U.S. History of Civics part 1: The Founders’ vision — ‘What species of knowledge can be equally important?’

Written by Christine Cooke

May 8, 2020

The following essay is part 1 in a series that discusses the history of civics education in America.

School districts in Utah this week were granted waivers from a state civics test requirement for some high school seniors. In a time when Americans are debating whether governments have unreasonably restricted Americans’ freedoms during a pandemic and how much flexibility states should have in using federal financial aid, the need for basic civic understanding and engagement among the public is clear.

But the most urgent question in civic education is whether public school civics education meets the needs of our communities and country. To find an answer, start with a look at America’s history.

The American Founders understood those who succeeded them would need to comprehend their newly formed government in order for it to survive. Having pledged “[their] lives, [their] fortunes and [their] sacred honor”– and some sacrificing them – to establish freedom through self-government, they still faced a world in which powerful European monarchies actively sought the failure of the American experiment out of concern that it might spread. Education, the Founders believed, would fill the role of passing down to each generation an understanding of the republic and a citizen’s rights and responsibilities within it.

The foundation of this understanding of the purpose of civic education began long before the Revolution. In Benjamin Franklin’s 1749 pamphlet on the purpose of education, titled Proposals Related to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, he wrote:

The good education of youth has been esteemed by wise men in all ages, as the surest foundation of the happiness of both private families and of commonwealths. Almost all governments have therefore made it a principal object of their attention, to establish and endow with proper revenues, such seminaries of learning, as might supply the succeeding age with men qualified to serve the publick with honour to themselves, and to their country.

The victory of the Revolutionary War and the nation’s early struggles under the Articles of Confederation did not change the Founders’ view of the essential role that civic education played in our nation. In his 1786 essay “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” Benjamin Rush argued:

The business of education has acquired a new complexion by the independence of our country. The form of government we have assumed has created a new class of duties to every American. It becomes us, therefore, to examine our former habits upon this subject, and in laying the foundations for nurseries of wise and good men, to adapt our modes of teaching to the peculiar form of our government.

Rush – who had a profound influence in education due to his founding of Dickinson College and his advocacy for free public school and better education for women – boldly admitted in this essay that from his perspective the object of education in the new republic was to create “Republican machines.” This term with warlike undertones expressed the level of fervor with which the Founders believed that schooling ought to be a perpetuator of their unique form of government.

The nation saw significant modification to its government with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 and enactment of the Bill of Rights in 1792, and yet the Founders’ views on civic education remained steadfast. George Washington chose to address the role of education in his last public appearance as president on December 7, 1796. In that message to Congress, which was in large part to congratulate all Americans on the “success of the experiment,” he said:

A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country.

Even the nation’s progression into the early 1800s and the continued evolution of early American politics, government and culture did not shake the Founders’ vision for the need for civic education in American life. Thomas Jefferson – who asked that his headstone note not his accomplishments as president, but the founding of an educational institution in Virginia – wrote in the 1818 “Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Fix the Site of the University of Virginia” that the purpose of the primary school was to “instruct the mass of our citizens in their rights, interests, and duties, as men and citizens.” In the same report he said the purpose of higher education was “[t]o form the statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.”

The hope of education as a tool to sustain the republic, like so many of the Founders’ aspirations, remains a lofty goal. The aspiration of civic education shared by the Founders creates a measuring stick for public school civics standards today. That aspiration is to promulgate the history, purpose, design and mechanisms of the American republic. And that goes well beyond simply requiring a basic knowledge test before graduation.

U.S. History of Civics part 2: School reforms for COVID-19 point us to successful ed reformers in American history

U.S. History of Civics part 3: The ‘birth certificate’ of social studies

U.S. History of Civics part 4: The U.S. Department of Education (as we know it) is born

U.S. History of Civics part 5: The early 2000s to the year 2020

U.S. History of Civics part 6: Utah’s story

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