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George Washington Lecture focuses on evolution of civic education

USC Price and Mount Vernon engage in a discussion of governance

Trio at George Washington Lecture
Ted Mitchell, Douglas Bradburn and David Sloane, from left (Photo/David Scavone)

Education has played a major role in shaping the knowledge and understanding of a citizen’s responsibilities from the nation’s earliest days, two noted historians and educators told the audience at the second annual George Washington Leadership Lecture at Mount Vernon.

The Oct. 17 event was sponsored by the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. A similar lecture will be held in Los Angeles on Jan. 21.

“We think of it as a way the Price School can reach out to different geographic constituencies,” said David Sloane, USC Price professor and primary liaison to the library. “It allows us to engage in a discussion of the history of governance, and it brings together two amazing institutions, Mount Vernon and USC, in a joint effort.”

Citizenship and education

This year’s lecture, “Citizenship and Civics: From Washington to the 20th Century,” featured remarks from Douglas Bradburn, founding director of the library, and Ted Mitchell, under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, that weaved together the themes of citizenship, civic education and immigration debates.

Bradburn noted that when the American Revolution created an infant nation comprised of citizens, not “subjects” of King George III, the change created some “vexing problems.”

“Citizen, when George Washington was a boy, meant someone who lived in a city,” Bradburn said. “The revolution created a whole different system of how society would function.”

Ted Mitchell at Washington Lecture

Ted Mitchell, under secretary of the Department of Education (Photo/David Scavone)

Citizens, for example, had power, which was the “polar opposite” of what a subject experienced.

“Citizen showed freedom and equality. You choose to be a citizen and can leave the country. A subject could not leave,” he said.

However, Bradburn said, “citizenship and the problems of citizenship are always aspirational” and subject to debate. Education was viewed as “a moral imperative to improve citizens, so the country can achieve its aspirational goals,” as well as to “train citizens to govern themselves.”

Residency preceded citizenship

Given that aspiration, a critical question for the new nation was how someone could become a citizen. Bradburn noted that initially, anyone could gain citizenship after a one-year residency. But as the number of immigrants coming to this country increased, the residency requirement lengthened — to five years in 1795, 14 years in 1798 and back to five years in 1802.

Mitchell said the debate over the meaning of citizenship and which immigrants could become citizens continued into the 1800s, in part due to the bloody French Revolution that resulted in a number of refugees and radicals fleeing to this country. Even some of the elderly founders of the nation began having second thoughts about the ease with which immigrants could become citizens, Mitchell said, and the seeds were sown for the immigration debate that continues to this day.

Mitchell reminded the audience that Americans have long argued over whether civic education should embody the fundamental principle of liberty or the need for order.

Although the two principles could at times be at odds, Mitchell said, there was no question that the nation retained an interest in the education of its citizens, and that education should be provided with public funds.

Postwar developments

After the Civil War, the nation found itself with millions of new citizens — freed slaves who had no tradition of living and working in a free society. The Army offered the first school for many of the freed slaves, recruiting missionaries from the north to help build a curriculum for them that stressed the values of integrity, discipline and personal honesty.

You choose to be a citizen and can leave the country. A subject could not leave.

Douglas Bradburn

However, according to Mitchell, society at the time remained more interested in labor from the freed slaves than their equal participation in the system, and they were being educated and prepared for a social system defined by class, history, race and ethnicity.

The Progressive Era from 1890 to 1914 also was marked by an influx of immigrants, creating concerns about urban squalor and child labor, which prompted the growth of the labor movement.

Education was seen by reformers as a way to solve those problems, but the educational system for the new immigrants focused on conformity and order, as opposed to individual liberties. That meant an education system for their children would be focused on the English language and Protestant values, with little room for cultural diversity, Mitchell said. And rather than achieving the promised American dream, immigrant families were frequently confined to dead-end, low-wage jobs.

The evening concluded with a dialogue with the audience, during which the speakers reminded attendees that the issues of defining citizenship, engaging in civic education and overcoming conflicts about immigration remain vital parts of our national dialogue.

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George Washington Lecture focuses on evolution of civic education

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