Stanley Kurtz has replied to our call for conservatives to improve civics and history education with just another rallying call to man the barricades. He still can’t bring himself to give a fair account of the Educating for American Democracy report and the Roadmap it sketches for improved civics; he concedes he won’t even try, given his conviction that the report we helped to produce will be used to inflict leftist civics in classrooms across the country. We encourage conservatives to read the EAD documents for themselves and form their own judgment, but we owe a response to his preferred focus on political battles and his preferred strategy to “Just Say No” to any national reform efforts.
What happened after the United States Senate passed by 99–1 a resolution in 1995 repudiating the National History Standards that had been developed with grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education? Conservatives won a victory in stopping federal endorsement of a document that mentioned George Washington only once and Joseph McCarthy or “McCarthyism” 19 times. But looking back from the perspective of a quarter century later, no one can claim that patriotic history and civics teaching was the outcome. Instead, these fields came to be seen as the source of toxic controversy, to be stripped of funding and avoided by serious students. Most teachers, principals, and district leaders have run for cover amid this culture-war approach to civics reform, avoiding genuine improvements and letting students receive a deficient preparation for informed and engaged citizenship.
In his rejection of our call for a shared American plan to restore serious education in history and civics to the top tier of the national curriculum, Kurtz seems intent on re-enacting the recent past without either a careful consideration of the documents he is attacking or a constructive suggestion for how public schools might be led to develop an alternative to the drumbeat of progressive critique. Unlike the 1994 Standards, the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap does not pretend to be a comprehensive curriculum; instead, it is a guide to curriculum development by local authorities and teachers. As we explained (and Kurtz ignores), it includes much that conservatives can point to as worthy of inclusion in any civics or history curriculum — from study of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the ideas that lay behind them, and recognition of America’s religious heritage, to appreciation of our technical and economic achievements — as well as endorsement of an honest reckoning of the wrongs committed in our past.
What Kurtz particularly objects to is the inclusion in an appendix of a mention of “action civics,” and the involvement of some of its proponents on the committee that wrote the report. We don’t think such a mention constitutes an endorsement, though we concede it is not a repudiation; how relegation of an idea to an appendix is somehow proof of its overwhelming importance in a comprehensive national report escapes us. Our thought was to recognize the importance of active learning in any practical field — we note that even the 1776 Commission Report allows (at p. 40) that some forms of participatory learning can deepen a sound civics education — and there is nothing in the report that green-lights such practices as giving credit for teacher-directed political activism, something we equally deplore. To borrow a phrase from James Madison, “a skillful individual in his closet” can invent a world entirely to his liking; but as anyone who has ever fashioned a compromise with political opponents can attest, one has to accept things one would rather not in order to gain what is worth achieving.
Kurtz thinks we miscalculate in working together with liberals and progressives to outline what American students ought to study and know; that is, what basic facts they ought to master and what kinds of questions they should learn to ask and begin to answer. He is convinced we are being snookered; thus, he once again expends many more words on an elaborate political plot by the Left than actually reviewing the EAD documents. Somehow he takes our agreement with his critique of action civics as our admission we’ve been duped as charged. So let us clarify again: We applaud the recent action of citizens and school boards to push back against so-called “antiracism” indoctrination, and, as teachers ourselves, we find such “training” to be demeaning and ill-advised. But we also reiterate that the real battle is for the hearts and minds of America’s teachers, who are, in our experience, sick and tired of being given minute-by-minute curricular plans on the one hand, but also find the readily available alternatives to be partisan and so inadequate to their responsibility to teach all the students in their classes. We think the Roadmap can appeal to them, sketching the topics they ought to touch upon in their classes and calling forth the development of curricular materials they can use to inform themselves and their charges. Kurtz instead ignores this predominant spirit in EAD while also overlooking the current round of damage he is provoking, revving up controversy in state legislatures in ways that push teachers into a defensive crouch and further stigmatize any serious civics education.
The genius of American constitutional democracy has been to provide a way — partly through formal institutions, partly through cultural practices — for citizens who deeply disagree about the most serious questions of justice and the common good to settle their differences well enough to be able to live together, leaving one another room to be free and diverse but able to act for a common purpose when that is needed. We think that restoration of constitutional knowledge and also of traditional civic virtues is such a purpose and that we ought to have the courage to work together to achieve it. The time has passed for simply saying “no.”