The quality of our future depends upon understanding our past

Written by Rick B. Larsen

November 5, 2020

Originally published in Deseret News.

In 1957, the space race with Russia inspired nationwide focus on academic achievement and technology. In 2011, President Barack Obama invoked that history to announce a new “Sputnik moment” — uniting us around a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Both efforts recognized education as critical to our global standing, economic growth and national security. And both demonstrated our ability to change education priorities when properly motivated.

Today, we face this generation’s Sputnik moment, and it touches on the same priorities: our standing, growth and security. And, let’s add, our stability as a nation.

It is time to prioritize the teaching of complete, accurate and sequential history and civics. It is time to make civics education the new STEM education movement.

The case for change is playing out in real time. Indicators include calls for the elimination of the Electoral College and speculation about the relevance of our constitutional form of government. Similarly troubling are calls for the erasure of people and parts of our history, the dysfunction in all branches of government, the toxic culture of partisan politics and the civil unrest that often accompanies calls for social change.

What we are witnessing is akin to the personal moment when we realize our parents are not perfect. Usually, we remain grateful for life and opportunities despite those human flaws. As a nation, we are experiencing a disproportionate version of that same realization — except that in the process, we are choosing to dismiss our legacy and erase those who came before.

Our ability to address weighty national issues is only as good as our understanding of our history and our responsibility as citizens. Without these, poor surrogates like anger, contempt, racism, tribalism and revenge become the alternatives.

A resolve to restore and expand our understanding of who we are as a nation could create a generation of the most civically minded and historically grounded students in our chapter of history.

If we do not act, we will soon see a generation of leadership — raised on inaccurate and incomplete knowledge — occupying the halls of Congress. We cannot afford representation that has no idea how to govern. Further, motives for service must be based on reverence for the institutions of government, not on personal fame and aggrandizement.

STEM was (and is) critical to our economic future. Civics and history are essential to the survival of our nation.

While a public discussion about periods of history may include memoirs, tell-all books, social media posts and the like, those are not actual history. They can only provide a cultural context — a glimpse into the zeitgeist of any given moment or period. History must, as far as possible, offer an accurate and sequential recording of facts and events.

An early goal of education was to create an informed and engaged citizenry who would protect the republic. Today, Utah high school graduation requirements in the area of social studies are among the lightest in the nation. Consider the consequences of only 1 credit hour of U.S. history, .5 of geography, .5 of world civilizations, .5 of U.S. government and citizenship, .5 in social studies, and no service-learning requirement. We should consider whether or not we are adequately equipping students who are about to enter higher education, the workforce and the voting booth.

If we as a state (and nation) continue on this path, high school graduates will be increasingly ill-prepared to process a higher education experience that often prioritizes Marxismsocialism and critical theory.

This need not be our future. We can act now by insisting on policies and curriculum that will prepare students for citizenship and leadership — particularly those who choose to enter the world of higher education and encounter a fierce and lopsided competition of ideas.

There are three steps to positive action.

1. Parental awareness. 

COVID-19 accommodations have given many parents a glimpse into what is being taught. Parents are sharing stories that should concern every Utahn, such as a social studies lesson plan that jumps from the atrocities of the Pilgrims, gives a cursory glance at the founding of our nation, and becomes comprehensive only when focused on the Progressive period under Woodrow Wilson.

Another tells of a 10th-grade history lesson featuring the falsehood that the United States was the aggressor in World War II and that our nation unfairly targeted Japan and Germany.

These anecdotes are not an indictment of teachers. Nearly all teachers teach because they love sharing knowledge and ideas with students. But each of us in turn shares the ideas we have been taught and believe to be true.

If classroom instruction delivers inaccurate history — whether due to school district decisions, educator ideological choice or any other reason — those versions will eventually become the accepted truth.

2. Parental accountability.

We must hold accountable those seeking to shape the education of our children. Voters should be aware of the power and roles of education policymakers, whether they be local school boards, the state school board, the Legislature or even the federal government.

Local and state school board elections are among the most consequential. Failure to understand the decisions made by elected representatives amounts to a passive abdication of civic participation and allows our system to be vulnerable to the influence of federal funding and political agendas.

3. Access to technology.

High-quality online curriculum has never been more accessible. It allows parents to tailor their students’ education. Changing the direction of public education will take time. In the meantime, parents and educators can proactively reclaim our founding principles through readily available programs.

We often speak of “history repeating itself.” It does nothing of the kind. History is a record to be studied. It is people who repeat behaviors that result in predictable outcomes. A common pattern is this: People are oppressed. They fight for freedom. Once it is achieved, they thrive. Under such prosperity, they become complacent. Leaders misuse unfettered power. And eventually, freedom is lost.

Only through an accurate and comprehensive study of history and civics can students gain a meaningful understanding of people, nations and the ongoing struggle for freedom, equal opportunity and prosperity. Therein lie the patterns of power, repression, revolution and triumph — and they are vital to resolving the inequities of today and perfecting a union worth preserving.

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