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Civic Education, Rightly Understood

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Civic Education, Rightly Understood

To become responsible citizens, young Americans need a full, accurate, and responsible account of their own country. Spring 2021
Education
The Social Order

We live in anxious times. But many times in our past were far more anxious, and the reasons for anxiety then were more compelling. Consider, for example, the situation facing the world in the early months of 1941, when Hitler’s triumphant armies controlled continental Europe, when only the British Isles managed to hold out, and when the future of liberty looked very dim—indeed, when civilization itself seemed imperiled. Yet at that moment, the novelist John Dos Passos chose to pen these words: “In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”

He must have been tempted to declare, as journalists like to do, that the present situation was utterly without precedent and that the past had nothing to teach the present. After all, had the world ever before seen a more fearsome and pitiless fighting machine than the one that Adolf Hitler had assembled? But Dos Passos chose to convey an exactly opposite message. He urged that we look backward to a past that could be a source of sanity and direction, a lifeline of sustenance and instruction.

Such training of the mind and memory ought to be at the core of an education for democratic citizenship. We neglect an essential element in the formation of citizens when we fail to supply young people with a full, accurate, and responsible account of their own country. That is what the formal study of American history should provide. Our knowledge of such things does not come to us automatically, by birth, or by cultural osmosis. The knowledge must be acquired and, once taken in, needs to be made our own, part of a shared consciousness and common memory.

And that is something that we are consistently failing to do. The evidence is overwhelming and incontestable. In fact, the most recent test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes called “The Nation’s Report Card,” shows continuing decline in (already-low) history and geography scores and flatlining in civics scores. The explanations adduced for this abysmal performance are many, and the barriers thrown up by the surrounding culture are formidable. But the bottom line is that we must recommit ourselves to the teaching of both history and civics—and to the recognition that the two belong together. As Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University has aptly expressed it, “Without history, there is no civic education, and without civic education there are no citizens. Without citizens, there is no free republic. The stakes, in other words, could not be higher.”

All of which is true—but something more needs attending to in the work of civic education. Tracking scores on standardized tests can provide useful, if limited, data about the state of our historical knowledge. But the scores cannot tell us about the depth and quality of that knowledge or the extent to which those who possess it feel a genuine and living connection to it—that is, a felt connection to their own past. That connection is what we most need to recover. It is as much a task of the heart as it is of the head, of shared meanings as much as shared facts.

The word “citizenship” has lost much of the noble luster that it once had, just as “civics” has wound up demoted to a kind of “user’s guide” to the machinery of government. Both words deserve better. Citizenship is not merely about voting but also about membership in a society of civic equals—citizens, not subjects, whose respect for one another’s equal standing under the law is a guiding moral premise of the democratic way of life.

Civic education, rightly understood, extends far beyond how a bill becomes a law. It should promote a vivid and enduring sense of our belonging to one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of our own country. Both things involve fostering that sense of felt connection to our past and of appreciation for the good things that we have inherited, along with a feeling of responsibility for the tasks of preserving them and improving upon them. Hence a civic education should be an initiation not only into a canon of ideas but into a community; and not just a community of the present but also a community of memory—a long human chain linking past, present, and future in shared recognition and, one hopes, in gratitude.

Ultimately, a patriotic education should be an education in love. The love in question, needless to say, is something different from romantic or familial love, something that cannot be imposed by teachers or schools or government edicts—least of all, in a free country. It must be embraced freely and be unsentimental enough to coexist with the elements of disappointment, criticism, dissent, opposition, and even shame that come with moral maturity and open eyes. But it is love, all the same—and without the deep foundation that it supplies, a republic will perish.

Let me give a concrete example—a particularly consequential one, since it involves a great leader who possessed an enormously powerful sense of connection with the past, though he was largely self-educated: Abraham Lincoln. We all know that Lincoln was a voracious reader. He had essentially no formal education and acquired his peerless sense of the English language from reading, including Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible. It appears that he read almost no history in his younger days. The sole exception that we know of was his reading Mason Weems’s 1799 biography of George Washington, a tome that few would consult today, and certainly not for its accuracy. It is the book that gives us the fable of young George chopping down the cherry tree and being unable to lie about it.

The mature Lincoln would develop a far more informed and sophisticated understanding of history. And yet essential traces of Weems’s book stayed with him all his life, an enduring deposit in his mind and heart that would influence his view of the American Revolution and the Civil War and reflect his fundamental values. We know this because he said so. In February 1861, 40 years after he first read Weems’s book, Lincoln drew upon it explicitly. He was on his way from Illinois to Washington to be inaugurated as president. It was a time of extraordinary tension, as Southern states were voting to drop away from the Union one after another in response to Lincoln’s election. There was real reason to believe that the nation was disintegrating.

Lincoln stopped off in Trenton, New Jersey, on his way to Washington, and gave a short but powerful speech to the New Jersey State Senate, in which he recalled the effect of Weems’s book on him as a young man. He particularly remembered Weems’s account of the Battle of Trenton, one of the pivotal moments in the American Revolution, stating, “I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New-Jersey.” Lincoln continued:

The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event; and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for. (emphasis added)

That “something more than common” was, he said, “something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.” Lincoln was “exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made,” and he hoped that he could be a “humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”

What a lot for a youthful story to do! It shaped a boy’s mind and soul in ways that would have such enormous consequences for the man—and for all of us. That story, those “early impressions,” helped Lincoln form a compelling vision of the American past—a vision both inspiring and true that would sustain him through the dark days to come.

Note, too, that, though himself a fierce opponent of slavery, Lincoln did not focus on George Washington’s history as a slave owner, though he knew of it. He did not entertain the view, fashionable among Southern planters then and New York journalists now, that the nation was founded on slavery. No, he insisted, it was founded on other principles entirely, principles of liberty and equality and self-rule that were something new in the world, principles that America was born to champion. He was right then, and he is right now.

Parson Weems’ Fable (1939), by Grant Wood (GRANT WOOD (1891-1942), PARSON WEEMS’ FABLE, 1939, OIL ON CANVAS, ACCESSION NUMBER 1970.43, AMON CARTER MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, FORT WORTH, TEXAS)

So what are we to conclude from this example? Do historians need to retool and start writing inspiring fables like those of Mason Weems instead of hardheaded and dispassionate factual accounts of the past, based on careful and methodical research? Absolutely not. History must be based on truth, not on myth. We do ourselves and the young no favors by prettifying or oversimplifying the past and failing to give an honest account of our failures as well as our triumphs.

But we also do no favors to ourselves or to the truth if we fail to honor the magnificent achievements of our history and leave them out of the accounting entirely, as has become too often the case. We need to remember that one of the civic functions of history, one of the chief reasons we endeavor to record the past and teach it to the young, is to serve as a vessel of shared memory, imparting to each generation a sense of membership in its own society, a sense of living connection to its own past—one that can unite us and strengthen us in hard times.

Lincoln brought that very connection to many of his best speeches—most notably, to his speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Just as he had done in Trenton, so he did in Gettysburg, even as war raged around him, reaching back to the nation’s birth in 1776—“Four score and seven years ago”—as one of the great achievements in human history, a precious legacy to whose preservation the deeds of the present should be dedicated. He found in the American past a source of renewed courage and determination, a steadying influence in a time buffeted by chaos and fear.

So can it be for us. Our young people deserve nothing less. We are failing them, and the country, so long as we fail to give them a rich and sustaining sense of their past, both truthful and inspiring. It is high time that we did. Consider the alternative. If a great story of estimable things can give us courage and hope in a hard time, does it not stand to reason that the promulgation of an inglorious story of relentless failure, mendacity, and despoilation can have the opposite effect? For the Inglorious Story, too, is a kind of civic education. What if its messages are the only “early impressions” that our young receive?

We are solicitous of the “safety” of students who may be exposed to ideas or words that they may find upsetting. But why do we not think about the effects of the Inglorious Story that they are taking in? Doesn’t their picture of the world profoundly affect their sense of life’s possibilities and prospects? Shouldn’t we consider whether the remarkably high indicators of unhappiness among the young—and not only them—are partly traceable to a massive loss of morale and hope? Suicides among Americans aged ten to 24 increased by nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2018. A Pew study found rising rates of depression, especially among teenage girls, and that 70 percent of teens think that anxiety and depression are major problems for their peers. Roughly 50 percent see alcohol and drug addiction as major problems. The list of pathologies goes on.

I am deeply concerned about these statistics, as any sensible person should be. It is hard not to think that they presage a kind of general moral collapse. No one would deny that there are material factors, such as the dizzying changes in the structures of the national and world economy, at work in these trends. But the morale of a nation is ultimately a question of spirit rather than matter. By moving into the vacuum left by the absence of a genuine civic education, as well as the decline of traditional religion and the decay of traditional structures of family life, the Inglorious Story has been gaining the upper hand, playing a significant role, I believe, in sustaining our low morale, saturating the young in debilitating ideas about the past, present, and future, and leaving them isolated and anxious.

In an otherwise noncommittal recent story in USA Today about the suicide epidemic, one finds this statement: “Many children, experts say, are struggling to imagine their futures.” Indeed they are. But this should be no mystery to us. The great Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, himself a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, observed that humans can endure nearly any kind of deprivation—except for the deprivation of meaning. Those with a reason to live, a task or a goal toward which their strivings can be directed, a “why” that animates their lives—they can bear up under almost any hardship. But without that “why,” almost any “how” can defeat us.

Such matters go far deeper than civics. But a robust civic education, which seeks to impart that “sense of continuity with generations gone before” of which Dos Passos spoke and which begins the process of locating one’s life in a meaning larger than oneself, is an important step back from the lonely precipice at which we find ourselves. We have not a moment to lose in getting started.

Top Photo: We must recommit ourselves to the teaching of both history and civics—and to the recognition that the two belong together. (H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/CLASSICSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES)

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