The sharp decline in civic knowledge among America’s youth is a growing concern. The violent turmoil of recent weeks, including the destruction of statues and memorials, has made it an urgent issue.
Justice can only be achieved if America remains a nation governed by the rule of law, committed to the founding belief that all men are created equal. But ignorance of America’s founding among today’s youth has led many of them to seek justice in ways that will lead to tyranny.
A major source of the problem is that the nation’s Founding principles are being undermined not only in colleges and universities, which have drifted steadily leftward, but even in K-12 education, where students are taught inaccurate, revisionist versions of history, such as Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and The New York Times’ 1619 Project.
To address this problem, The Heritage Foundation recently hosted a conversation, Advocacy for Better Civics Education in Our Schools, which focused on programs and initiatives that can help restore the proper teaching of American history and civics. This conversation featured four distinguished panelists:
- Tom Lindsay, distinguished senior fellow of higher education and constitutional studies and director of the Center for Innovation in Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
- Elizabeth Schultz, Fairfax County School Board member, emeritus, and education and public policy expert.
- Beth Feeley, freelance writer and editor at the Woodson Center.
- Janine Turner, founder and co-president of Constituting America.
Angela Sailor, vice president of Heritage’s Feulner Institute, began the discussion with a quote from Ronald Reagan:
‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.’
The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Lindsay noted that only 39% of all native-born Americans can pass the U.S. citizenship test. Even more alarming is what the data says about the sharp generational decline: Among native-born senior citizens, 74% pass the citizenship test, while a mere 20% of native-born Americans under the age of 45 can pass it.
Lindsay flagged one particular pitfall in the current approach to civics, known as “action civics” (also known as civic engagement or project-based learning civics). This methodology emphasizes “doing” civics over learning civics.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation recently completed a large-scale survey of action civics across the country. It found that the majority of civics classes are teaching students how to protest in favor of progressive political causes.
According to Lindsay: “There is no appreciation of the Founding documents, except to dismiss them as the sham rationalizations of white male property holders. We need to be wary because action civics is a movement that is pushing hard for wide-scale acceptance. We know our students are civically illiterate. Let’s first teach them what our principles are, and then, there are very proper ways for them to go out and ‘do civics.’ But understanding the Founding has got to be in the driver’s seat.”
In response, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has made it a priority to strengthen civics education in Texas. It is introducing legislation that would require students to study the founding documents and started a summer institute that equips high school civics teachers with resources and strategies for teaching those documents.
Schultz stressed the importance of engaging with school boards. Across the nation, 90,000 school board members play a critical role in educating the 51 million children in K-12 education. School boards help shape the curriculum and shape the education our children receive.
She warned that Fairfax County, the 10th-largest school district in the country, condones the teaching of revisionist history. Field trips to important national landmarks and historic sites have been canceled because the reference to America’s colonial history may make some “uncomfortable.”
Schultz encouraged participants to serve on school boards and actively support and advocate for leaders who understand our history.
As a parent, Feeley engaged in education advocacy to protect her children from social justice programs that teach students left-leaning views on race relations. Three years ago, her local high school proposed to hold a left-wing program on race. In her view, it was indoctrination, not education, and she felt a need to speak out to bring more balance to what they were proposing to teach the kids. The controversy that ensued became a national news story.
“Our little group of parents learned the hard way how valuable it is to have a network in place to deal with such situations,” Feeley said.
She and other parents formed New Trier Neighbors to connect conservatives in her area and to educate others on what is happening in schools and local government. Now they have a mailing list of about 2,000 people that they can communicate with when issues arise.
Feeley also collaborates with Bob Woodson and the Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites, a project launched to refute The New York Times’ 1619 Project and its grievance-based narrative on race.
1776 Unites works to assemble independent voices who uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who define America by its past failures, notably slavery. The initiative offers alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity.
Turner, an actress best known for her role as Maggie in the popular series “Northern Exposure,” started Constituting America in 2010. When her daughter was 10 years old, Turner recognized that something needed to be done to save civics in education, so she reached out to her friend Cathy Gillespie. Together, they formed the organization, which enables Turner to go to schools around the country to teach the Constitution and what it means to students.
The panelists agreed with Lindsay, who closed by saying, “The stakes in this struggle couldn’t be higher. The philosophy taught in the classroom in this generation will be the philosophy practiced in the legislature in the next generation.”
Those wanting to learn more about how to engage in your community to help restore the teaching of civics based on America’s founding principles may email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This commentary was modified July 7 to correctly identify Tom Lindsay as a speaker.