Taken out of context: Defending civic education from the situationist critique

Sigal Ben-Porath, Gideon Dishon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Situationists have suggested that educational efforts to improve character and
instill virtues should be abandoned, as individuals’ behavior is predicted by
contexts and situations rather than by character traits. More recently it has
been suggested that civic education and especially the effort to cultivate civic
virtues are ineffective for similar reasons and should be replaced by the
introduction of desirable social norms and institutions. After surveying the
debate on this topic in the first part of the essay, we suggest that in fact virtues
should not be judged as existing within one person and absent from another
based on their behavior in a single instance. Rather, virtues should be
understood as composite and probabilistic and therefore strengthening them is
a valuable endeavor. In considering civic virtues specifically we argue that the
social and public nature of their expression make schools excellent contexts for
cultivating and practicing democratic civic virtues. Even the best institutional
structures of a well-functioning democratic society rely on the compliance of
virtuous citizens, and the situationist preference for desirable social norms is
implicitly predicated on virtuous citizens to institute and follow those norms.
Moreover, civic education in a democracy strives to cultivate more than
compliance with norms of conduct. It aspires to nurture youth who see
themselves as responsible to, and capable of shaping the norms of the society
in which they live. We thus incorporate some of the insights from situationism
into a revamped view of civic education.
Original languageEnglish GB
Pages (from-to)22-37
Number of pages16
JournalPhilosophical Inquiry in Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2015


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