Ignorance, Anarchy, Even Dissolution

Philanthropy recently spoke with Jonathan Greenberg of the Jack Miller Family Foundation about mobs tearing down statues, how donors can fund civics education, and the importance of teaching history to children.

What’s the biggest problem with the toppling of statues that we’ve seen over the past few weeks? 

I’ve been frustrated for some time with mobs tearing statues down, especially of people they clearly don’t understand—like in Madison, Wisconsin, where they destroyed a statue of Hans Christian Heg, one of the leaders of the abolition movement. He was involved with the Underground Railroad, took great risks in his personal life to free slaves, and put together the only all-Scandinavian immigrant regiment that fought in the Civil War. Because he was white the attackers apparently assumed he was a white supremacist. There are lots of other examples of that. A statue of abolitionist Matthias Baldwin was torn down in Philadelphia.

So much of this is hyper-emotive, ahistorical nonsense. We’ve really allowed an ignorance of America and America’s founding ideals to take hold, and if we don’t start pushing back and saying, “No, we’re not going to let you say that’s what America is all about. It’s not,” then it’s difficult for the country to continue to cohere. I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but we run the risk of dissolution, eventually. 

Josiah Quincy, speaking at the trial of the British soldiers in the Boston massacre, said that if we allow ourselves to be carried away on the “torrent of passion, we make shipwreck of conscience.” That’s really true.

We’re a multi-ethnic, incredibly diverse, multi-religious society. The only thing we have to cohere around as a national identity is a set of ideas and principles. If we let bad actors destroy those, we lose our last best hope.

What are you doing to combat these ideas at the Jack Miller Family Foundation? 

Jack and his wife, Goldie, are both really committed to this. There’s hardly anything he writes that doesn’t include, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Jack calls that the mission statement of the country. He will be the first person to tell you that just like a company, our country doesn’t always live up to its mission statement. But we try to, and when we fall down and we get back up and continue in the same direction. 

The Jack Miller Center was started 13 years ago to increase the teaching of America’s founding principles at the university level. Since then, it has grown to include about 1,000 university professors on 300-plus campuses. They seek to make sure that our founding principles are taught at the university level. 

A couple of years ago our scholars took a look at what universities were inheriting from high schools, and decided that higher ed was too late to be starting. So we started a high-school program to train teachers in America’s founding principles. We’re launching in Florida right now, and will ramp up the availability of teacher training through a collaboration of the Jack Miller Center, the Bill of Rights Institute, and the Ashbrook Center. 

To my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve managed to get organizations in the civic-ed space to work together on a project. All of these organizations do really good work. But we’ve been siloed and focused on our niche instead of working together.

Florida is the starting point largely because we have political leadership in Florida that is amenable to excellent, challenging civic education. What we want to do in Florida and what we would like to build out elsewhere is to have as many teachers as possible equipped with a complete picture of the ideals of the American founding so they can teach them to their kids.

Why should donors support civic education projects like this? 

When my son was in sixth grade, his teacher was talking to the class about the electoral college, and she said it was outdated and meant that your vote for President doesn’t count. So I went in to have a conversation about it, and said, “Alexander Hamilton has his own hit musical, maybe he deserves to have his voice heard in your class, because he wrote the Federalist Paper on why there’s an electoral college.” She had heard of The Federalist Papers but never read them. And she had certainly never taught them. That’s what we want to fix.

Jack makes the case all the time to fellow donors that this is an area we need to put money into. We’re so glad The Philanthropy Roundtable has taken this thing seriously and established your own civic-education program. This is the moment to grab the interest of donors—all you have to do is look out on the street to see what happens to the country if we don’t figure out how to do a better job communicating to kids what America is all about. We risk massive civic ignorance, anarchy, even dissolution.

The idea that people would tear down a Ulysses Grant statue in San Francisco, and others all over the country, is really depressing. It shows how much work we have to do. The only way we’re going to do better is if people put money where their mouths are.

What specific advice would you give donors who want to support civic education? 

A lot of donors like to give legacy gifts to their alma mater. You don’t want to do that in an open-ended way, because that university 20 years from now might not be the place it was when you were there. Giving them funds to use however they want in perpetuity is a real mistake. Give for specific projects, give money over a short period of time and make the university show what they’ve done with it.

Outside of the university level, there’s an emergency right now in K-12 civic education. Find organizations that do good content-based civics instruction. And there’s an important distinction between that knowledge-centered teaching of our founding principles and what we call activism civics, which just teaches kids to protest that America is a backward place.

How effective is this kind of education? 

The great thing about American principles is that if you put our ideals in an accurate way, most people are attracted to them. That’s why we don’t do things like ban speech. We let people say horrible things about America. We believe people can see for themselves if it’s true. Presenting an honest picture of America is all we need to do.

If you have a teacher who’s prepared to present a clear picture of who the founders were and what they thought, what kids will walk away with is: This is a pretty good country, but it was founded and is run by humans, who screw up. If you present it to kids that way, nine times out of ten they walk away thinking the country is something worth believing in, and worth loving. That’s what’s really missing today.

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