We have a serious problem in this country with civics education and history.
Not only are there widespread efforts to undermine the country’s founding principles, such as Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” but the prevalence of civics and history as subjects in schools has declined.
In a recent conversation, Angela Sailor, vice president of The Heritage Foundation’s Feulner Institute, pointed out that multiple surveys show a negative trend in civic literacy.
>>> Watch the full Heritage Foundation webinar on American exceptionalism and teaching history:
Fewer Americans think that our nation is the best place of hope, opportunity, and community. That loss of confidence threatens the sanctity of the American ideal, and its validity and relevance to our self-governing republic.
How do we restore knowledge and understanding of America’s founding values and principles?
Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, said the driving force behind the establishment of public schools in America was exactly that—to cultivate civic knowledge and values.
Horace Mann, a leading advocate of public education in the mid-1800s, when America was still a young nation, said that a republic whose citizens were uneducated would be like an insane asylum. He believed that public education was essential to cultivating civic virtue and character in students.
That was the primary driver of taxpayer-funded public schools.
But today, the data suggests that our schools are not fulfilling that critical purpose. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card, recently released its assessment results, which show that only 24% of eighth-grade students performed proficiently on the civics exam.
Those results point to an evident crisis.
Jeff Sikkenga, executive director of the Ashland, Ohio-based Ashbrook Center, which seeks to strengthen constitutional self-government, says that this is a crisis both of knowledge and a personal devotion to our nation.
“When we ask students whether they believe America is a good country or not, we find some disappointing answers,” he said.
Sikkenga said it is not merely that students do not know particular facts, but that “they do not have a deep understanding of what is right and true and good and beautiful about America.”
Part of the challenge is that America’s history is not all right and true and good and beautiful. Slavery, racism, and racial segregation are major blemishes in our history, and are far from the only ones.
The promises of liberty and equality for all are at the heart of our nation, but as David Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute, said, we have not always lived up to those promises.
Nonetheless, those promises, found in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, are what Gen. George Washington fought for, and Americans have continued to fight for over the decades and centuries.
They are still not fully realized, but that is what civic education can do: Civics can equip young people—indeed, all Americans—to say we share in those promises, and we will not give up on them.
As a nation, we must be more intentional about reaffirming, illuminating, explaining, and disseminating the founding principles of freedom and individual liberty in compelling ways to prompt the next generation to safeguard our republic for generations to come.
That means going beyond the rudiments of civics. We must teach the next generations a deeper understanding of why our Founders risked their lives for the right to govern themselves, why they believed a Constitution and the Bill of Rights were necessary, and why they committed to equality for all, but then failed to codify that in the Constitution.
Sailor, Burke, Sikkenga, and Bobb all agree that the solution lies in education, and in particular, in a return to primary sources.
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other key documents from our founding are easy to read in their original form. The ideas in the founding documents speak for themselves.
We must enable students to learn from the Founders themselves what is right, true, good, and beautiful about America.
To watch the full discussion, “Teaching American Exceptionalism and Overcoming Impediments to Teaching the History We Need,” click here.