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Books and Culture

Sohrab Ahmari
The Civics Crisis
Both reformers and the educational establishment should focus on what makes America great.
4 November 2011

Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, edited by David Feith (Rowman & Littlefield, 220 pp., $26.95)

In late September, Occupy Wall Street—the movement of disaffected youth united, in the words of its organizers, against the “financial Gomorrah of America”—arrived in my adopted hometown of Boston. Police officers and reporters stood bemused as protesters set up a tent city of sorts in the heart of Boston’s financial district. While Trotskyists and other Old Left–type groups made appearances, this was primarily a social-media-driven gathering of twentysomethings with a vague agenda for “fundamental change.” On the occupation’s first night, the young hipsters formed a “general assembly,” deliberated en masse using hand gestures (to comical effect), and passed a series of resolutions targeting the financial sector and the “top 1 percent” of wealth earners in the United States.

These theatrics were somehow touching in their earnestness, yet the movement didn’t lack the incivility and ignorance often imputed to the Tea Party. One protester, Eddie, carried a poster showing a banker plummeting to his death from a high-rise window. “I believe in trickledown economics,” he had written next to this macabre image. “Trickledown economics is when you give a lot of money to the rich and powerful and they invest it to create more wealth which they then use to bribe the government to give them more wealth,” Eddie said. Other activists seemed all too comfortable comparing their own gathering, under the protection of Boston’s Finest, with the uprisings of Arab youth facing down dictatorships and brutal internal security forces. After speaking with over a dozen protesters, it struck me that the accomplishments of American constitutionalism moved them not in the slightest.

That wouldn’t surprise the contributors to Teaching America, a new anthology of essays about the nation’s civic-education crisis. Edited by the Wall Street Journal’s David Feith, the book features voices from across the political spectrum, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Senator Jon Kyl, former senator Bob Graham, former secretary of education Rod Paige, Dissent coeditor Michael Kazin, and Fox News contributor Juan Williams. Feith’s urgent anthology offers a painful accounting of our school system’s failure to impart meaningful civics to young Americans.

American history, Feith reminds us in his preface, “is the only subject in which more than half of high school seniors can’t demonstrate even basic knowledge.” As Paige points out in his essay, in 2006, “only 43 percent of eighth graders gave an ‘appropriate’ response when asked why marchers participated in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 march on Washington.” In 2001, “only 34 percent [of eighth-graders] could identify that the phrase ‘Jim Crow’ refers to laws that ‘enforced racial segregation.’” Among high school seniors, meanwhile, “only 38 percent could identify appropriately the societal policy reflected by a sign declaring ‘COLORED ENTRANCE.’”

Young Americans—particularly minorities—are also profoundly alienated from our common civic culture. Citing a 2007 Pew Hispanic Center survey, Juan Williams, himself a Latino immigrant, notes that “52 percent of Latinos in the United States between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five identify not as ‘American’ but as ‘Mexican,’ ‘Salvadoran,’ or ‘Dominican.’” Seth Andrew, who founded the Democracy Prep network of charter schools in Harlem, demonstrates how gaps in basic civic proficiency between low-income minority children and their more affluent white peers correlate with differences in civic attitudes: “Among young people aged fifteen to twenty-five, Latinos and African-Americans are far less likely than whites to agree with the statement that ‘I can make a difference in solving the problems of my community.’” Our urban school systems, Andrew concludes, are committing “civic malpractice.”

The civic-education crisis, the contributors argue, is the product of policy failures at the federal, state, and school-board levels, as well as deeper sociocultural developments. Two factors merit especially close examination: the failure of the education-reform movement to address civics, and the primacy among educators of a politically correct cosmopolitanism that denigrates the achievements of American democracy.

By focusing—however justifiably—on core subjects like reading and math, the education reform movement that culminated in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act has had the perverse effect of shifting attention and resources away from history and civics. Moreover, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess contends in his foreword, even the most reform-minded schools and programs have neglected to promote appreciation for our constitutional republic. At best, reformist schools, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program charter network (whose cofounder, Mike Feinberg, contributes an essay), have offered what Hess calls a vision of “vocational citizenship” emphasizing positive civic habits “rather than attachment to America as a civic enterprise.”

A more intractable barrier to solving the civic-education crisis is the ideological orthodoxy reigning among educators. In education schools and teacher-training programs, American history is frequently reduced to a Manichean narrative of repression (of blacks, women, sexual minorities, and so on) by American elites. Missing are a sense of historical perspective and an appreciation for the fact that, in the case of each aggrieved minority, repression was ultimately overcome, thanks to American constitutional values and the workings of American democracy. Hence the prevalence in teacher-training curricula of leftist tracts such as Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (“Zinn’s book is history as cynicism,” Kazin writes here).

Another troubling dimension of the educators’ worldview is the belief that political loyalty is primarily owed, not to our national community, but to humanity as a whole. On this view, American principles of limited government and free enterprise are stumbling blocks that students must overcome on their path to “global citizenship.” Our schools should, of course, encourage a healthy awareness of international issues. But teacher-training programs do little to advance such awareness. Instead, they merely promote disrespect for the institutions of American life. The resulting sense of national alienation works particularly pernicious effects on minorities and recent immigrants. In the United States, after all, political loyalty has never centered on ethno-sectarian “blood and soil” narratives, as it has, say, in Europe. Rather, generations of Americans, especially immigrants, have pledged allegiance to what Irving Kristol called the ethos of republican self-government. Displace that simple ethos in favor of some nebulous notion of global citizenship, and young immigrants will, in search of “authenticity,” revert to their own tribal comfort zones—including, for some, such concepts as resistance and jihad.

For non-immigrant Americans, the effects of bad civics education are less dramatic but still significant. Before leaving the Occupy Wall Street tent city for the comforts of unoccupied Brookline, Massachusetts, I spoke with Jason, the movement’s Boston spokesman. “We need to find ways to restore the voice of the people in terms of controlling our government,” he told me. “And make sure that we’re returning to the principles that America was founded on.” Heartened by this rare appeal to civic first principles, I asked him if this meant that the OWS movement sought, like the Tea Party, to ground itself in the values of the Founding. “No, actually, I probably shouldn’t have said that,” Jason responded. “That message hasn’t really been thrown around.”

A former Teach For America corps member and charter school teacher, Sohrab Ahmari has written for the Boston Globe, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and World Affairs, among other publications.

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