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Always Be Founding

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Always Be Founding

Projects to “renew” civic education and “reinvent” U.S. democracy smuggle in a rejection of the American Founding. May 7, 2021
Politics and law
Education

The simple prefix “re-” is just that: a bare marker of “back” or “again,” what linguists call a morpheme, the smallest part of language that has meaning. When used by progressive thinkers, however, especially in matters of public policy, it turns into something more. In that clipped syllable a sweeping vision of past and future emerges, along with a grand conception of the figures doing the “re-ing.” One must pay close attention.

Two months ago, when the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, a scholastic initiative to redesign history and civic education for the twenty-first century, was released, it was hailed as a bipartisan effort. It drew high praise from six former secretaries of education, three of whom served in Republican administrations. The secretaries voiced their approval in the Wall Street Journal on March 1 in a judicious, studiously balanced statement. The Roadmap isn’t a civics curriculum or assessment tool, they explained. Rather, it lays out guidelines, topics, and essential questions that states may consult as they craft their own education standards and curricula for civic instruction. Most importantly, they said, the Roadmap offers students an account of democracy in America “that is honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the American founding without tipping into adulation.” Hence, in following the map, teachers could avoid the errors of the hard Right (too much jingoism) and the hard Left (too much anti-Americanism) alike, leaving students with a reflective “appreciation” of the American Founding.

Reading the Roadmap closely, however, one doesn’t find much appreciation for the Founding. In its 39 pages, the Roadmap mentions the word 12 times—that’s it. Basic references to the principles and ideals of the Founding make up only four of those 12. The other eight tie the Founding to social and political matters that cast doubt on its merits. For example, one of the “Sample Guiding Questions” for grades six through eight attaches the Founding to “territorial expansion,” asking how it was shaped by ideas of equality “for whom?” Those final words shift the learning goal from the ideals of equality themselves to which identities enjoyed constitutional rights—and which didn’t. Four questions later, after discussions of slavery, “Latino and Latina populations,” and Asian-Americans, students are asked to link the Founding to “U.S. national self-interest and power.” Another question returns to identity distinctions, asking students to note how the Founding affected “how different groups of people could express their political will.” Instead of appreciating the Founding, students end up suspicious of it. “All men are created equal” becomes: Only white males allowed.

Another concept central to the document reinforces these many failings and inadequacies of the Founding. The word appears more frequently than “founding”—14 times, in fact: refounding. One begins to feel the force of the progressive “re-” when tallying up the examples. With the concept of “refounding,” the authors of the Roadmap draw on a debate in political history over whether Lincoln and the Civil War, the 14th and 15th Amendments, and other transformative episodes in the American past altered the nature of government so much that they amounted to radical change—to a break with the past, a new birth of freedom that rejected the old.

The authors like that idea. No—they love it. The Founding doesn’t come up in the Roadmap’s “Seven Themes,” of which the fifth is: “Institutional and Social Transformation—A Series of Refoundings?” The questions in that section make the moral case for refoundings clear. The first guiding question for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders is, “How and why did the Constitution determine different legal statuses for different parts of the United States population?” Things begin, in other words, with injustice. The next question highlights a victim group: “What is tribal sovereignty?” After that comes “Cherokee Removal, Jim Crow, Mexican American segregation, Japanese internment, and other cases of officially sanctioned discrimination,” before students are asked: “What role has incarceration played in shaping American life?”

In the Roadmap’s vision of civic education, the existence of victim groups authorizes refoundings. Some old-fashioned guidance remains, such as, “What is the role of constitutional amendments, and what is the process for amendments?” But the very next line returns to the progressive tilt: “What is the role of protests and social movements in bringing change?” A narrative takes shape: America started with a few good ideas, but racism and exploitation were widespread until protesters mobilized, political power was gained and exerted, constitutional amendments and other changes were enacted, a refounding transpired, and the country improved—though it still has further to go. This narrative teaches young Americans to regard their country’s past as an inferior, immoral condition that contains little of which to be proud.

The authors are quite open about this. In the report accompanying the Roadmap (and linked on the home page of the Roadmap site), they write:

Coming to a shared account of our past is essential to sharing equally the burdens of the work of the future, as Bryan Stevenson has argued, in explaining his development of the Monument to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Many societies rely on a process of truth and reconciliation to arrive at shared understandings of the past. In the U.S., without such a formal process, scholars and educators must achieve, in Stevenson’s words, “an honest accounting of the past” and, through that reckoning, “a more honest American identity.”

Got that? Up to now, we have had a dishonest accounting of the past, a dishonest American identity. One almost envies the individual who can render such broadside (and self-congratulatory) judgments. How much confidence does it take to reprove your forebears in this way?

This type of civic education isn’t just about the past, either. It outlines a future: progressives always look forward. The Roadmap prepares young Americans to support future refoundings, to mistrust Jefferson and the Declaration in favor of twenty-first-century social justice activists.

What might such a refounding involve? Consider a different report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for a clue. That report’s title, “Our Common Purpose,” is as bland as its subtitle is revealing: “Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century.” (There’s another “re-” word.) In 2020, the Academy formed a commission to produce the study, with Harvard professor Danielle Allen serving as co-chairwoman and as the project’s public face. Allen happens to be the lead author of the Roadmap, too.

The report’s opening makes clear the authors’ stance on American government, as devised in former times. In the face of globalization, polarization, climate change, and digital media, all of which make people nervous and alienated, our constitutional democracy “feels to many increasingly unresponsive, nonadaptive, and even antiquated.” Note the specific problem: our “constitutional democracy” itself, its obsolescence. The authors don’t single out dismissive politicians, a corrupt media, tax rates, inadequate welfare programs, or any other particular initiative that fails the citizenry. They highlight the system: the structures and rules of governance.

The situation calls for radical change, for a “reinvention” of American democracy. That’s a tall order, to be sure—do the authors really believe that they are the equals of Madison and Hamilton?—but fortunately, they have a role model: the “refoundings” from the past, which the document explicitly invokes. The authors label the Reconstruction programs the first refounding and the Civil Rights Movement the second, and they call for a third refounding, one that will entail (among other things) “the reinvention of federal structures.” What does “reinvention” mean? The report recommends the addition of 50 seats, to start, in the House of Representatives; 18-year term limits for Supreme Court justices; the implementation of ranked-choice voting; the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds; and 31 more reforms. The ambition is stunning; the principal beneficiary will be the Democratic Party.

Such proposals rest upon a broad disregard of custom and tradition. Someone raised on the greatness of the Founders will generally be disinclined to radical, structural, systemic change. He may want bigots out of office, he may not like the concentration of power in D.C., and he may be uncomfortable with the influence of money in politics; but he won’t want to tinker with voting rules and the obligations of citizenship. But someone taught in Civics 101 that the Founders worked to uphold white supremacy will likely want to leave all these old sins behind.

The purpose of the Roadmap, then, is to prepare young Americans for another refounding. Professor Allen and her colleagues say so. The Roadmap has a softer touch than the Academy report, to be sure, but that’s because it has a softer job to do. While the Academy offers policy proposals, the Roadmap presents a multiyear curriculum that will persuade teenagers that those policies are fitting and necessary. The Roadmap treats the American past; “Our Common Purpose” crafts an American future.

In their Wall Street Journal statement, the secretaries of education worried that “the fragility of our democratic institutions is in plain sight.” That shows how much they missed the point. Fragile institutions present an opportunity for progressives to take charge, to eliminate these institutions’ conserving features, craft new rules and regulations, replace nonpartisan personnel with true believers—and get busy “reinventing.”

Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

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