Timothy S. Goeglein is vice president for external and government relations at Focus on the Family in Washington, D.C., and author of the new book, Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
When—and how—did we go wrong in teaching American history?
We started to go wrong in our K-12 educational system back in the late 1960s, starting in liberal enclaves such as the San Francisco Bay Area and then spreading across the country. However, the seeds were planted in our institutions of higher education in the 1950s through the teachings of individuals such as Howard Zinn, who started his academic career teaching at Spelman College in 1956.
Zinn singlehandedly transformed the study of history in American public education from the discipline of surveying facts and events to “reframing” and “reimagining” facts to fit a particular narrative—and his narrative was the destruction of Western civilization, and promotion of the idea that America was built on corruption, genocide, and racism. His teaching transformed the cultural narrative from America being about our collective good and responsibility to one of selfish demands and victimization. He once said, “Civil disobedience is not the problem, civil obedience is.”
More recently, there is the 1619 Project from Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times, which I write about extensively in the book. The ultimate goal of work like this is to destroy America’s foundations through ignorance and disinformation, and to create an entirely different nation that no longer embodies the principles of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Hannah-Jones said about the 1619 Project: “The fight over the 1619 Project is not about history. It is about memory.” To get rid of the old memory, a new memory must be created, which is what the far Left is doing.
We are a country now ignorant of the most basic historical and civic knowledge. For instance, a 2018 survey of Americans by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only 53 percent knew enough to earn a passing grade in U.S. history; 37 percent believed that Benjamin Franklin, not Thomas Edison, invented the light bulb. A 2017 survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that 43 percent of college graduates did not know that the First Amendment gives them freedom of speech.
As Dwight Eisenhower so prophetically said in his First Inaugural Address: “A people that values its privileges over its principles soon loses both.” The current teaching of American history values privileges over principles, but I believe it’s not too late. I chose to write this book not merely to decry the problem but to offer a solution in hopes of returning to the true teaching of American history, in both facts and depth.
Could you give us a short preview of what you mean by the “moral” and “cultural” case of the book’s subtitle?
So much of the cultural chaos we are experiencing today—incivility, violence in inner cities, misconceptions about the role of government—is tied to two things: first, Americans don’t know their history or how their government works; and second, the history they do know is distorted and has created a victim mentality. Instead of history bringing us together under a collective narrative, it is now taught in a way that pits people and groups against one another. That is why it is a moral and cultural case. I believe if we can recapture the accurate teaching of American history, it will result in an appreciation of our shared heritage and beliefs, as well as a more unified and civil America.
How do we balance the good and the bad in the American story? In other words, how do we teach not just the ideals but our failure to live up to them at various points?
No one is perfect, and no country is perfect. And just as we learn from mistakes in our own lives, we learn from mistakes as a nation. We need to be honest and repent of our mistakes—particularly those that greatly harmed others—but we cannot continue to beat ourselves up over them.
At the same time, we should also not automatically condemn every historical figure who made decisions in the context of his time. You cannot be held responsible for what you don’t know, and cancel culture wants to hold past historical figures to a standard that did not exist until recently.
That said, we also need to celebrate our triumphs—the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II, the creation of the freest nation on earth by our Founding Fathers, and so forth. Celebrating our triumphs helps us appreciate the sacrifices made to defend and preserve our freedom. Discussing our mistakes provides a blueprint for not making the same ones in the future. That is another of the goals of my book.
Who are some of the educators and institutions getting civics education right?
Hillsdale College in Michigan is perhaps the best on the higher education level in terms of teaching a balanced view of American history. Several K–12 charter schools are doing so as well, such as the Great Hearts Academies in Arizona.
What are some of the primary sources we should be reading in schools?
Every student should read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But many public schools are increasingly not teaching about these documents, so students have no idea of their content. Great speeches such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, Dwight Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address, and John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address are all primary sources that students should read and discuss because they teach an appreciation of our country as well as our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Once you have that appreciation, it changes your perspective from fear to hope and from dismay to gratitude.