More Civics Education Does Not Increase Support for Civil Liberties

In a new article in the Journal of Politics (gated, I am afraid) a group of Yale scholars (including Donald Green) finds that randomly exposing students to an enhanced civics curriculum increases the students’ knowledge of the constitution and civil liberties but it does not increase their support for civil liberties. This raises the possibility that knowledge and attitudes about civil liberties are causally disconnected. One caveat is that the study does not compare students with “no knowledge” to students with some education. What the evidence shows is that the average marginal effect of going beyond the standard curriculum is zero if we care about support for civil liberties (if we care about knowledge the marginal effect of more education is positive).

The abstract is below. The authors are: Donald P. Green, Peter M. Aronow, Daniel E. Bergan, Pamela Greene, Celia Paris, and Beth I. Weinberger.

For decades, scholars have argued that education causes greater support for civil liberties by increasing students’ exposure to political knowledge and constitutional norms, such as due process and freedom of expression. Support for this claim comes exclusively from observational evidence, principally from cross-sectional surveys. This paper presents the first large-scale experimental test of this proposition. More than 1000 students in 59 high school classrooms were randomly assigned to an enhanced civics curriculum designed to promote awareness and understanding of constitutional rights and civil liberties. The results show that students in the enhanced curriculum classes displayed significantly more knowledge in this domain than students in conventional civics classes. However, we find no corresponding change in the treatment group’s support for civil liberties, a finding that calls into question the hypothesis that knowledge and attitudes are causally connected.

Update: The authors have made a non-gated version available here.

9 Responses to More Civics Education Does Not Increase Support for Civil Liberties

  1. sarcozona May 23, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    My middle school civics class certainly didn’t increase my support for civil liberties. But my high school history classes that showed what happened without those civil liberties sure did.

  2. DS May 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    As a poli sci major and AP U.S. gov teacher, I don’t quite understand why this is a surprise. Civil liberties are complex and well-educated students should know the positives and negatives. Maybe their reasoning for support or lack of, is different? Of course, I did not read the gated article and may be making a huge mistake in commenting without having read it.

  3. George E. Marcus May 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Not a new finding. We showed that nearly 30 years ago: Political Tolerance and American Democracy, University of Chicago Press, 1982!

    Shows how resistant liberal presumptions are to data that are contrary.

  4. My! May 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    And George E. Marcus is humble, too!

  5. Bosch May 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    > Not a new finding. We showed that nearly 30 years ago: Political Tolerance and American Democracy, University of Chicago Press, 1982!

    Really? I didn’t remember this in the book. What page is this on?

  6. rhonda May 23, 2011 at 10:10 pm #

    The point is that this hypothesis has not been tested in a very well conceived experimental setting. I have more confidence in their results, and so we can make a stronger inference about the empirical validity of the hypothesis. We should place a high value on these experimental studies, even when they test hypotheses that have find lots of support with observational data.

  7. My! May 24, 2011 at 2:52 am #

    I echo rhonda’s comments.

  8. George E. Marcus May 24, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    I fully agree that having the same finding demonstrated across methods is an important addition to the literature (not a surprise from me, Don Campbell was one of my mentors at Northwestern), but here again, experiments demonstrated the finding about twenty years ago. In an important series of papers John and his colleagues at Minnesota did just that:

    Avery, Patricia, Karen Bird, Sandra Johnstone, John L. Sullivan, and Kristine Thalhammer. 1992. “Exploring Political Tolerance With Adolescents”. Theory and Research in Social Education 20:386-420.

    Bird, Karen, John L. Sullivan, Patricia G. Avery, Kristina Thalhammer, and Sandra Wood. 1994. “Not Just Lip-Synching Anymore: Education and Tolerance Revisited”. The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 16:373-86.

    Thalhammer, Kristina, Sandra Wood, Karen Bird, Patricia G. Avery, and John L. Sullivan. 1994. “Adolescents and Political Tolerance: Lip-Synching to the Tune of Democratcy”. The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 16:325-47.

    I’ve always thought these experiments received way to little attention.

    As to where in the book, pages 221-224 and 251. Granted just survey research but still …

  9. Chris Liebig July 25, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    Maybe they should try modelling their values, instead of trying to indoctrinate students into them. If schoolchildren were treated as if they were entitled to some privacy, some freedom, and some due process, the idea might catch on.