Happy Birthday, America! Why Remembering Our Past is Integral to Our Future

This year our country celebrates its 247th birthday – commemorating the 13 American colonies’ declaration of independence from Great Britain. The newly formed American republic was based on the idea that all people are created equal with fundamental, inalienable rights that cannot be taken or given away. As we continue to cherish our democracy and the American way of life, it’s worth remembering that its strength depends on our shared understanding of this country’s history and founding principles.  

Sadly, civics knowledge has been waning for years, with many students unable to understand and explain how our government –and our civic society – actually work. According to a survey released this spring by the National Center for Education Statistics, just 22% of eighth-grade students were graded as “proficient” on a national civics assessment, a two point decline since 2018. It’s no understatement to say this downward trend of knowledge and understanding is dangerous for the health and survival of the American republic. 

Fortunately, many philanthropists recognize this crisis exists and are dedicated to reversing its decline.  

In April, Philanthropy Roundtable partnered with the Connelly Foundation and the Daniels Fund to host a National Civics Expo that highlighted 10 nonprofits (five Philadelphia-based, where the expo was located, and five nationally focused) that are doing exceptional work in elevating civics knowledge for students, teachers and parents.  

Philadelphia-focused nonprofits: 

The Union League Foundation 

For 77 years, the Union League Foundation has hosted its Good Citizen Day program, providing an immersive experience in constitutional and civics education for high school students. The day culminates in a celebratory awards banquet, where each student is presented with a personalized Union League Good Citizenship Award. Over 18,000 young men and women have been celebrated and educated. 

Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge 

Located in historic Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the Foundation seeks to preserve American patriotism and civic duty by providing high-quality history and civics opportunities, including seminars, workshops and site visits for students and educators. Students from across the country come to the Foundation to engage in the study of the principles of our Constitution and focus on understanding the U.S. political, social and economic system and the responsibilities of good citizenship. 

Rendell Center for Civics and Civic Engagement 

By supporting K-12 teachers and administrators to advance the learning of U.S. history, government and civics, the Rendell Center is restoring the civics mission of schools. The Center’s programs include hands-on, experiential learning activities like its Citizenship Challenge, an essay contest for fourth and fifth graders that provides an opportunity for students to express themselves on a current issue facing our democracy. The organization also offers literature-based mock trials, which combine literacy and civics to provide K-8 students with “the knowledge and disposition of engaged citizens.” 

National Constitution Center (NCC) 

Located on Philadelphia’s historic Independence Mall, the NCC brings the Constitution to life for people of all ages, nationalities and perspectives through “its interactive exhibits, rare documents and artifacts, moving theater programs and educational activities.” Last fall, NCC launched Constitution 101, a full online core curriculum for high school students designed “to provide a basic understanding of the Constitution’s text, history, structure and case law.” The Center is currently developing an edition for middle school students. 

Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR) 

The newest addition to the history and civics landscape in Philadelphia and the nation, the MoAR opened in 2017 and “owns a collection of several thousand objects including artwork, sculpture, textiles, weapons, manuscripts and rare books.” Operating under the belief that civics education is most effective with a lived experience-centered approach, MoAR focuses on powerful storytelling about “people in predicaments” and developing historical empathy. 

National organizations scaling and building their programs: 

Bill of Rights Institute (BRI) 

With a network of 70,000 history and civics educators, thousands of classroom-ready history and civics resources and annual student and teacher programming, BRI equips students and teachers to “live the ideals of a free and just society.” By 2026, BRI plans to increase its teacher network to 100,000 educators who will “teach 10 million students each year,” and in 2024, will release a “digital resource in civics that emphasizes civil society and constitutionally limited government.” 

Jack Miller Center (JMC) 

Partnering with faculty, administrators and donors to change the way college and high school students learn about the history and principles at the heart of American political life, JMC aims to “bring our nation’s history and founding principles back into the minds and hearts of young Americans.” JMC is developing a Civics Consortium master’s degree, which will improve graduate education for civics teachers and strengthen the teaching of America’s founding. 

American Legion Boys State 

Founded in 1935 “to counter socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps,” Boys State “participants learn their rights, privileges and responsibilities as citizens and participate in legislative sessions, court proceedings, law-enforcement presentations, assemblies, bands, choruses and recreational programs.”  Active in each state for over 85 years, the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted its student engagement, and the American Legion is working to rebuild its reach throughout the country. 

Institute for Citizens & Scholars 

Urban and rural areas are the largest civics deserts in the country. With that in mind, the Institute is launching a Civic Innovation Fund to provide early-stage capital to entrepreneurs with big ideas on how to ensure 14- to 18-year-olds in these overlooked regions are civically well-informed. Bringing together innovators from the left, right and center, the Institute is building an ecosystem to develop and test new ideas to increase civic understanding. 

Florida Civics and Debate Initiative (FCDI) 

Established in 2019 as a statewide debate program focused on civics education, the FCDI creates access and opportunities for all students in this arena. Their programming uses “debate specifically as a tool to enrich civics education” and benefits from incredibly strong support from state leaders. The program has grown exponentially over the past three years and is now ready to work with other states to scale beyond Florida. 

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers and its third president: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Indeed, civics education is fundamental to our nation’s future, and as we celebrate Independence Day, Philanthropy Roundtable applauds the organizations working to advance education on this vital topic.  

For more information on how to help protect and support the American values that strengthen our free society, please reach out to Clarice Smith, program director at Philanthropy Roundtable.  

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