April 23, 2021
“Civics education has become as polarized as the nation. Progressives have one version, and conservatives have another. This is a big problem because sound history should tell our common story, and civics should help us chart our common future,” says David Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute.
Data at the national and state level show alarming realities – how little Americans know about their own government and history. In its wake are new perspectives (and curricula) in this area and the results can be very confusing, making it even more difficult to “chart our common future,” as Bobb mentions.
The Bill of Rights Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., offers teachers resources in navigating and teaching civics and history in the classroom.
To learn more about the institute’s work, Sutherland Institute education policy fellow Christine Cooke Fairbanks asked Bobb about the current civics crisis and the path forward.
Fairbanks: Americans are being flooded with messages about their country. They are hearing new versions of early American history and theories about race. Americans are seeing protests – sometimes riots – in the streets over political conflict. They are also learning about the widespread lack of basic civics and history understanding. What has led America to this civics crisis?
Bobb: Civics education has become as polarized as the nation. Progressives have one version, and conservatives have another. This is a big problem because sound history should tell our common story and civics should help us chart our common future. Our society has become wary of the idea of a common American story for fear that it will erase pluralism. The reality is that striving for an unum doesn’t erase the American pluribus.
Our civics crisis has been many generations in the making. For nearly a hundred years our civics textbooks have treated the Declaration of Independence like it’s dead and the Constitution like it’s living, or infinitely malleable. We need to take the principles of the Declaration and Constitution seriously again, and rediscover a civic education that also challenges us to see how those principles remain unfulfilled. All human beings are created equal in their possession of natural rights, and all American citizens are equal under the law. Those are great starting points for creating a civics that tells the story of how members of a diverse society can work together to fulfill the promise of equality for all. It’s a story of frequent failure, remarkable success, and ongoing duty.
Fairbanks: The stated vision for the Bill of Rights Institute focuses on the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and specifically to help students, educators and parents to champion and apply these rights. How would a renewed focus in schools on these fundamental rights change America?
Bobb: Teaching citizenship is difficult because citizenship itself is difficult. People love to assert their rights, but they are less inclined to assume their responsibilities. Avoiding responsibility, by the way, is not unique to teenagers. Sometimes we want to lay the blame for our civics crisis at the feet of teenagers – whom we see mainly as being ignorant, apathetic, or overly political – when in fact it’s adults who have done a poor job of challenging young people to think clearly and act boldly.
The Declaration of Independence is BRI’s point of departure because its ideals are the soul of our constitutional republic. Its principles animate the Constitution, and the Constitution is the framework by which we Americans manage disagreement. We manage disagreement best by limiting the power of government, and empowering civil society to be the main arena of change.
Living out the Declaration’s principles in everyday life means that more people will enjoy the blessings of liberty.
Fairbanks: Your resources include a #ThinktheVote project that allows students to practice debate and discourse skills. What is at risk in America if students and teachers do not develop these skills?
Bobb: Our constitutional democracy itself is at risk if citizens lack these skills. Civics that is only cerebral won’t stick. Students need to own the ideas for themselves and apply them to real-world problems.
If you teach freedom in an authoritarian way, students are less likely to learn freedom. For this reason BRI believes in Socratic free exchange and in the cultivation of habits and real-world civic skills. These include dialogue, debate, viewpoint diversity, and the encouragement of entrepreneurial thinking.
Thomas Jefferson said that voting once every cycle is insufficient to sound citizenship. Instead, he called for “everyday citizenship,” which is exercised in civil society. BRI’s goal is the creation of courageous, honorable, just and responsible citizens. Ultimately, we seek an education in self-governance.
Fairbanks: Many of these resources are geared toward educators or students in schools. How can parents best use these materials?
Bobb: Many of BRI’s more than 4,000 digital resources, all of which are available free of charge at the Bill of Rights Institute’s website, are useful for parents. Parents may not talk about the Articles of Confederation or the Anti-federalists on a daily basis, but every day parents want their children to cultivate the moral and civic virtues required of a good life. To that end, stories of struggle and sacrifice help inspire young people. Parents can find hundreds of those stories in BRI’s U.S. History resource, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: A History of the American Experiment, and in American Portraits.
Talking about the intersection of core principles and current events is another way that parents can engage their children using BRI’s resources.
Good civics education policy already exists in the law. Let’s look locally to determine how well our schools are teaching what is required of them by law.
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