Families, school choice can help put Founders’ vision back into education

December 3, 2020

As the year 2020 wraps up, education is forever changed. Families are more involved in education than in recent years. And according to one scholar, that’s a good thing because families are in the best position to direct education.

“In the final count, only families can be counted on to have the incentive to seek the best education possible for their children,” says Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, in response to a question regarding who has the most power to change America’s civic education crisis.

In the following interview regarding civic education, Lindsay also says U.S. education needs a stronger base in our founding documents, less infatuation with action civics, and increased education choice so parents can find the best possible education.

You can find the full interview below.

Christine Cooke, Sutherland Institute’s education research fellow: How did we lose sight of the Founders’ vision for education (education that could help promulgate knowledge of and preserve the republic)? 

Lindsay: There are primarily two causes of this decline. The first is the influence of moral and cultural relativism on Western culture.

Today, the four self-evident truths referred to in the Declaration of Independence – (1) human equality, (2) inalienable rights, (3) government instituted by consent, and (4) the right to rebel – are taught to be merely “our values.” We are also taught that all values are equal in that they are all equally groundless – that is, unsupported by reason.

For the Founders, the free, tolerant, open society depends on our adherence to the self-evident truths found in the Declaration. But today we are told that the free, tolerant, open society can only be achieved if we reject the belief that we have any authoritative knowledge of “values.” Some scholars label the rise of relativism to constitute “the crisis of the West,” meaning that relativism has deprived us of our former confidence in our founding principles. 

Second has been the influence of left-wing thought, which rejects Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that America is “the last, best hope of Earth.” Instead, as the New York Times’s 1619 Project would have it, America was, is, and ever shall be tainted by the original sin of slavery. Relativism has so deprived us of an intellectual backbone that we fall prey all too easily to seductive, false prophets such as Marxism. Instead of the Founders’ vision, which rests on the twin pillars of individual equality and inalienable rights, the current vision dominating our schools rests on two different pillars – moral relativism and social justice.

Cooke: Education reformers on the right and left agree that there is a basic knowledge problem in civics education, but they often have different responses. What impact is the push for actions civics having on that discussion? 

Lindsay: Yes, there is agreement on both the left and right that civic education is broken. But the agreement between the two camps ends there. The left blames “content-based” civics – which it smears as “your grandmother’s civics” – as the cause of our civic illiteracy. There is no basis for this claim. Quite the contrary, in fact.

I recently completed a study of action civics, in which I reviewed the polling data on civic literacy from the 1940s and ’50s. In so doing, I found that content-based civics was more effective than what we’ve been doing since the ’60s, when, in the name of “relevance,” we dismantled collegiate core curriculum requirements in American history, American government, and Western civilization. This is the cause of our civic illiteracy. 

After blaming content-based civics, the left offers as its remedy what it calls “action civics” – arguing that “doing civics” is the best way to learn civics. Of course, we have had such experiential or project-based learning in civics for decades – student government, Model UN, debate and speech teams, etc.

But action civics aims at much more than this. It “equips” students to go out and lobby/protest over perceived “injustices,” even though most of these kids understandably have no clue yet what is just or not, nor how reform can or cannot be accomplished. Action civics would ignore still further the already ignored Founding-documents-based approach that worked in the past. 

When my action civics study reviewed 26 action civics projects found on its supporters’ websites, I discovered that the overwhelming majority of these projects are in favor of left-wing causes. In truth, then, what action civics does is to teach students how to protest in favor of progressive causes. That is not education; it is indoctrination. And it will lead to the rise of the danger Lincoln warned us of in his 1838 Lyceum Address – “mobocratic rule.” We are already seeing mobocratic rule in some of our cities these days, such as Seattle and Portland.  

Cooke: For those who want to add their influence to improving this field, how do they do it? Is this problem most likely to be solved through policymakers, schools, or families?

Lindsay: Hard work by all three – policymakers, schools, and families – is required if we are to restore the genuine civic education needed to produce informed and effective citizens and leaders. But the incentive structures for too many politicians as well as school administrators makes them more of a problem than a solution.  

In the final count, only families can be counted on to have the incentive to seek the best education possible for their children. To do this, parents must be provided the means and opportunity to pursue what is best for their children. To provide this requires nothing less than school choice, the single issue on which my organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, was founded in 1989. Without school choice, students and their parents will forever be in bondage to their ZIP codes. No one cares more about a student’s success than his or her parents.

Cooke: What does it look like when we’re doing history and civics education correctly?

Lindsay: Civic education and history, rightly done, would employ a Founding-documents-based curriculum to focus on our polity’s core principles of human equality and individual liberty. 

This focus should proceed through examination of fundamental documents and major speeches. The questions regarding the meaning of human equality, inalienable rights, popular consent, and the right of revolution require study of the Declaration, along with Frederick Douglass’s 1852 address, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” and Chief Justice Roger Taney’s infamous opinion for the majority in the Dred Scott case (where Taney denies that African-Americans have any rights that whites are bound to respect). Against Taney, Frederick Douglass’s and Lincoln’s scathing critiques of the Dred Scott opinion need to be taught.

The Declaration needs also to be scrutinized in relation to the pro-woman’s-suffrage, 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Students should be directed to these questions, among others: Why did Elizabeth Cady Stanton look to the form and substance of the Declaration of Independence in crafting the Seneca Falls Declaration? What did the Rev. King mean by asserting that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution constituted a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”? 

The U.S. Constitution, of course, must be taught to all students. Critics and admirers of the Constitution agree there is no more authoritative commentary on that document than The Federalist Papers, the 85 newspaper essays defending and explaining the Constitution, written during the period that the states were debating its ratification.  Specifically, the issues of representation, minority rights, and the economics of democracy require examination of the Constitution and The Federalist Papers, along with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s writings and speeches on economic democracy. Included among the required Federalist essays would be Numbers 1, 10, 17, 39, 47-51, and 78-85. Against The Federalist Papers stand the anti-Federalists, some of whose essays opposing the new Constitution should be included, e.g., the essays of “Brutus.”  

Students would read excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to learn how the principle of equality interacts with our simultaneous commitment to individual liberty. Students should read Lincoln’s Lyceum Address warnings about “mobocratic rule.” This should be followed with at least one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates – the greatest series of political debates in not only American but also world history.

Focusing even on these texts alone would stand head-and-shoulders above the failed status quo.

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