Education

What’s So Un-American about a Shared American Civics?

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A defense of the Educating for American Democracy proposal

Why are our conservative friends deriding and denouncing the Educating for American Democracy proposal for the enhancement of civics teaching in K–12 schools? They claim it is a Trojan horse for the leftist ideology of the 1619 Project and for “action civics,” both of which all people of conservative temperament — and probably many non-“woke” liberals — see as misguided, the first for its distorted account of American history, the second for its eagerness to politicize the classroom and enlist young students as advocates of left-wing causes. To assess whether these critics of the national initiative are right requires understanding (1) the crisis that precipitated the proposal, (2) what precisely is proposed, (3) how it would be implemented, and (4) the costs of repudiating any such efforts to create a common American civics. But first, let us clarify what we are talking about.

Educating for American Democracy: Excellence in History and Civics for All Learners is both a narrative report and a “roadmap” outlining seven themes for teaching history and civics in K–12 schools. It originated from a 2019 call for proposals from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Trump administration’s Department of Education; the grant was won by a consortium committed to seeking national-consensus approaches to civics education that included Danielle Allen of Harvard, two leaders of Tufts’s Civic Learning and Civic Life programs, one of the authors of this piece (Paul Carrese of Arizona State’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership), and the educational organization iCivics, founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her retirement and now the nation’s largest provider of civics-education resources. Did the team skew left? Sure, but it is hardly obvious that it skewed further left than the public-school administrators and teachers who would be the ones to implement its recommendations. The grant was awarded by President Trump’s NEH chairman, Jon Parrish Peede. And in a recent letter, the EAD executive committee voiced its objection in public comment to the Biden Administration’s proposed prioritization of diversity and inclusion in education grants: Empowering students as future civic agents requires “not only bringing . . . [historical] wrongs to the surface but also bringing forward . . . positive visions of democratic possibility and constitutional self-governance.”

What is the crisis that precipitated the study in the first place? Young Americans’ obvious ignorance of the country’s history and its forms of government, evident in standardized tests and in dozens of more intuitive measures. Do progressives and conservatives differ in their assessment of the causes and consequences of such ignorance? No doubt, and both sides are apt to find the most frightening consequence to be the openness of large swaths of their opponents’ voters to conspiracy theories of various degrees of sophistication, from the 1619 Project on one side to QAnon on the other.

What both sides can agree upon is the fact that history and civics have been neglected in schools for a generation, marginalized in curricular planning, and funded at a ratio of 1:20 or worse in comparison with the STEM fields. (At the federal level, the funding disparity recently was estimated to be 1:1,000.) Further, it is universally acknowledged that the cause of such neglect has been the failure to achieve anything approaching a consensus on what should be taught in history and civics classes, which can be traced back to Lynne Cheney’s and the U.S. Senate’s 99–1 rebuke of the National History Standards that her NEH had funded in the 1990s, and the subsequent neglect of history and civics in the Common Core reforms a decade later. Thus the Left–Right collaboration that produced the EAD proposal sought to address a deeper danger intertwined with the decline in civic and historical knowledge and the polarization dividing educators as well as citizens and political leaders — namely, the declining legitimacy of the American constitutional and political order itself, and the disintegration of our civic fabric. Many Americans, particularly young Americans, across the political spectrum have low or no confidence in our forms of government, leading institutions, and professions. Political violence has become routine in the past decade, and not all the combatants are progressive and leftist. Is it illegitimate for conservative scholars and educators to join with fair-minded liberal and progressive colleagues to search for national-consensus responses to these serious national problems?

What does the EAD proposal entail? It aims to provide a roadmap — not a comprehensive national curriculum but a list of topics deserving attention, and of critical questions that ought to be asked. The metaphor of a roadmap is a bit dated, as today’s drivers type their destination into a device and let an algorithm direct them step by step. But good citizenship needs to be more than reactive to the needs of the moment. The EAD aimed to provide a comprehensive overview of American history and the American system of constitutional democracy, leaving curriculum developers and individual teachers in the 50 states the freedom to design their own routes, so to speak. The seven themes are civic participation, the land, its people, the constitutional founding, political reform and refounding, foreign policy, and domestic policy. These themes are not merely procedural; they are rich with American constitutional, historical, and civic content. For each theme — and at each school level, from elementary school to middle school to high school — questions are proposed, some leading or guiding, some open-ended. Throughout, teachers are alerted to “design challenges” that they will encounter in crafting a history and civics curriculum in our polarized world: “How can we offer an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is simultaneously honest about wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the founding of the United States without tipping into adulation?” “How can we integrate the perspectives of Americans from all different backgrounds when narrating a history of the U.S. and explicating the content of the philosophical foundations of American constitutional democracy? How can this more plural and more complete story of our history and foundations also be a common story, the shared inheritance of all Americans?” Are these not the questions of our moment, phrased in a way that does not tilt to one or the other side?

What our conservative friends overlook is that a roadmap is not a tour plan or catechism. It leaves room for choice — and this is inevitable anyway as particular states, school districts, and teachers adapt its general guidance to the needs of their charges. Not only is it inevitable that there will be such variation: The principle of federalism highlighted in the EAD Roadmap ensures it, as does our religious and cultural diversity as Americans (also highlighted). Anyone can find questions in our lists that are typically asked by progressives, sometimes asked as though merely rhetorical, with the answer not in doubt. Okay, but each one of the questions, we wager, has an alternative answer if conservative teachers, curriculum designers, school-board members, and other concerned citizens are imaginative enough to propose it. Besides, there are questions about the founding that would stump an unimaginative liberal. One example: “What is meant by ‘the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God’ and by the ‘Creator’ in the Declaration of Independence? What other ideas of religion, philosophy, or law are involved in the Declaration?” How did that get into a proposal that supposedly repudiates America’s founding, or dismisses it as mere nostalgia? Our critics never acknowledge that the EAD report opens by calling for “love of our country” and deems the approaching 250th anniversary of our constitutional democracy a cause for “celebration” and “fresh commitment to the cause of self-government for free and equal citizens in a diverse society.” We must have so confused our supposedly hard-left co-authors — by constantly changing between our Trojan-horse costumes and our sheep’s-wool-of-civility costumes — that they overlooked such explicit repudiations of their wolfish project to repudiate and destroy America.

The roadmap was designed to be broad enough to allow liberal and conservative implementation, so to speak, while focused enough to insist that there are certain things everyone needs to know — the structure of our political institutions and the ideas that animated their establishment, the history of slavery in America and the development of civil rights, etc. Frankly, we think a sensible conservative book such as Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope — favorably cited in the EAD report — will touch many more points on the EAD map than Howard Zinn’s People’s History (beneath mention in the proposal, as is the New York Times 1619 Project). Shouldn’t a careful reader notice that the Declaration and the Constitution are at the center of the EAD’s list of themes? That our government is referred to throughout as a “constitutional democracy,” not simply a “democracy”? Find a textbook from the 1950s that does that.

Here is where the critics linked to at the beginning of our piece are unfair. Mark Bauerlein mocks the notion of “refoundings,” failing to recognize that the language of founding and refounding echoes that of conservative scholars such as Herbert Storing and Harry Jaffa (Besides, isn’t it a question whether any purported refounding is a return to first principles or a departure from them?) Bauerlein also ignores the explicit mention in the roadmap of “civic virtues,” “civil disagreement,” “civic friendship,” and the national motto, e pluribus unum, terms more common in conservative than progressive vocabularies. Stanley Kurtz and John Fonte have rightly informed conservatives about politicization of the classroom and the outrage of teachers giving students credit for progressive activism rather than educating them in American history and government, but they wrongly attribute that project to the roadmap itself. The term “action civics” appears only in an appendix to the report — and while cross-referencing to a pedagogical principle that directs teachers to promote “civic responsibilities, civil rights, and civic friendship in their classrooms.” We concede that the emphasis on fostering participation in the roadmap could be bent in a progressive direction. But the answer, we think, is the provision of a robust conservative alternative, for example, endorsement of time-tested practices like student councils, Boys’ State/Girls’ State conventions, participation in local governing councils and civil associations, and the like. Those who learn the art of association — and the parliamentary procedure that makes it work — will defeat the street chanters of slogans so long as constitutional democracy endures. Scott Yenor never pauses to wonder whether endless-combat mode — wielding truth as a weapon against one’s civic and intellectual opponents — could actually gain traction anywhere but in already-conservative classrooms, schools, and districts. The obvious misreading and misrepresentation of the EAD documents by these conservatives suggests that pugilism inhibits careful reading and sound analysis; if it does that to mature minds, it hardly seems a path to serious education for any student or classroom.

When they distort and quibble, our conservative friends miss the opportunity to use the roadmap to conservative advantage, by providing materials and proposing curricula that help teachers move from overview and questioning to the specificity of lesson plans and classroom exercises. Actually, the National Association of Scholars’s Civics Curriculum Statement is a good start, and we think it can be promoted not in opposition to the roadmap but rather as a conservative way to fulfill the proposal’s aims — as can the 1776 Commission Report. Give us the reading list in American literature, Professor Bauerlein, that can be interwoven with a curriculum in American history that helps citizens grapple with our polarized intellectual and civic condition! Share your expertise, Dr. Kurtz, in how to turn righteous objection to bad ideas into legislation supporting good ones! Show, Professor Yenor, how reconstruction of the civitas requires restoration of the family, in a way that attracts (rather than repels) those wounded by broken homes!

For here is the nub of the issue: How can we share a civil polity if we don’t have a shared sense of what is important to know, and how can we create that shared sense if we begin by alienating our fair-minded civic friends on the left? Doesn’t prudence dictate involvement to move the needle in America’s educational debates toward a more rational and patriotic view of America? If scholars of good will cannot collaborate across the partisan divide to, as the EAD proposal advocates, promote “reflective patriotism” through an American civics and history education that teaches civic virtues as well as civic knowledge as the basis of participation . . . isn’t that a declaration that the American experiment is lost? We can, and inevitably we will, be partisans as well as citizens — so we’ll interpret the Constitution we share a bit differently and have slightly different views of what’s worth honoring and what should be abandoned in our history. But even so, we need to be citizens as well as partisans, recognizing that we all profit when we work together on matters where, if we listen to one another — and, yes, compromise — we can, in fact, find constructive agreement. The EAD proposal is not a recipe for salvation, but then again, a recipe for salvation is not what our politics was ever meant to be, at least as far as conservatives are concerned. It is, rather, a plan for living a decent life together, respecting one another’s liberty. What’s so un-American about that?

— James R. Stoner Jr. is the Hermann Moyse, Jr. Professor and the director of the Eric Voegelin Institute in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. Paul O. Carrese is the director of the School of Civic & Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. Professor Stoner served on the Political Science and Civics Task Force, and Professor Carrese served as an Executive Committee member and co-author of the Educating for American Democracy report and roadmap.

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