, it is problematic as to whether they can be citizens of a city, state, or nation simply because the vigor of any one institution must be directly correlated to the constrains of the others. For example, if schools refuse or are less vigorous in defending their purpose, businesses or families will not be constrained to issue their own rationales. Once we appreciate individual engagement across the several institutions we can embrace the ethics of reciprocal duty and the complementary nature of institutions which is the hallmark of citizenship. Citizens, unlike subjects, ask, “What can I do for my family?” Not, “What can my family do for me?” And that question applies to all institutions. What can my family do for the school? What can the school do for the community? And in these ways, we build reciprocal duty, where freedoms are expanded and structures reduced.

Building a Place

The question is what kind of a public do schools create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or does it create a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?

Neil Postman

“The End of Education”


This we know. People tend to live up (or down) to the expectations we have for them. Treat a person without respect and the person will become disrespectful. Treat a person as a responsible scholar or citizen, and the person will become responsible. It’s all in our identity. Of course, this can only happen within the context of place where freedom is valued over structure. The quality of education and the excellence of achievement have almost everything to do with how we treat each other in a place called school.

Consider again the attraction of aesthetics in the school, including how children dine. Construct a more inclusive curriculum where students can study art and music, languages and literature so they can achieve self-forgetful attentiveness and deal with the questions of most worth. Let students and teachers see and embrace the self-denial in the relentless power of genetic and environmental history and how freedom is only achieved through the engagement of building a better ethical relationship with others and the institutions that enhance us all. What unifies is beauty – human and humane. Through the creation of gardens, homes, infrastructures, and citizens; by respecting others and knowing that self-interest is measured best through our interest in others; in keeping ourselves fit in spirit, mind, and body; in all of this, we and our children are informatively tested every day by the criteria of aesthetics. And this virtue of beauty is the necessary condition needed to keep us free and civilized. Deny it and we deny our freedom and our republic as well.

H. MICHAEL HARTOONIAN is Scholar in Residence at HamlineUniversity, St. Paul, Minn. and former Professor and Senior Fellow and Director of the Institute for Democratic Capitalism, in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration, College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota.


2 thoughts on “Civic Virtue, School Reform, and the Creation of Real Wealth

  1. Thank you, Professor Hartoonian for your wonderful words of the importance of community in education. Your simple thought of the importance of what we “pass-on” was part of the reason that I got into education in the first place and one that I can only hope I am able to share with the students that arrive in my classroom every day. I used your post from last May about the necessity of the public school to start the year with my students, which I will do again this year, although this post caused me to pause for a second and consider it instead. Ultimately, I decided it might be more important to share it with the community of which you speak. After all, they are the ones that are helping me and other teachers prepare these students to “pass something on.” Thank you again.

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