Keeping the Republic [Teaching America Excerpt]
Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, is a collection of 24 original essays from an extraordinary set of leading public officials, educators, and intellectuals on the essential American question: how to sustain our experiment in government of, by, and for the people. Teaching America is edited by David Feith, editor emeritus of The Current. It was published in 2011 by Rowman and Littlefield. Contributors include Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Alan Dershowitz, and Juan Williams. The following are two excerpts from the book. The first is a modified preface to the book by David Feith, outlining the broad goals he envisioned with Teaching America’s publication. Second is an essay by Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent Magazine, analyzing the place of historians in forming civic education.
By David Feith
As the wigged revolutionaries completed their negotiations in the Pennsylvania State House that September day, they had been through four months of drafting and debate, which followed on more than fifteen years of anti-imperial protest, revolutionary war, and fitful state building. Now, to form a more perfect union, thirty-nine men would sign a new accord, which they called the Constitution of the United States.
The men, grouped by state delegation, filed toward the quill and parchment at the front of the hall. As they did, Benjamin Franklin turned to a few and pointed out the chair in which George Washington, president of the convention, had sat quietly for months. An image of the sun was painted on the back of the chair. During the vicissitudes of the summertime convention, Franklin said, he had often looked at that image “without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting.”
“Now,” said the eighty-one-year-old polymath, “at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” It was, Franklin might have said, morning in America.
But only a few minutes later, leaving the building that would come to be called Independence Hall, Franklin issued a warning. Asked by a woman he was passing on the street what kind of government the convention delegates had given the people, Franklin is said to have replied: “A republic, madam—if you can keep it.”
It was a sober rather than celebratory reply. The delegates had concluded their hard work, but Franklin was cautioning that an even harder task lay ahead, with every American responsible for taking it up.
And so it still is today. Since Franklin’s admonition in 1787, Americans have kept and in many ways improved our republic. But today we are failing in a fundamental part of that task: civic education—teaching students about American history and government. To remain America, our country has to give its kids a civic identity, an understanding of our constitutional system, and some appreciation of the amazing achievement of American self-government, including the work of Franklin and his founding brothers.
Yet American schools often do no such thing. US history—in contrast to math, reading, writing, and science—is the only subject in which more than half of high-school seniors can’t demonstrate even basic knowledge: not about our founding, not about the First Amendment, not about the civil rights movement.
That is the subject of Teaching America, authored by an extraordinary and politically diverse collection of public officials, scholars, and educators. In these pages, they describe our nation’s civic education problem, assess its causes, offer an agenda for reform—and explain the high stakes at risk if we fail.
Ask an American why the United States is a great country, and you’re apt to hear: Because it’s the land of the free. That phrase incorporates various aspects of American life, from our freedoms of speech and religion to free elections, free enterprise and the freedom to pursue happiness in relative economic comfort. In popular understanding, “freedom” is the theme—and for good reason. But for America to endure and flourish, freedom alone is not sufficient.
“The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please.” So wrote Edmund Burke in 1789, adding: “We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.” The British statesman was writing about the then-unfolding French Revolution, but his message remains relevant to Americans today, even as our experiment in liberty has a two-hundred-year record of success.
That record is not grounds for complacent self-congratulation. It is negligent to assume that the American civic order will perpetuate itself, let alone grow stronger, without conscious effort from political and cultural figures, teachers, parents, and others. Americans in every generation are free to choose what it pleases them to do—what virtues to honor, what behavior to condemn, whether to vote, whom to vote for. That’s our blessing. But it also means that in every generation we have to encourage sound, informed choices.
In our republic, responsible citizens know their rights and how to exercise them. They also know their civic responsibilities and are willing, even keen, to meet them. Such citizens tend to be grateful for their political good fortune, their liberties and those who fight to preserve them. In the political sphere, they may do battle vigorously among themselves, but they appreciate that America is a community and they are respectful of the ebb and flow of the electoral tides.
Citizens lacking civic education are none of these things. They are, in crucial respects, disenfranchised. They are not part of America’s common civic culture, and they often view its political, social, and economic systems with contempt. In discussing politics, they often characterize their opponents as evil, not just wrong. Such incivility goes hand in hand with a lack of historical and moral perspective—the kind shown by Americans of all stripes who poison political debate by regularly accusing rivals of being latter-day Stalins or Hitlers.
These are the roots of civic discord.
It is worrisome that, as this volume shows, American schools are providing children with grossly inadequate civic education. Some observers have made this case before, but never has a group of such diverse and deep expertise come together in a single work to address the problem.
The alarm sounded by Teaching America’s authors is not just an old-fogy lament about “kids these days.” Rather, it is a thoughtful warning that America’s civic education problem is now particularly acute.
American schools today are too often mediocre and stagnant, yet in recent decades they have become increasingly responsible for cultivating civic identity, as institutions like the military, labor unions, and places of worship have diminished in cultural influence. The Internet has made information plentiful and accessible, yet it may be fostering more polarization in our culture than harmony. In addition, digital technologies will require Americans to reckon with unprecedented threats to our civil liberties, yet they may also erode our capacity to do so in responsible, thoughtful ways.
This volume studies these issues and many more—from immigration and assimilation to the remarkable influence of the radical historian Howard Zinn. It poses crucial questions, such as “What role do politics and ideology play in shaping civic education?” and “What distinguishes education from indoctrination?”
In assessing all this, authors draw on lessons and innovations from the Supreme Court, the White House, America’s best inner-city schools, immigrant life in 1960s New York, and elsewhere. They lay out how political reform, digital tools, charter schools, strategic philanthropy, teachers, and parents nationwide can advance civic renewal. Their message addresses parents concerned with their children’s education, teachers and education reformers, policymakers at all levels of government, activists and philanthropists looking for the cutting edge in civic health, and scholars concerned with citizenship and democracy.
Like Benjamin Franklin on September 17, 1787, Teaching America offers messages of both optimism and warning. Its aim is to play at least a small part in keeping our republic.
DAVID FEITH graduated from Columbia College in 2009. He is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal. He is editor of Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, and editor emeritus of The Current.