Lessons in Citizenship

American students are increasingly ignorant of American civics. Donors are working to revive appreciation of founding principles

  • K-12 Education
  • Philanthropy Magazine

“We can live without learning French or being great in chemistry,” posits James Basker. “But how can you be an American citizen without knowing American history?”

Basker, who is the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, is hardly new to the field of civic education. He has been in his position for 16 years, overseeing the institute’s initiatives to increase knowledge of American history. But he believes there is a new opportunity now with the recent adoption of the Common Core standards by 46 states. Mind you, the standards themselves say nothing about history.

In fact, Basker and others worry that if schools are only tested on literacy and math, then the teaching of history will recede even further. But Gilder Lehrman is adapting to the new standards. It has developed Teaching Literacy through History, for instance, a program that aims to help schools fulfill the standards by using the institute’s extensive collection of original historical documents to develop students’ critical thinking and analytical skills.

Lewis Lehrman and Richard Gilder are co-founders of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Thanks to the support of the Altman Foundation, among others, a pilot of the program has already been implemented with 50 teachers in Catholic schools in New York City. Starting this summer it will be integrated into the institute’s 40 summer teacher seminars, which reach 1,200 teachers annually. Meanwhile, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is supporting a pilot program in Milwaukee.

The national rollout of Teaching Literacy through History is fast, taking advantage of Gilder Lehrman’s carefully cultivated network of more than 20,000 social-studies teachers who have attended its seminars. The curriculum was developed by Tim Bailey, the 2009 “History Teacher of the Year,” and Basker expects results to be measurable immediately—as soon as the scores from this year’s New York State Regents exams are released in a few months. “Education reform can be so ponderous,” says Basker. But the “dearth of civic education is an urgent problem. If we can do this now—this month—it’s just too important to wait.”

Back to Principles

The Common Core state standards are not the only new curricular mandates that seem to be leading to civic-education initiatives. North Carolina recently implemented a law requiring that the nation’s founding concepts be taught in high school. Louisiana passed similar legislation, and now Texas, Georgia, and Ohio are also considering it.

For decades, donors have worked in states across the country to improve the educational system, from vouchers to charter schools to merit pay for teachers. Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, says that improving education through initiatives like school choice and pay-for-performance are “valuable goals.” But, he adds, “unless we also improve the capabilities of educators to teach civics, we won’t succeed.”

Since 1999, Koch has been a lead funder of the Bill of Rights Institute (BRI), which has tried a number of approaches to educate young people about the Constitution. These include running essay contests, offering seminars for secondary-school teachers, and distributing instructional materials in classrooms. Now BRI is trying to take advantage of legislative developments to push a particular understanding of civics back into the classroom.

One BRI project is a full-semester, online course on America’s founding principles.  The course includes primary-source analysis of our founding documents and interactive components. For example, students viewing a street scene can identify how the scene might change if certain constitutional rights were infringed. With this curriculum, BRI has been named a preferred provider of the newly mandated founding-principles course in North Carolina’s public schools, which will enable BRI to reach 75,000 high-school seniors annually. The course may also be adopted in other states that are considering a required course on America’s founding principles.

The second project, funded by an $800,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is a separate civics and economics textbook. Tony Woodlief, BRI’s president, notes that because of how high-school education has evolved, students may take a class in finance or economics and something in government or history—but the two areas are rarely talked about together, “and neither is grounded in the founding principles of this country.” The goal of this textbook, which is being written now and will be going into distribution in the next two years, “is to show how the Constitution provides for both civic and economic liberty, and how those two things depend on one another.”

Daniel Green, a senior program officer at Templeton, says that this textbook fits within the foundation’s “Freedom and Free Enterprise” area of funding. But it also advances other goals of Sir John Templeton. For instance, Green says, civic education “can increase people’s open-mindedness to new ideas.” BRI hopes to get the textbook in front of one million students using the network of teachers it has already developed over the years.

Charles Koch has high hopes for the new book, especially given the parlous state of American high-schoolers’ history performance. (According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 25 percent of students scored at the “proficient” level in high-school history.) “Ironically, it’s even worse for students who have been in school the longest,” Koch explains. “Only 12 percent of high school seniors scored at or above proficiency in U.S. history.” According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 2011 American Civic Literacy Report, college doesn’t improve things: A bachelor’s degree had a “negligible” effect on civic literacy and “zero impact” on civic engagement.

Clarence Thomas greets finalists in the Bill of Rights Institute’s essay contest

In many cases, says Woodlief, civic education today is doing more harm than good. “Every textbook out there talks about community service,” he explains. “The bestselling one says that you should get involved because the government can’t solve every problem. We say you should care for your neighbors because the government shouldn’t be involved in solving every problem.”

Bringing the American Experiment to Life

Another new civic-education curriculum for secondary-school students (actually, three separate curricula) is What So Proudly We Hail. It was designed by former University of Chicago teachers Leon and Amy Kass, who are now fellows at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute, respectively. “The last two years of high school are when you have young men and women who are mature and smart enough to read serious literature—and who are also coming of age as citizens,” says Eric Cohen, a philanthropic advisor to New York donor Roger Hertog, who helped fund the work.

The Kasses’ curricula aim to infuse some new life into the old standards of high-school education. One element, called “The American Calendar,” provides reading and discussion ideas for American holidays, from Veterans’ Day to Martin Luther King Day. By the time students reach high school, many teachers have run out of new things to say about these occasions and simply pass over them.

In another section, “The Meaning of America,” students are assigned a short story paired with a founding document. For instance, in a discussion about Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”—that old staple of high-school English—students learn not just that the story is an example of naturalism in American literature. They are also taught to ask questions about “the strengths and weaknesses of American individualism,” according to Cheryl Miller, who administers the program at AEI. As part of a segment on the American character, students also explore “what kind of citizens are likely to emerge in a nation founded on equality, individual rights, commercial enterprise, and freedom of religion.”

Amy and Leon Kass

For each portion of the curricula, the Kasses are preparing a 45-minute video. Experienced media personalities like Bill Kristol and David Brooks play, as Cohen puts it, the part of Charlie Rose—“and Leon and Amy are the guests.” Teachers can access the texts, videos, and a curriculum guide online.

With a two-year grant of $222,000, Hertog provided the seed capital. “We invested in product development,” explains Cohen. Hertog also offered a matching grant to aid in the distribution of the curricula. First, though, the principals wanted to make sure they had a good product to show other potential donors. According to Miller, the videos should be completed by the end of 2013, and a list of 10,000 teachers who are interested in the program has been assembled. Miller has appeared at several teacher conferences to present the material. She is seeking partnerships with charter schools and looking for ways to reach the large number of homeschoolers who might be interested.

Principle—and Interest

Ignorance of the ideas on which this country was founded is not new.

“It’s a long-standing problem,” says Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001 to 2009. Cole, who is convening a conference on civic education for the Ethics and Public Policy Center next year, says that “during the ’60s and ’70s there was increasing skepticism about the validity of the American enterprise.” That, combined with “political correctness and a general watering down of curriculum,” has produced a sad state of affairs.

Yet Cole is hopeful. He recalls a small initiative from his NEH days called “Picturing America.” NEH produced a series of posters of American art from the beginnings of the country to the present day, along with a teachers’ guide. Cole thought, “It’s got pictures of Washington and Lincoln. No one is going to take this. I thought if we could get this in 500 schools it would be great.” In the end, the posters wound up in 80,000 schools and public libraries.

“There is a real interest out there,” Cole says, “for a deeper understanding of the nation’s principles.”