For at least the past thirty years, we have done a terrible job in this country of educating the young for the tasks of citizenship in a republic. Despite endless talk about the problem, little is actually done to improve matters. The concept of “civic literacy” is the latest buzzword of educators, and yet no one seems to know what the word signifies, let alone how to achieve it. But help is on the way.
Civic literacy, meaning the body of knowledge that enables a citizen to function actively, intelligently, and effectively, is precisely what is offered us in Edwin Hagenstein’s splendid new book The Language of Liberty. To call it a “citizen’s vocabulary,” as the author does, is true enough; but the book is much more than that. It is not a treatise, but instead a collection of wise, subtle, and reflective essays on the keywords of our political and social discourse, covering everything from “the administrative state” to “the referendum,” with topics as philosophical as “conservatism” and “liberalism” and as down-to-earth as “gerrymander” and “whip.” It is both a handy reference book and a work of philosophy, nicely parceled out into easily digested essays. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The Language of Liberty: A Citizen’s Vocabulary by Edwin C. Hagenstein. Rootstock Publishing, October 2020.
Reviewer bio: Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.