As Ben Franklin intimated when he announced to spectators at the Constitutional Convention that “You have a republic, if you can keep it,” a nation as innovative as ours requires maintenance, repair, and reinforcement. It needs devoted care, and clear thinking, and elbow grease in order to remain thriving.
A distinct type of knowledge is part of this upkeep. Conventional nations are able to hold themselves together by invoking their citizens’ shared bloodlines and ties to particular land. But the United States—sprawling across a continent, built from a mishmash of races, cultures, and traditions, founded on individual liberty—is perpetually at risk of spinning apart. So there is an existential obligation that comes with living in this free and fertile nation. A faithful citizen should feed and nurture the stories and principles and common history that pull us into community with each other.
The wrong type of civics instruction can do the exact opposite. It can feed the dark forces that create fractures, fuel fratricide, and fill neighbors with distrust and resentment. America is a suite of ideas—beliefs about pluralism, limited government, individual rights, localized power, and unifying civil society. A commitment to these virtues is our glue. Approaches to civics that fail to articulate and reinforce these unifying principles weaken our connections. Approaches that directly undermine them actively foster discord.
An approach to civics that focuses exhaustingly on our differences and our undoubted sins and mistakes in the past will set us against one another. That method villainizes our forebears, and insults whole categories of fellow citizens. It belittles the national accomplishments and improvements that have been hard won to this point.
We need a civics that starts with gratitude for the civilizational work that has gotten us this far. If we instead insist that America is fundamentally defective, that those who came before us were wrongheaded and vicious, that protest, confrontation, and overthrow are the only moral paths today, we risk all. Consensus and compromise will never again be glimpsed. And our chances of remedying real weaknesses in America while preserving what is manifestly good about our national formula will evaporate completely.
Wilfred McClay’s new book Land of Hope is a gift for Americans aiming to revive a more unifying approach to national history and civics. McClay is clear from the start: He aspires to tell America’s story in a way that is both accurate and inspiring. This book is not an academic screed, but a compelling narrative spun across centuries. Key moments are smoothly tied together so students can see history’s progression from the Boston Tea Party to the Louisiana Purchase to the closing of the frontier, and so on.
But McClay is more than a storyteller. He has a point of view: the United States is “one of the greatest enterprises in human history.” McClay celebrates Christopher Columbus’s “almost unimaginable daring,” calls the Declaration of Independence “magnificent,” extols George Washington’s “exceptionally noble character,” and marvels at the “high intellectual and moral caliber” of those at the Constitutional Convention. He admires the artistic and cultural contributions of Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Ellington, and Chaplin. He argues that the American desire to limit the power of the state is good for personal freedom and economic growth. He’s clearly proud that America has welcomed generations of immigrants to our shores, and that so many of our citizens have been social and economic inventors.
Yet McClay recognizes that “Manifest Destiny” had both costs and benefits. He records the weaknesses of larger-than-life figures, as in his critical look at the frequently deified John Kennedy. At the same time he offers sympathy for the early Progressives, and for the aims of oft-criticized Presidents like Hoover. He argues that reading history requires a humble training of the mind, so historical actors can be understood accurately in the context of their own times, not ours. He discourages moralistic “good versus evil” depictions, and encourages readers to understand most history as sincere conflicts over competing principles.
Some readers will find elements of the book politically objectionable. Saying “slavery is as old as human history” could be read as partial exculpation. Explaining that there was positive interchange between white and black communities in the old South related to music, food, and worship will be considered too charitable by some. Noting that there were “many elements of beauty and graciousness, learning and high culture, piety and devotion all mixed in with elements of ugliness and brutal dehumanization” in the slaveholding states might be called callous.
Here is the rub in civics education. One must make decisions about how to prioritize the various doctrines and institutions that make up America. You cannot teach history without entering into debates about the relative importance of individual rights versus state authority, equality versus opportunity, tradition versus innovation.
Donors should see civics education as an opportunity to help fellow Americans develop sophisticated understandings of these tradeoffs. Does a given approach strengthen the best of our tradition, or simply excoriate our shortcomings? Does it unify us in working for refinement, or divide us into paralysis? Does this textbook, movie, field trip, or debate series help learners understand what our system enables, what we’ve accomplished, what we share?
Instructional material should not be hagiographic. Students should learn about America’s struggles and flaws. But a relentless focus on failures will only inhibit our joint work to generate better moments ahead. The American system has produced freedom, peace, unity, and success among people who in many cases tasted none of those things for millennia in their countries of origin.
A great deal of civic energy today is dedicated to fostering foment and agitation against specific public figures and particular policies. There’s nothing wrong with good-old American protest. But young students in particular need to be offered a fuller understanding of their role as citizens. Activism shouldn’t be exclusively about criticism and revolt.
When donors write checks, they should consider what kind of implicit and explicit message about the American system is being sent by the civic exercise they are supporting. Ask yourself: “Is this organization refining and strengthening what we have, and fostering a greater sense of common cause? Or is it merely pulling things down?”
Philanthropists have many more opportunities to shape the discussion of our national principles than they are currently exercising. For what would be a very small grant by many donors, Wilfred McClay has created a textbook that starts from the proposition that our history, and the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, must be understood as good-faith products of our great diversity, our belief in liberty, and a broad desire to see our neighbors prosper, with little pressure from a coercive state and frequent uplift from a supportive civil society. Donors could help create lots more products and programs bearing that essential message.