Teaching Civics to Young Americans As If It Mattered

Philanthropy has an opportunity today to refurbish an entire civic culture in disrepair

In 1853, Louisa Bird Cunningham sailed down the Potomac River and viewed with dismay the dilapidated home of America’s first President. She wrote to 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 government money. More than 85 million people have toured this national treasure and have come to better appreciate the principles and 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, and how our Constitutional structure protects minority rights are fading from Americans’ understanding. Our education system is failing in one of its most important responsibilities: preparing students to appreciate and sustain our country’s freedoms as active citizens in a self-governing republic.

The grim statistics are familiar. In 2018, only one third of Americans could name all three branches of government. Another third could name none. 

This educational failing starts long before college. Only 23 percent of eighth graders tested as proficient in civics in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But most colleges also neglect core civic knowledge. Just 18 percent of four-year colleges require a “foundational course” in U.S. history or government. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports that at 70 percent of top colleges today, not even history majors are required to study any U.S. history.

The decline of civics instruction has corroded our democracy. A majority of college students now say that protecting free speech is less important than making people feel welcome on campus. Among Democrats and Republicans, nearly half say they hate the other political party—more than three times as much hatred as in 1980.

It is hard for Americans to resolve our differences peacefully when we lack the basic respect inherent in the Declaration of Independence propositions that we all are created equal and have unalienable rights. To make good decisions as a united nation, we need civic knowledge and virtues across our diverse population. 

The core principles of American government are unifying and ennobling, but they only work if people understand and apply them. Improved civic knowledge leads to greater civic understanding, better civic skills, deeper civic attachments, and wiser civic action.

Yet civic education is underfunded today, with much money spent inefficiently on issue advocacy rather than enduring knowledge. Philanthropy can provide great returns for donors willing to invest in Americans’ understanding of ourselves. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s new program in civic education is helping philanthropists reach all age and education levels, using multiple strategies, to bolster civic literacy and democratic norms.

There are many solid foundations we can build upon. Here are examples of college or pre-college efforts where donor support is helping young Americans become better-educated citizens:

  • Preparing the next generation of civics professors
    The Jack Miller Center for Teaching America's Founding Principles and History has developed a network of more than 900 fellows at more than 300 colleges and universities. These fellows have educated almost one million college students. It also has specialized expertise in helping donors and faculty members establish campus centers and courses for the study of American history and political thought. JMC's flagship civics program is the Summer Institute, in which renowned scholars lead intensive, two-week seminars on American government and history for junior scholars.
  • Open educational resources on American history
    OpenStax and the Bill of Rights Institute have partnered to develop a digital, free, high-quality U.S. history textbook that is fully integrated with the Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics framework. Every chapter includes material from academics on opposite sides of a question.
  • Interacting with the Constitution
    The College Board and National Constitution Center have received philanthropic funding from a variety of foundations to create a two-week plan of study on the First Amendment for high-school students following their Advanced Placement exams. Each spring, as students prepare to enter adult society, they’ll discuss their legal rights and moral responsibilities, and network with students from other regions of the country.

    The National Constitution Center also engages high-school and postsecondary students through the Interactive Constitution. For virtually every clause of the document, two of the country’s top experts from different points of view, nominated by the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society, explain where they agree and where they disagree. On Constitution Day 2019, NCC will launch a Classroom Edition with lesson plans, video, and virtual exchanges that link classrooms nationwide.
  • Hamilton comes to town
    The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History enables high-school students to study America’s Founding Era, create their own presentations about the period, and see the musical Hamilton. Donors including the Rockefeller Foundation have helped fund the program. GLI also offers a master’s degree for teachers of American history through Pace University, boasts an archive of more than 70,000 historical documents, and trains instructors on how to teach English literacy and historical literacy at the same time.
  • Citizenship knowledge for students entering adulthood
    The Joe Foss Institute has successfully encouraged more than 30 state legislatures to require students to pass some form of the basic civics exam that immigrants take to become U.S. citizens.
  • Learning through games
    Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor founded iCivics in 2009 to teach civics through engaging online games. The newest of the 20 games, Race to Ratify, puts the player in the middle of the state debates about whether to ratify the new Constitution. In other games you might find yourself at a law firm deciding whether your client's Constitutional rights have been violated. Or behind the scenes as a law gets passed, signed, and challenged in court. Or on a jury. Or in your naturalization interview. Educators say iCivics, which has reached nearly 200,000 teachers and more than 5 million students, can be trusted as a resource that fosters civil conversations in their classrooms.

Ronald Reagan famously said in 1964 that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.… It must be fought for, protected, and handed on.” Some of the best strategies for transmitting knowledge of our Constitutional freedoms are now being produced and made real by philanthropists. Given the depth of our civic illiteracy, however, even bolder ideas and more strategic spending is needed. Otherwise, as Reagan warned, it is possible that “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.” 

Why I Give Millions for Monuments

The following is adapted from remarks by philanthropist David Rubenstein at The Philanthropy Roundtable's 2018 Annual Meeting.

People who are more informed about our country are going to be better citizens and make for a better democracy. But we don’t teach American history or civics much anymore. So you get amazing things like more than 80 percent of Americans unable to name a single justice of the United States Supreme Court, and 10 percent of college-educated people thinking that Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

There were only 3 million people in America at the time of the Revolutionary War, yet with this tiny population we managed to create a country with the principles of liberty, justice, and freedom. Where are the Jeffersons and Washingtons and Hamiltons and Madisons today? 

I donate to preserve historic buildings and documents in the hope that when people experience them personally, it will inspire them to learn more about American history, since most of them are not getting that education any other way. If we don’t educate people about the Constitution and how the country works, we’re going to have a frail democracy.