On April 11, 2019, Adam Meyerson spoke on the country's civic literacy crisis as part of the Fordham-Hoover “Education 20/20” speaker series. Read and view a recording of his remarks below.

  
   

Challenges and Opportunities in Civic Education

In 1853, Louisa Bird Cunningham took a boat down the Potomac River and viewed with horror and dismay the dilapidated home of America’s first president. She wrote her daughter, “If the men of the country won’t save Mount Vernon, the women should.” More than 160 years later, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association still owns and operates the site, funding it entirely through ticket sales and philanthropy, without a dime of government money. Thanks to the Ladies’ stewardship, over 85 million people have visited this national treasure, and come to better appreciate the leadership of George Washington.

Philanthropy has a similar opportunity today to refurbish an entire civic culture in disrepair. Popular understanding of our core constitutional principles has collapsed. Checks and balances. Separation of powers. Federalism. Equal protection of the laws. Due process. The protection of minority rights. These principles are fading away from our public discourse and understanding. Our education system is failing in one of its most important responsibilities: preparing students to protect and sustain our country’s freedoms and to serve as active citizens in a self-governing republic.

We all know the grim statistics. Thirty-three percent of Americans cannot name a single one of the three branches of government, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Only 26 percent could name all three branches in 2017.

Only one fourth of us can name one of the five First Amendment freedoms. The same study showed that more than half could name at least two of the five Simpsons (Bart, Lisa, Homer, Marge, and Maggie). Only one person in nine could name freedom of the press as a First Amendment right, but twice as many could name all five of the Simpsons.

Native-born Americans know less about the Constitution and American history than do immigrants who become citizens. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation recently gave 40,000 Americans the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test that immigrants have to pass for naturalization. A majority of adults in every state—except Vermont—failed. 

This ignorance has been accompanied by an erosion of the norms that make democracy possible. According to the Knight-Gallup poll of free expression on campus, 37 percent of college students think it is sometimes appropriate to shout down a speaker you disagree with. The media have abandoned the presumption of innocence, so central to the due process rights of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment. 

Civics was a staple of public education for most of the twentieth century. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools notes that “until the 1960s, three courses in civics and government were common in American high schools: Civics explored the role of citizens especially at the local and state levels, Problems of Democracy encouraged students to discuss current issues and events, and U.S. Government focused on structures and function of government at the national level.” But today, the organization argues, “the civic picture in our schools remains bleak.”

This is a far cry from Americans’ robust civic knowledge in the 19th century. In 1852, Frederick Douglass could say, in his famous address “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July”:

To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. … The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.

Today, little of this is true. Many graduates of elite colleges often struggle to name England as our old adversary. Firesides, legislative halls, dinner tables, and the media are rather silent about American history, not to mention the core principles of American government.

Civic education has declined for many mutually reinforcing reasons:

First, during World War II and the Cold War, there was broad recognition that America’s conflict with Nazism, imperialism, and Communism was not just a military conflict but an ideological conflict between systems of government. Complacency about the future of democratic self-government set in after the collapse of the Soviet empire, and there was less focus in our education system and our public discourse on the special value of the U.S. constitution. But with the rise of China, totalitarian forms of Islam, and a resurgent authoritarian and expansionist Russia, it is increasingly clear that our freedoms and democratic way of life cannot be taken for granted.

Second, schools and colleges have prioritized other knowledge and skills over civics. Why Johnny Can’t Read focused the nation’s attention on reading skills in 1955. With the “Sputnik crisis,” the technological and engineering revolutions of the twentieth century, and the rise of computer science, many people have seen America’s future through the lens of the hard sciences. In 1983, the now-famous report A Nation at Risk argued that “a high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society” but focused almost all of its disciplinary attention on math, science, English, and foreign languages.

Furthermore, in recent decades, civic education has focused on civic engagement at the expense of foundational knowledge of constitutional principles. The National Action Civics Collaborative, for example, explicitly denigrates “traditional civic education” as “boring and ineffective, focusing on the basics of our political system” rather than on civic skills. The Power Internship Curriculum at Temple University teaches kids about “Oppression, Power & Privilege AND Identity Politics” and substitutes “awareness” of civic “issues” for actual civic knowledge.

The U.S. history course is often the only place in the curriculum to learn civics.  A survey by Education Week last year found that only eight states have a year-long civics or government requirement separate from history in their schools, while 28 require half a year and 14 have no separate requirement at all. Meanwhile, eight states require neither a government course nor a history course.

And unfortunately, all too many history teachers and textbooks oppose the goal of developing appreciation for the Constitution and its core principles. Opposition to American intervention in Vietnam, disgust over racial discrimination, arguments that the American Dream is an inaccessible myth, complaints over economic inequality despite huge improvements in almost everyone’s standard of living, and new narratives of America as an oppressor rather than a liberator together have led many teachers and professors to be much less interested in promoting American ideals. We see this pessimistic perspective on American history summarized in Howard Zinn’s well-known book, A People’s History of the United States, which has sold over 2 million copies. 

An example of these trends was the changes to the framework for the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam in 2014.  National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood wrote in 2015 that in the new framework, “The American Revolution [became] little more than a replacement of one ruling class by another … Major figures ranging from Benjamin Franklin and James Madison to Martin Luther King Jr. [went] unmentioned.”

These changes produced an outcry from many historians, and the College Board listened. Today, the College Board’s APUSH framework is much better balanced, and the framework for Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics is strong.

Not so civic education on college campuses. The decline of general education requirements at the college level, combined with extreme specialization in the history profession, has led to a severe decline in U.S. history survey courses. The National Association of Scholars found that sixteen of the top 50 colleges “had mandatory or preferred survey courses in American history in 1964,” but that number was zero in 1993. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) found that only 18 percent of four-year colleges require a “foundational course” in U.S. history or government, and that U.S. history was not even required of history majors at 70 percent of top colleges. More college students have learned less and less history.

So how can philanthropists step in to repair our civic culture? Well, many of them already are taking the lead in finding solutions for the crisis in civic education. Their support includes: 

  • Innovations in curriculum, such as iCivics, which uses truly engaging online games to actively involve students in constitutional education. The newest game, Race to Ratify, puts a student in the middle of the ratification debates: you travel to the states and collect argument tokens by talking with people you meet. You then use your arguments to create either a Federalist or Antifederalist pamphlet just in time to influence the ratification debate, going state by state, starting with Delaware. 
  • The new free digital Advanced Placement U.S. History textbook created by the Bill of Rights Institute and OpenStax at Rice University. Each chapter includes point and counterpoint material from academics on opposite sides. It is going live next year and is expected to be used widely by the 500,000 students who take this exam. It will also be available for free to everyone else.
  • High-quality debate about our core documents. The John Templeton Foundation funded the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution, where scholars from the conservative Federalist Society and the progressive American Constitution Society analyze where they agree and disagree in their interpretation of every constitutional clause. 
  • The College Board and National Constitution Center have partnered to provide a two-week plan of study on the First Amendment for high school students following their Advanced Placement exams. Each spring starting this year, students will hold civil dialogues discussing the contours of their legal rights and moral responsibilities as they finish high school and enter adult society. Students also will be nationally networked so that they have these civic dialogues not just with their immediate classmates but also with diverse groups of students around the country.
  • High-level seminars for high-school history, civics, and social studies teachers, for instance through the Gilder-Lehrman Institute and the Ashbrook Center. Gilder-Lehrman has also recently created an inventive curriculum using performances of the musical Hamilton and interactions with its cast to encourage student interest in the Founding era.
  • Initiatives to strengthen state civics standards. Thanks to the Joe Foss Institute, more than 30 states now require as a condition of graduation that high school students pass the history and civics exam that immigrants must pass to become citizens. 
  • Investment in public, charter, and private schools with a content-rich classical liberal-arts curriculum such as the Great Hearts network. There are now 550 classical schools across the country. Understanding America’s core documents is one of their priorities.
  • Public display of documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the 13th Amendment, and the Magna Carta, made possible by donations from David Rubenstein. He says: “People who are more informed about our country and our citizenry are going to be better citizens, and if we have better citizens, more informed citizens, we might have a better democracy.”

At The Philanthropy Roundtable, we sense a deep interest in further investments in civic education—among philanthropists of left, right, and center. There are three reasons for this growing interest. 

Our constitutional structure has always been important, but it is all the more important in this age of hyper-polarization, with sharp divisions and even hatred among the people. Checks and balances, the separation of powers, federalism, and other constitutional safeguards prevent one group of Americans from amassing total power and oppressing the rest. The Bill of Rights protects the freedom of individuals and private organizations to dissent and protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority. 

Our Constitution and Declaration of Independence are also all the more important in this age of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. Americans come from many nations, many races, many faiths. What brings us together as a people are our core political principles. We are defined as Americans not by our ethnicity but by a common creed—a commitment to the rights of the individual, and to popular sovereignty through representative government. If we are to avoid tribal warfare, we need a renewed commitment to the Constitution that makes it possible for people from different backgrounds to govern themselves together.

For 230 years, this structure and the amendment process have given more people more freedom and more opportunity than any other political system in the history of the world. The Civil War Amendments corrected the terrible injustice of slavery and provided for equal protection under the rule of law. The 19th Amendment guarantees women the right to vote. And when there is continuing injustice, as there was with racial segregation and discrimination, our core documents offer a vision and framework for peaceful reform. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. did not refer to our Constitution as an instrument of oppression and injustice. On the contrary, in his “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. King invoked quote “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” calling them a “promissory note” that all men,  black as well as white, “would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

For 230 years, this structure and the amendment process have given more people more freedom and more opportunity than any other political system in the history of the world. The Civil War Amendments corrected the terrible injustice of slavery and provided for equal protection under the rule of law. The 19th Amendment guarantees women the right to vote. And when there is continuing injustice, as there was with racial segregation and discrimination, our core documents offer a vision and framework for peaceful reform. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. did not refer to our Constitution as an instrument of oppression and injustice. On the contrary, in his “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. King invoked quote “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” calling them a “promissory note” that all men,  black as well as white, “would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This should not be a partisan issue. President John F. Kennedy said: “There is little that is more important for an American citizen to know than the history and traditions of his country. Without such knowledge, he stands uncertain and defenseless before the world, knowing neither where he has come from nor where he is going.”

And Ronald Reagan said: 
“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.”