January 5, 2021
During this first full week of 2021, many feel relieved that 2020 is behind us: We’ve concluded a tumultuous year of pandemic lockdowns, economic hardship and election controversy. Beyond that relief, however, it is critical that we ask ourselves how to make 2021 (and beyond) better.
Undoubtedly, the most important and impactful answers to this question will be personal – making changes within our own lives, families and communities. But changes to public policy will be significant as well. Two ways to make a significant difference in 2021 and beyond include better protecting basic freedoms and improving civic education.
Strengthen protections for basic freedoms
If 2020 taught us anything, it should be that the basic rights and responsibilities – the freedoms – guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution are as relevant and important as ever. Many basic American freedoms, including the right to associate with friends and loved ones, religious freedom, and the right to pursue happiness, were constrained in 2020 out of concern for public health. Some of those constraints proved constitutionally sound and grounded in the facts, while others failed that test.
Regardless of your position on the multitude of pandemic public health restrictions, the experience of living under them offers us a healthy opportunity to further consider how basic freedoms can and ought to be protected in the law. One need only consider how basic freedoms – and advocacy for those freedoms – are treated in a country like China to recognize that engaging in regular public debate about how to better protect freedoms is one of the things that make America a truly free country.
The extent to which restrictions can be placed on constitutionally protected rights such as religious freedom during a public health emergency seems worthy of debate and possible reform by legislators in 2021. Ensuring an election system that encourages confidence among Utahns is one other example (among many) of a worthwhile policy discussion and debate.
Improve civic education
From protests and violent riots after the death of George Floyd to legal debates over public health restrictions to controversy surrounding the elections, 2020 revealed a critical need for greater civic knowledge and historical understanding among Americans. Last year was a striking reminder that a free, democratic republic can and will only survive if its citizens are sufficiently educated in how uniquely exceptional such a system is – that it only continues through hard work and sacrifice from its citizens.
Unfortunately, the public school commitment to the idea that civic education is a primary purpose of a publicly funded school system – an aspiration shared by political and intellectual leaders of the public school movement – has waned over time. Examining whether academic standards encourage sufficiently rigorous teaching of civics and history throughout the K-12 experience – and reforming them if they do not – seems a good place to start reinvigorating and reanimating what ought to be one of the highest social values of public education.
A better 2021
The coming year will only be better than the last one if we do what is required to make it so. We won’t simply drift into the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, an improved economic outlook, or less polarization in politics.
But the most important public policies for solving our nation’s problems are less about public health, economics and polarization than they are about ensuring more fundamental things: protections for basic rights and broad civic understanding. When Americans have the ability and the knowledge required to fulfill their basic civil rights and responsibilities, they will prove – as they have on countless occasions in our country’s history – how the exercise of freedom can solve the nation’s problems.
As we march into this new year, let’s take a look at both ourselves and our public policies. Let’s also make sure that we don’t lose sight of what is most important among the latter, so we can truly make progress in healing what ails us as a nation – and make 2021 the year we bounced back from 2020.
Being truly educated means understanding one of the most powerful forces in the world: religion. Being a truly educated American means understanding the importance of protecting that force: freedom of religion.
The Washington model illustrates that by recognizing potential conflicts and enacting appropriate accommodations, schools can do their work without unnecessarily infringing the religious exercise of students. It is a model other states, including Utah, should follow.
Caring for children and families in vulnerable situations is an undoubted public priority, and everyone willing to provide good-faith help is needed.