The Sutherland Institute Civics Initiative, featuring Yuval Levin

June 27, 2021

The following remarks were delivered by Sutherland President and CEO Rick Larsen at a launch event for the Sutherland Institute Civics Initiative – April 21, 2021.

As a think tank, Sutherland looks deeper into the issues of the day. If the evening news is in fact history’s first rough draft, then the history we’re writing today, with very few exceptions, is troubling. The division in America, according to some experts, is at Civil War levels. The very fact that we can see something is wrong, however, is good. We should be concerned about the state of political discourse, government dysfunction, riots, the criminal justice system, racism, accelerating hate crimes, and the list goes on.

Could it be that at least part of the reason we are seeing so much division, bitter partisan politics, and increasing violence in this nation has something to do with the fact that over time, we’ve come to a point where we hardly study or teach how freedom and self-governance work? Could it be that this bygone prioritization of history and civics has reduced our collective understanding of the institutions, the behaviors, the conditions that have kept us freer than any other nation for more than 200 years?

It’s questions like these that prompted Sutherland to propose an approach from the unique vantage point of an institute that has, for 25 years, studied the proper function of government and our civics and political processes. And that includes the strengths and exploitable weaknesses, and the conditions of freedom.

In our efforts to highlight and overcome the past mistakes of our Republic, we must be careful that we do not deny the rising generation the best of their American inheritance. We submit that their future is not benefited by robbing them of the context, perspective, struggles, and even a sense of gratitude for our freedoms. Those can all inspire and inform a future generation’s ability to lead and truly right past wrongs.

We believe it’s time for a local grassroots approach that can work in Utah and beyond. One that:

  • Involves an honest study of our nation, including a recognition of the aspirations that exist within our form of self-governance.
  • That seeks the common ground of non-politicized facts and truths about our people and our history.
  • We call for an understanding of our successes and failures, why our form of government is different, and how it’s designed to work.
  • It’s a call for context for examining current problems in their proper historical context.
  • And finally, it’s a call for the reprioritization of history, civics, government studies, and critical thinking, that can facilitate these other objectives.

This is not a simple or an easy approach – make no mistake – it is in fact a STEM-like movement. It will take a groundswell of support from stakeholders – absolutely stakeholders in education, but not just education.

Now is the time to respond with a reprioritization of citizenship, not indoctrination, with a sequential, accurate, consistent and complete study of history, civics and government, one that allows for all perspectives – past and present – with critical thinking as the backdrop.

To set the tone, please watch below a video message from Yuval Levin, whose studies of the challenges we face today have led him back to one point of focus: our institutions. This shared perspective shapes our initiative.

Read the video transcript:

In a lot of ways, this is a dark moment in American life. From bitter partisan polarization to very intense culture war animosities, alienation and isolation, loneliness, the kind of trouble that has been leading to an epidemic of opioid abuse, to rising suicide rates. A lot of the particular fights we have in our culture now – whether it’s about the form of the family, religious freedom and the place of churches in our society, cancel culture, what happens on campuses – these are fights about how our institutions should form us.

 

Institutions allow us to work together toward a common goal. From our families and our communities to our religious institutions and our educational institutions, and ultimately our politics. They offer us a way to understand what happens in our lives as part of a bigger story in which we’re not alone and in which we’re not the only characters.

 

It’s a very well-known fact, almost a cliche by this point, that Americans have been losing trust in institutions. We’ve gone from thinking of these institutions as existing fundamentally to form us, to shape our character, to shape our souls to mold us, to thinking of them instead as platforms for people to perform on.

 

And when they just function as stages as platforms to stand on and yell, they do become much harder to trust. Of course, it’s important to understand the ills of our society, the injustices in our history, but before we can understand those, we have to understand what our society stands for. What’s good about it, what it strives for, what ideally it would like to be, and then we can think about how it fails to achieve that in the present, and how it could do it better.

 

If we don’t take that first step, then we don’t offer them access to the best of their inheritance. It’s left us with polarization. We’ve become clumped at two ends of American life. And we too rarely think of ourselves as belonging to one big, large society.

 

And our politics these days, our culture too, is hungry for solidarity, starving for it. People know that things need to change. And that is the beginning of the kind of change we need. The question for us now is, how?

 

What’s called for in this moment is acting on hope. The source of our hope is the rising generation. Hope is active, not passive. It calls on us to step up to help the future be better for ourselves and for the next generation. It requires a commitment to the institutions of civic education, which too often we’ve lost sight of. Building and rebuilding the institutions that enable our society to be free.

 

The way forward for us has to be to find a way to rebuild our solidarity while sustaining what we’ve gained from the liberalization of our culture. Letting people exercise their freedom, but also helping them understand themselves as belonging together.

 

That’s really the big challenge for America in the coming decades. It is a big challenge. But it’s one we’ve faced before – and it’s one that this country is up to.

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