Several years ago, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter spoke at the New Hampshire School of Law on the subject of what he called “civic ignorance”, in which he said, “I don’t worry about our losing our republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion, I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military, as has happened in some other places. What I worry about is when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible…….There is not a more critical issue facing us than the pervasive civic ignorance of our constitution and structure of government.” What he had in mind was the gaping void in our civic education, which is obvious across the full elementary, secondary, and post-secondary spectrum.
In my essay “America the Fragile Idea” awhile ago, I wrote of a 2008 report by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation entitled “E Pluribus Unum”, the product of a two-year study involving a number of the nation’s leading intellectuals, educators, and opinion leaders on the current status of the American identity. The study found that our young people are increasingly unaware of our founding principles and the history and meaning of our founding and, as a result, are less likely than their parents to be proud of our country and conversely, to be more susceptible to the emphasis they often receive on the more negative aspects of our history. A further consequence is that they feel less likely to be committed to our founding principles or to believe that they have provided America with a unique identity within which they consider themselves an integral part.
When examining other aspects of this issue, it is not very surprising how we arrived at this point. An American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) study, “No U. S. History? How College History Departments Leave the United States Out of the Major”, based on requirements and course offerings at 75 leading colleges and universities, found that “the overwhelming majority of America’s most prestigious institutions do not require even the students who major in history to take a single course on United States history or government”.
The University of Texas at Austin (UT) and Texas A&M University (A&M) were not among those who didn’t have such a history requirement, but a 2013 study by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) entitled “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?”, in which I had some involvement, reflects considerable concern about the quality of their course offerings. To briefly summarize several key points of the study:
- 78% of faculty members at UT and 50% at A&M were “high assigners” (over 50% of the assignments) of readings focused on race, class, and gender.
- Of the 100 foundational “milestone documents” of American history as identified by the National Archives, only 23 were assigned, and 89% of the faculty members assigned none of these documents.
- Three of the top four research priorities for faculty members were race, class, and gender, and these included 78% of the UT faculty and 64% of the A&M faculty.
Finally, in another study of trends in how American higher education teaches civics entitled “Making Citizens”, released early this year, the NAS found that traditional civic literacy is in deep decay. What has become known as the “New Civics”, a movement devoted to progressive activism, has taken over civics education. “Service-learning” and “civic engagement” are the most common labels used, but the movement also calls itself global civics, deliberative democracy, and intercultural learning and it focuses on turning students into progressive activists. So, obviously, Justice Souter is justified in his worries, but I think he should be equally if not more concerned about the willful abuse in evidence here as about the ignorance that results.
In his book, Still at Risk: What Students Don’t Know, Even Now, Rick Hess has this to say in the introduction:
“The first mission of public schooling in a democratic nation is to equip every young person for the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. This requires that students have the knowledge they need to be prepared for civic responsibilities, further education, or the workforce, in addition to mastering basic skills such as reading and mathematics. To do this well, it is vital that schools familiarize students with the history and culture that form the shared bonds of their national community.” Amen.