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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Battle Over Civic Education

How can we maintain a tradition of self-government when children are taught to be aggrieved against it?

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Credit: Everett Collection

The battle over civic education at Virginia’s museums and historic sites and over history standards in Florida schools is far more than just the latest cultural clash. It’s a disagreement over how we understand our country.

It’s not simply a struggle over power, or over replacing one set of “values” with another. It’s a matter of civic education over identity activism, of the republican belief in self-government over the politics of resentment. The fights in Virginia and Florida are, in a sense, not limited to those states. They’re national, carrying ramifications for America’s future and the character of her citizenry.

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Take the controversy that erupted over Florida students being taught “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” This statement is no defense of slavery—it’s a simple statement of fact. Anyone who has toured Mount Vernon, Monticello, or Montpelier knows that enslaved people learned to become blacksmiths, shoemakers, farmers, and the like. Sometimes, after a grueling day of forced labor, they used such skills to provide for themselves and their families by selling produce they had grown or supplementing their diets. Those who were freed were skilled laborers equipped to earn a profit for themselves.

Yet what is rightly upheld in the curriculum as an example of perseverance, fortitude, and resistance at Virginia historic sites wound up being mocked on the national stage. Vice President Kamala Harris and others have willfully distorted the substance of the Florida curriculum and protested the conveyance of these facts in our schools.

James Madison’s home of Montpelier offers another example of the distortion and omittance of pertinent historical facts. Primary sources are neglected in favor of revisionists interpretations. An exhibit on the Constitution notes that the words “slave” and “slavery” never appear in the Constitution, but neglects Madison’s own explanation: the delegates at the Constitutional Convention, “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”

Virginia appears in worse shape than Florida, with a Virginia historic site and public school having colluded in the promulgation of anti-racist narratives. In 2019, the Albemarle County school board adopted a so-called anti-racist policy. Per National Review, its pilot middle school curriculum classified students “by race, and labeled people as ‘perpetually privileged oppressors’ or as the ‘perpetually victimized’ oppressed. White, Christian students were taught that they were members of the ‘dominant culture’ that oppresses ‘subordinate’ students of color and non-Christians.’” The policies and curriculum, which have been the subject of two lawsuits, seem to have been developed in partnership with Montpelier, and that partnership has been used as justification for Montpelier’s receipt of government funds.

Disagreements over how American history is taught are not shallow political squabbles. They’re important clashes of principles, of civic education versus identity politics activism, that reflect and affect our understanding of the very purpose of America.

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Civic education aims to form citizens capable of self-government. It upholds free inquiry and deliberation, the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and the equal dignity of the human person. The maxim “all men are created equal” is its bedrock, the basis on which we evaluate and reconcile our laws, institutions, and disagreements. It is the appeal to that principle that justified the Revolutionary War and the abolition of slavery. Doing so made America a unique nation that fused creed and culture, that incorporated the appeal to natural rights as an integral part of our inheritance. It is that inclusive inheritance that is at stake.

While civic education aims to preserve our inheritance, identity politics seeks to replace it. As professor of political theory Joshua Mitchell articulates in American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, “Identity politics, too, overturns the existing state of things. In the world it constructs, tradition is not an inheritance through which civilization is sustained; it is the tainted résumé of transgressions perpetrated…a stain that delegitimizes heritage altogether.”

This conception lays waste to that core principle of the American heritage, that “all men are created equal.” How are we to judge right and wrong when our common basis for evaluation has been dismissed? What will remain? Deprived of natural standards, our arguments will devolve into questions of power. We will sow discord by delineating people, both past and present, into rigid categories of “oppressors” and “oppressed.” In so doing, we will commit a grave disservice both to America and to individuals.

As Dr. William B. Allen, a member of the Florida History Standards Workgroup and former Chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, has argued, the “attempt to reduce slaves to just victims of oppression fails to recognize their strength, courage and resilience during a difficult time in American history.” Reducing those who were enslaved to just victims is to perpetrate an error somewhat akin to that of reducing the Founding Fathers to enslavers.

Individuals like Frederick Douglass dramatically proved their capacity for self-government, a proof both difficult and poignant. Such examples of human resilience and determination remain models for us today. They teach us about courage and the strength of the human spirit, and they invite us to be part of something beyond ourselves: a country committed to the cause of self-government. Each generation assumes preservation of the American experiment as the obligation they owe posterity.

In contrast to civic education, activist identity education treats American children as means, rather than ends. Children who are told that human beings are either oppressors or oppressed and America is irrevocably tainted are deprived of their civic identity; as America becomes small, so too does her citizenry. This is done not with the aim of making our children strong, capable, and virtuous, but of transforming them into activist foot soldiers in the project of revolutionizing America. When the solid purpose of civic obligation and American principles are undermined, all that remains is a group struggle for power.

Four out of 10 Zoomers (compared to fewer than one in 10 Baby Boomers) now believe the Founding Fathers are better characterized as villains rather than heroes, according to Dr. Jean Twenge’s book Generations. This is reflective of a poor education in American history and a signal of the absence of understanding and gratitude for the contributions of our forebears and the promise of America. 

C.S. Lewis wrote, “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” How are such men and women to preserve the republic they have inherited?

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