The value of civics education in middle and high school cannot be overstated, advocates say. The Founding Fathers knew that if America did not hold fast to the principles they had set forth in our founding documents, the great American experiment surely would fail.
David Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute, joins The Daily Signal Podcast to discuss how the organization not only provides civics lessons to students across the nation but pushes back against the false narratives regarding America’s founding. Listen to today’s podcast episode or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on The Daily Signal Podcast today by David Bobb. He’s the president of the Bill of Rights Institute, and someone who is passionate about civics education. David, welcome to the show.
David Bobb: Thank you, Rob.
Bluey: Well, it is great to have you here in our studio. The Bill of Rights Institute is an organization that develops educational resources and programs for both teachers and students all across this great country. Tell our listeners more about your work and who you are reaching.
Bobb: The Bill of Rights Institute has been around for two decades. We’re focused on supporting teachers in the really vital work of civics education.
There are hundreds of thousands of teachers that every day get up and think about, how do we give students a notion of freedom and opportunity? How do we teach them about the founding principles and address all of the current events that are in the news as well?
Civics was really a preoccupation of the Founding Fathers. They thought of it not as something that was the responsibility of the federal government so much, but the responsibility of communities.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a quotation that Thomas Jefferson had when he said, “Citizenship is not just about voting one time a year, it’s really an everyday thing. It’s an everyday responsibility.”
If you think of that idea, that notion of everyday citizenship, today we’ve sometimes reduced it to just voting and for kids kind of recycling or figuring out ways that you can get the government to do something and mobilize people.
I think the notion that we’re really trying to do in the Bill of Rights Institute is very different. That’s to say to students, “You have rights, you have responsibilities. What are you going to do to a noble civil society?”
Bluey: It seems that there is a growing interest and even a concern in our country over the lack of civics education. So you’re certainly addressing that.
Just recently I read that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to have a test that high school students take. I know there’s students in Rhode Island who are suing the state and the governor because they feel like they have a lack of civics education.
Tell us why it is that you’re sensing this reaction from students or parents all across the country and how you’re going about responding to it?
Bobb: There is a huge interest. I think it’s really encouraging. … We’re really focused at the Bill of Rights Institute on reaching high school students, middle school students; supporting the teachers that every day take up the task of instructing students in American history, civics, and what’s come to be known as social studies.
Students feel polarization in a different way than adults do. One of our students who attends a weeklong constitutional boot camp we run called the Constitutional Academy—it’s here in the Washington D.C. area—said, “I wonder, can I disagree with my friends and will they still be my friends?”
So, one of the things I think that we’re seeing is that teachers and students and then parents in the community are trying to grapple with, what is this thing, you can kind of feel it in the air that really bespeaks the division?
People are wondering, how do we get beyond that? Not to just some kind of kumbaya moment because I think the key thing here is, how do we learn to disagree amicably?
The Constitutional Convention was a remarkable meeting, it laid down some ground rules that said, “We’re going to lay out a charter of our freedoms, we’re going to take inspiration from the declaration.”
For four months, the members of that convention debated things. They came out with what, sometimes by our textbooks, is characterized just as a bundle of compromises. …
It’s the same thing that we’ve seen happen this week on Capitol Hill, but, in fact, there was something really higher going on there, because what they were saying is, “Human beings have rights.”The purpose of government is to protect those rights.
What I think we’re feeling now is that many people are awakening to the fact that we’ve neglected this subject area in our schools, but even more, we’ve neglected to take it up as families, as communities …
You mentioned the lawsuit, imagine suing the state government to say, “I’ve not gotten a good education.” Because, ultimately, I think education is not so much a right as it is a responsibility.
Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is empower teachers to be able to do the things in their classrooms that they really see as important.
So we’re responding to this need. I think it’s really encouraging that there’s a lot of people awakening across the country to the need for civics.
Bluey: It is, and I’m certainly glad that you are there to provide the resources that you do. You mentioned one of the programs that you offer. You mentioned that you’re working with middle school and high school students. Can you talk in more detail about some of the other resources that are available through the Bill of Rights Institute?
Bobb: All of our resources are available free online. You can go to billofrightsinstitute.org.
Teachers, it’s interesting we think of oftentimes the textbooks that they’re handed in the state of Texas. For example, taxpayers pay $400 million every year just for textbooks.
The good news is a lot of those textbooks now gather dust because what the teachers are doing in a quite entrepreneurial way is pulling together different resources.
They might go to YouTube, they go to the Bill of Rights Institute website, they go to other places and they cobble together a kind of curriculum. Because what they’re trying to do is address, and I think this goes to the polarization point, these hot topics.
If you’re met with questions from your students, “Hey, what about impeachment?” What you want to do is, you have to teach certain things over the course of a year, but you also want to be able to address those hot-button, controversial issues. What BRI does is allow the teacher to bridge that.
So we have more than 2,500 resources, we’re publishing this year a comprehensive history of the United States. We’re doing that with a partner out of Rice University called OpenStax, which has done a lot of work in making free resources available to college students.
What’s really great, and one of the things that we see that’s really exciting, is that teachers, when they have these materials and strong materials that are oriented around the founding principles, reorient their discussion.
We base everything we do on the principles of the American founding, on those constitutional core ideas and also the moral and civic virtues that are requisite of responsible citizenship.
When you put things in terms of principles and virtues in public schools, you might think, “Well, don’t we have a disjunct there? Isn’t there a real gap?”
But in fact, the Bill of Rights Institute has seen 1 out of 4 teachers in the country come to rely on our materials and participate in what for teachers is the professional development programs that help them not only keep up their teaching credential, but deepen their knowledge of our republican form of government.
Bluey: That is so great to hear and that impact is impressive.
Now, I recently heard you give a presentation and you shared some of the materials with me and I was really impressed with the quality of the work. We know from our work at The Daily Signal how important stories are to connecting students and explaining issues that might not necessarily be as easily digestible.
So, you have a new project or some resources called Heroes and Villains. I want to start there, can you tell us more about what you’re doing with that?
Bobb: I think it’s important when you teach American history to give the full access to students to the most challenging questions.
In an era in which students have in their hip pockets their smartphones, all of human knowledge, a lot of times they’re asking, “Why does this stuff from 200, 250 years ago [matter]”?
Here we are six years away from marking the 250th birthday of the United States of America, is that going to be a celebration or is it going to be a lament?
Some would have us think that there was very little to celebrate about 1776, and yet we think [at] the Bill of Rights Institute … you go to those stories and you understand what kind of sacrifice and struggle went into that, when you look at the struggle and sacrifice that was then picked up by the abolitionists, by the suffragettes, by those who fought for the civil rights of all Americans, including African Americans in the 20th century.
Those stories, when you put them in human form, bring to students a great answer as to the why: “Why does this matter? Why does it matter that a bunch of people got together and said, ‘You know what? In the history of humanity, most regimes have been oriented around accident and force, not reflection and choice.'”
That’s a big deal, we think it’s worth celebrating, but we also think it’s worth grappling with the really tough questions, and that’s what good historians do. That’s what we try to do in conjunction with academics and teachers all across the country.
Bluey: This 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage. You mentioned the suffragettes. You have another project called Votes for Women. Tell us more about it.
Bobb: It’s one of those things that when you think of what happened at Seneca Falls and the look back by the Americans, both women and men said women should have the right to vote. That’s something that’s an extension of the idea, and the ideas that are part of the declaration.
Frederick Douglass was one of the only men to speak at the Seneca Falls Convention when they looked back and said, “It’s not only men who have the right to vote, but it should be women as well.”
So, there was an argument, and what we do in that curriculum for teachers and students is bring out the nature of that argument.
But even more than the story—which I think is really important, that story of how women came to have the right to vote; in 2020, like you said, it’ll be a 100 years—is how do you do social change within a constitutional context? I think that’s one of the big questions that Americans have to face today.
Bluey: Certainly is.
Bobb: Do we care enough about the constitutional framework that we want to uphold that or do we want to march in a very different direction? There are forces arrayed that would say the Constitution was a relic of the past. It doesn’t have any purchase on us today.
What we find is that teachers and students across the country are hungry for a conversation in which they grapple with that question. And the good news that I’ll share with you today is that there are so many teachers, tens of thousands, that every day are dedicated to putting these questions in a framework that would say the Constitution is worth our efforts as citizens, to uphold, to champion, and to cherish.
Bluey: I’m glad you raised that point, we’re seeing increasingly efforts—one that comes to mind is the New York Times’ 1619 Project in which accompanying the magazine issue, which came out earlier in August, I believe of 2019, there was a school curriculum.
My question for you is this, we’ve seen some leading historians, not necessarily people who are identified in the left or the right, just historians in their own right, come out and criticize it for lacking the context or perspective that they think would be informed. What are your thoughts on efforts like that?
Bobb: I’ve read the 1619 Project, went through the lesson plans. I was struck by one in particular, it was what’s called erasure poetry, and it asks students to take the Declaration of Independence and to block out all of the sections so that the remaining words would be the poem that they wanted to create themselves.
Think of what that exercise treats and really trains the minds of our young people to say, that the declaration is a document mainly to be obliterated.
The declaration was the thing that gave Frederick Douglass the hope and realization that he was a person deserving of rights and dignity.
The Founders were not perfect, no human being is, and I think the remarkable thing that we need to impress upon young people is not that we had, in the founding of the United States, an answer and a kind of determination of everyone’s rights in their fullness. We didn’t. But we did lay down the marker and we said that all human beings are created equal.
That was a marker that both indicted some of the Founders’ own actions as slaveholders, and set a standard by which Americans and future generations could look to and try to aspire to. The 1619 Project gets none of that aspirational element.
I think when you look at Allen Guelzo and Jim McPherson and James Oakes and Gordon Wood and others that have come to criticize that, and then be utterly dismissed by the editors of that project as irrelevant, well, who anointed them as our preeminent historians? That’s been some of the response.
I think the debate that’s ensued is a good one and that’s the kind of thing that I think students can actually enter into.
One of those people that I just mentioned, Allen Guelzo, is a contributor to the Bill of Rights Institute’s Comprehensive History of the United States, that we just debuted at the National Council for the Social Studies.
We believe in viewpoint diversity, and what I lament about some of our publications, including the 1619 Project, is there’s not even a pretense of viewpoint diversity. It’s just saying this is it, and, unfortunately, it can amount to a conspiracy theory.
That is the thing that we see in Howard Zinn, where here’s history in a box, here’s the people who did all of the wrong and we’re going to blame them, and here’s the people that do all of the right and, in fact, that’s not the way that history works.
What you have to do, I think, is have an intellectually honest conversation. What we found is that teenagers are capable of doing a lot, and if you treat them as curious and engaged interlocutors, oftentimes they rise to the occasion.
The thing that I find is that the teachers all across the country mainly do not engage in conspiracy mongering. They’re mainly interested in trying to wrestle with these questions and put really important ideas in front of their students and then rely on those conversations to help propel those students into the fullness of citizenship.
Bluey: As a father of a fifth-grader and second-grader, I’m not quite at the middle school or high school level yet, but I can say that they are starting to learn American history, particularly Virginia history in their classes. My experience has been positive as well.
I really don’t feel that they are bringing in a personal political perspective even if they may happen to … have those views. They are really interested in teaching history and looking for resources that are available. So again, thank you for the work that you’re doing.
I have to ask, you have such a passion for this issue, tell us how that developed. What is your own background? I know you spent time with Hillsdale College, of course, Dr. Larry Arnn, a member of The Heritage Foundation board of trustees. What led you down this path?
Bobb: I have to credit, really, conversations with my parents where they were bringing up, not necessarily in a political context, just the issues of the day.
Then I had a great teacher who every day we would start class with somebody giving a presentation in middle school where it was a current event and the connection was made to, how does this subject that can seem kind of abstract or what does the federal government or some state policy have to do with me in seventh grade?
But what he asked us to do was to say what significance does it have to the world, to the United States, and then to us as students. It really hit me as a young person that this stuff really can have purchase on us, and that we can be involved in an important way, not only in the affairs of government, but in civil society.
So I took that love of politics through my education and then working at Hillsdale and then became convinced that while I love working with college students and the public at large, that we really do need to support young people even at a younger age and change that trajectory.
You mentioned your kid’s age, I have two who are fifth-grader and a second-grader, and you can see those light bulbs turning on. And what’s a shame is that too often, I think because of a kind of unintentional intimidation that’s come about, most teachers don’t want to come in and have their political views front and center, but they do want to talk about these important current events.
Oftentimes what’ll happen is a building principal or a superintendent, legal counsel says, “You know what? We really don’t want to have melee here. Kids aren’t going to be able to handle these questions, let’s just leave all that stuff behind.”
I think that’s really a mistake … We’re going to be entering into 2020, and yes, it’s going to be a contentious and hard-fought election at every level. But shouldn’t our young people be introduced to the habits of heart and mind that will help them deal with these matters of importance, wrestle with these questions, come to their own opinions in a way that is intellectually honest, that’s done with care and concern for civility, for toleration, for the virtues that ultimately uphold freedom? I think that’s a cause that’s worth working on.
Bluey: Certainly, certainly is. As you reflect back on the work that you’ve done at the Bill of Rights Institute, can you share with our listeners some of the biggest impacts that you feel you’ve had both on teachers and students? Maybe a story, if there’s one that comes to mind, of somebody who’s been particularly impacted by the work.
Bobb: One young person said at the conclusion of one of our programs, “I’ve heard more in this short program about the Founding Fathers and the positive impact that they had on our country and on the world than I did in an entire Advanced Placement U.S. history class.” I think it’s that sort of thing, multiplied many times over.
We work with 53,000 educators across the country. Each of those educators every year teaches a hundred or more students. That’s a huge ripple effect. What we find is that … teachers say, “It’s hard out there, you’re helping me meet the needs of students, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
One gentleman teaches in Southern California and he wrote us and he said he considers it as a great privilege every day to teach the students, many of those who are new to this country, the kids of those who are new to this country.
And he said he gives them the ideas of American exceptionalism in language that they can understand, in a way that they can own those ideas, and he credits the Bill of Rights Institute for helping him throughout the last two decades of his teaching career become that kind of a teacher. That’s why we do what we do.
Bluey: That’s great, that’s great to hear. If we have teachers listening or parents, what would you tell them if they wanted to find more information about the Bill of Rights Institute or support your work?
Bobb: We welcome you to join us in this effort. Billofrightsinstitute.org is the place where you can find all kinds of different free online curricula opportunities for both teachers and parents to dig into the resources, to enroll in both webinars, in-person programs, all across the country. We look forward to starting a conversation.
Bluey: David, thanks so much for joining The Daily Signal Podcast.
Bobb: Thank you, Rob.