Our founders believed civic education and historical knowledge would prevent tyranny – and foster democracy
Valsania, a professor of American history at the University of Turin, is writing a biography of George Washington.
The majority of Americans today are anxious; they believe their democracy is under threat.
In fact, democracies deteriorate easily. As was feared since the times of Greek philosopher Plato, they may suddenly succumb to mob rule. The people will think they have an inalienable right to manifest their opinions — which means to state out loud whatever passes through their minds. They will act accordingly, often violently. They will make questionable decisions.
Democracies may pave the way to tyrants. Self-serving leaders will appear. They will seek to rewrite national history by purging it of complexity and inconvenient truths. They will capitalize on the widespread frustration and profit from the chaotic situation.
Should these leaders seize power, they will curtail the people's participation in politics. They will discriminate based on race, sex or religion. They will create barriers to democratic participation by certain constituents, including moral tests or literacy tests.
So, one way democracies degenerate is because of cunning leaders. But democracies crumble also because of the people themselves. As an intellectual historian, I can assure you that the specter of an ignorant populace holding sway has kept many philosophers, writers and politicians awake.
The American founders were at the forefront in the battle against popular ignorance. They even concocted a plan for a national public university.
No democracy without education
Baron Montesquieu, a French philosopher who lived from 1689 to 1755, was a revolutionary figure. He had advocated the creation of governments for the people and with the people. But he had also averred that the uneducated would irremediably "act through passion." Consequently, they "ought to be directed by those of higher rank, and restrained within bounds."
The men known as America's Founding Fathers, likewise, were very sensitive to this issue. For them, not all voters were created equal. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton trusted the people — "the people" being, for them, white property-owning males, of course. But only if and when they had a sufficient level of literacy.
Thomas Jefferson was the most democratic-minded of the group. His vision of the new American nation entailed "a government by its citizens, in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority."
He once gauged himself against George Washington: "The only point on which he and I ever differed in opinion," Jefferson wrote, "was, that I had more confidence than he had in the natural integrity and discretion of the people."
The paradox was that, for Jefferson himself, the "natural integrity" of the people needed to be cultivated: "Their minds must be improved to a certain degree." So, while the people are potentially the "safe depositories" for a democratic nation, in reality they have to go through a training process.
Jefferson was adamant, almost obsessive: the young country should "illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large." More precisely, let's "give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits."
"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people," he kept repeating. It was an axiom in his mind "that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction."
Education had direct implications for democracy: "Wherever the people are well-informed," wrote Jefferson, "they can be trusted with their own government."
A national university
In 1787, Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, published an "Address to the People of the United States."
One of his main topics was the establishment of a "federal university" in which "every thing connected with government, such as history — the law of nature and nations — the civil law — the municipal laws of our country — and the principles of commerce — would be taught by competent professors." Rush saw this plan as essential, should an experiment in democracy be attempted.
George Washington stressed the same idea. At the end of his second term as president, in December 1796, Washington delivered his eighth annual message to the Senate and the House of Representatives. He wished to awaken Congress to the "desirableness" of "a national university and also a military academy" whose wings would span over as many citizens as possible.
In his message, Washington embraced bold positions: "The more homogeneous our citizens can be made," he claimed, "the greater will be our prospect of permanent union."
Democracy's 'safe depositories'
A national university homogenizing the American people would likely be ill-received today anyway. We live in an age of race, gender and sexual awareness. Ours is an era of multiculturalism, the sacrosanct acknowledgment and celebration of difference.
But Washington's idea that the goal of public education was to make citizens somewhat more "homogeneous" is worth reconsidering.
Were President Washington alive today, I believe he would provide his recipe for the people to remain the "safe depositories" of democracy. He would insist on giving them better training in history, as both Rush and Jefferson also advised. And he would especially press for teaching deeper, more encompassing political values.
He would say that schools and universities must teach the people that in their political values they should go beyond separate identities and what makes them different.
He would trust that, armed with such a common understanding, they would foster a "permanent union" and thus save democracy.
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Six civic engagement organizations were recognized Monday night for their work to strengthen democracy in a cross-partisan way.
The 4th annual American Civic Collaboration Awards, or Civvys, were more competitive this year as the 2020-21 cycle saw the most nominees since the awards ceremony was established by the Bridge Alliance and Big Tent Nation in 2017. Eighteen finalists were selected among the four dozen nominees for three categories: national, local and youth. From those finalists, six winners were chosen.
"While the headlines may show ideological division and entrenched partisanship, we the people are showing the way forward," said F. Willis Johnson, Jr., vice president of partnerships and programming for the Bridge Alliance. "This important work reflects the spirit of the Civvys as organizations and industries are coming to realize that it is collaboration, not competition, that will allow us to move America forward, combine our strengths to do more, do better and overcome partisanship and gridlock."
Here are this year's winners:
- National: The Civic Responsibility Project, for its work to support voter participation and civic engagement in the business community.
- Local: SA2020, for its work to reimagine the San Antonio community.
- Youth: Green Our Planet, for its work to promote civic responsibility through a nationwide school gardening program.
Three organizations were also recognized with the Committee Choice Award:
- Pandemic Voting Project, for its work to support safe voting in Missouri during the pandemic.
- Issue Voter, for its work to connect constituents to members of Congress using technology.
- DoSomething.org, for its work to amplify the voices of young people in the 2020 election.
The Bridge Alliance is a financial supporter of The Fulcrum and just announced it will take over as publisher in May.
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At a time of extreme political polarization, a bold and comprehensive proposal reimagining civic education shows a path toward a healthier American democracy.
The "Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy," released Tuesday, provides guidance to national, state, local and tribal leaders on how to strengthen K-12 history and civic education practices and standards. This roadmap is the culmination of 18 months of collaboration by more than 300 scholars, educators and practitioners from a variety of ideological, demographic and professional backgrounds.
For decades, the public education system has failed to adequately prepare adolescents to be informed and engaged citizens. But this roadmap aims to change that by ushering in a renewed focus and investment in civic education.
When this project started in October 2019, "our constitutional democracy was not in good shape," said Paul Carrese, founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and one of the project leaders. "Now we are all pretty convinced that our constitutional democracy is in peril."
"America's current state of polarization and civic dysfunction is the byproduct of our failure to invest in civic education for many decades," he said. "We've forgotten how to listen to each other, how to reasonably disagree on issues and why these civic virtues matter."
The federal government spends on average just 5 cents per student every year on civic education, compared to $50 per student on STEM curriculum, according to the 36-page report. And fewer than a quarter of eighth graders are considered proficient in civics by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"Just as we invested in STEM education in response to the Cold War, the Sputnik moment, and the economic challenges of globalization, now in response to our dysfunction and failures of governance we need an equivalent scale of investment for civic learning," the report says.
At this stage, costs for the proposals have not been estimated.
"While EAD anticipates that funding would be needed from states, the federal government and/or philanthropy to support implementation of the EAD approach at the state and local levels, EAD has not developed or provided budget targets," said Peter Levine, an associate dean and professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College and one of the project leaders. "Rather, those behind the initiative want to prompt the conversation about what it will take to prioritize and invest in history and civics education."
This roadmap is designed to provide the country's 60 million K-12 students with high-quality civic learning opportunities, to supply 100,000 schools with the learning resources they need to be "civic ready" and to train 1 million teachers in these subjects by 2030.
Educating for American Democracy is not a national curriculum or a mandate, but rather a starting point and framework for state, local and tribal educators to further develop lesson plans and curricula. The roadmap underscores the importance of exploring America's plural, yet shared, history through an honest accounting that acknowledges both the good and the bad.
Favoring depth over breadth, the roadmap includes seven themes, with no particular hierarchy: Civic Participation, Our Changing Landscapes, We the People, A New Government and Constitution, Institutional and Social Transformation, A People in the World, and A People With Contemporary Debates and Possibilities.
Rather than a list of facts or historical events, the themes are focused on questions that inspire and encourage students to become more engaged citizens.
"A history question would be, 'Who are we, the people of the United States, and how has the nation's population changed over time?' But a civics thematic question would be, 'Why is constitutional democracy dependent on the idea of the people?'" explained Levine.
The next steps are to curate the project's website to include thousands of examples of instructional resources and to work with state officials and civil society partners on implementation.
The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy was funded with $1.1 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education. The project was driven by a team of experts from iCivics, Harvard University, Arizona State University and Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
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Solomon is on the faculty of Stanford University's design school and a creator of Vote by Design, an educational site designed to promote civic and political engagement among younger voters.
"Now more than ever, the United States needs an inaugural poem," Amanda Gorman told an interviewer a few days before the world got to know her last week. "Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for."
Even if you didn't watch President Biden's inauguration, you've probably heard of Gorman by now. Her recitation of her original poem "The Hill We Climb" was arguably one of the most memorable and moving portions of the ceremony, and talk of her talent and poise have taken over the internet in the days since.
She is a force of nature, a voice for our time — and, whether she knows it or not, a civic futurist.
Gorman's metaphorical imagery and evocative presentation embody civic imagination in action: a powerful articulation of an aspirational future that calls us all to see ourselves in that preferred future and be a part of the change to get us there.
When she says "We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us," she speaks a truth that clearly resonates with our next generation of voters. I know, because I've seen it in action.
Throughout the 2020 campaign season, I spearheaded a new national nonpartisan civic education program for young people. We wanted to challenge the notion that our newest eligible voters are "apathetic" and replace it with our observation they simply lack confidence and understanding of how to use their individual agency to make a collective difference.
We brought together youth from all parts of the country and all political persuasions to bridge divides and to learn how to examine difficult civic issues from a future-seeking perspective. We asked thousands of students to envision the futures they wanted to see, and then to work backward from that point to what kind of leader would help guide us there.
What emerged was the picture of a nation of young people who, like the 22-year-old Gorman, are future-ready and hungry for more. Our young people are all, in one way or another, futurists in the making — engaged in thinking about the kind of country they want to live in and looking for ways to breathe that into existence.
There is much to repair, rebuild and reimagine. But there is also much momentum to build on. Last year's election also saw historic levels of youth voter turnout and activism in the form of youth organizing, mobilizing and protesting. Even before the world heard Gorman's powerful words from the West Front of the Capitol, our youth were heeding her call: "But while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated / In this truth / in this faith we trust / For while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us."
We were all inspired as she helped to usher in a new administration that promises to build its policies on unity and shared democratic values. But in the midst of our hopes for the next four years, we can't lose sight of a glaring reality: We can't continue to defund civic institutions, civic education, and foundational civic skills and still expect to have a robust and resilient democracy supported by diverse engaged and empowered citizens.
There's been a promising call for more civic education funding and support in schools, but futurist Amanda Gorman reminds us that history has its eyes on us — and education isn't enough. She shows us that this is a moment to reframe civics as a mindset and an embodied, interdisciplinary literacy.
Real, lasting change comes from more than just civic knowledge, the kind of facts and figures and dates and names we ask students to learn in school. Change, the architecture of an imagined better world, happens when we help people learn how to translate civic knowledge and civic skills into a lasting civic disposition — the attitude that they can wake up each day and take an active part in the world around them.
Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and on our collective freedoms — many experts and citizens have been asking, "Is our democracy broken?" Some have moved to ideas of repair: "A new normal will help fix it."
But the futurist poet reminds us that our immediate lens is not broad enough for this moment. As Gorman declared at the inaugural: "Somehow, we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished."
Simply unfinished. That's the call. That's our charge. Healing and repair are things you do in the moment to make something as it was. But a futurist says "I will boldly imagine what can be."
If we think of our nation as unfinished rather than broken, and actively teach our next generation of citizens to imagine a finished nation, we embrace a growth mindset and open up a world of possibilities to collectively write the next chapter of the story.
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