Q&A: ‘Crisis roiling America … is a civic problem’

Written by Christine Cooke

October 1, 2020

“This crisis roiling America cannot be countered through legislation, because it is not just a political problem. It is a civic problem, one that stems from the anti-American content taught in our schools,” said Angela Sailor, vice president of The Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

Sailor is right. How we educate our children is at the heart of how we ultimately plan to move toward restoring peace in our nation.

We sat down with Sailor to talk about cancel culture, today’s unrest, and how people of good will can get involved to improve history and civics education.

Christine Cooke, Sutherland Institute education policy fellow: You wrote a piece about the rise of “cancel culture.” How do we combat this – is it policy, culture, or something else?

Sailor: The recent assault on our cities is an assault on the very idea of America. Many have lost the vision of who we are as Americans. Our founding principles are being characterized as the cause of our problems rather than the seeds of our greatness. The tenets of Marxism and socialism have infected our schools, workplaces and politics. Rioting, vandalism, and cancel culture – all to terrorize and silence those who love freedom. Calls to defund the police, nullify our elections, and remake America is their battle cry. It’s an all-out assault on the values that make America the greatest nation in the world. This crisis roiling America cannot be countered through legislation, because it is not just a political problem. It is a civic problem, one that stems from the anti-American content taught in our schools, such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and from efforts to falsify our history, such as the 1619 Project. It stems from efforts to divide us by race, class, and ethnicity.

The only bulwark that can stop the destruction of America for generations is informed and energized people. We are on the front lines renewing the American dream by bringing the Founders’ vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to Americans who have been disenfranchised, disheartened, and lost confidence in traditional American values, ideals, and institutions.

The American people are our last best hope for restoring America’s civic culture. We are bridging the divide by building bridges with parents, teachers, and school board members to dismantle the anti-American claims about the history of our democracy and to restore the proper teaching of civics and history. We are forging new alliances by bolstering institutions like Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as an American asset toward global competitiveness and military preparedness. We have done this through the launch of our HBCU working group and national HBCU forum. We are fostering new voices by training community influencers and convening private, off-the-record listening sessions with center-left and center-right leaders. As such we are building an army of new voices to promote free-market solutions.

Cooke: What takeaways has Heritage Foundation’s survey “Culture of American K-12 Education: A Nationally Representative Survey of School Board Members and Families” revealed about how to pursue civics education reform?

Sailor:  We discovered the following: Among school board members, most are generally dissatisfied with the amount of civics instruction given in schools. When it comes to the slavery narrative, fully 7 in 10 of school board members overall do not want to change the educational focus of current history classes. Most believe that America’s Founders were genuine in their espoused ideals of liberty and equality and do not want to change the school curriculum. Fully 7 in 10 school board members agree that 1776 should remain the year of America’s birth.

As for parents of children in K-12 grades, they are generally satisfied with the amount of civics instruction given in schools. This is consistent overall and across demographic groups. When it comes to the 1619 narrative, some differing opinions exist, and this seems to reflect the conflict in our nation. Parents are equally divided on whether slavery ought now to be the focus of the American history narrative. Parents are equally divided on whether they think our Founders misled later generations about liberty and equality. Most still hold onto 1776 as the year of the birth of America. But 18- to 29-year-olds and African Americans would prefer that the year 1619 serve as the marker for our founding.

Cooke: How can Americans who are alarmed at the civil unrest over America’s founding narrative get involved?

Sailor: We are encouraging parents to become informed, get involved and take leadership roles. We are working to ensure that parents know their options for obtaining school curricula. And we are working with local organizations to provide practical tools to engage with elected officials, teachers and parents.

Here are some immediate ways people can get involved: Engage in education advocacy to protect children from critical race theory and political activism programs and demand curricula transparency. Create a mailing list and use social media channels to connect with parents to share important information about what is happening in schools and local government. Request schools to provide descriptions of curricular materials online and to make copies of assigned reading or written tasks available upon request.

Across the nation, 90,000 school board members play a critical role in educating the 51 million children in K-12 education. School boards help shape the curriculum and education our children receive. Parents should attend school board meetings, engage with school board members and create a spirit of collaboration. Parents can write opinion editorials, host events, and meet with teachers and school board members.

Parents should engage with their children in the study of American history and civics by using free supplemental resources like the Bill of Rights Institute’s Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Happiness project and the Ashbrook Center’s In the Spirit of ’76 project. The 1776 Unites curriculum offers inspiring stories from American history that show what is best in our national character and what our freedom makes possible even in the most difficult circumstances – with an emphasis on the history and future of African American resiliency in the United States.

Heritage’s Curricula Resource Initiative provides school models, curricula, essays, research, and products that emphasize moral education, civics, character development, and classical content. A Celebration of America: Rebutting the Claims of the 1619 Project is another Heritage resource that provides primary and secondary resources and information about the dangers of the New York Times 1619 Project.

Studies show that civics education helps kids succeed in school, strengthens family relationships, and strengthens community relationships.

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