by John Fonte
A massive new national project called “Educating for American Democracy” will be launched on Tuesday with the explicit aim of “redefining” and then “harmonizing” American civic education nationwide.
From the days of Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, Horace Mann, and the McGuffey readers to Ronald Reagan’s farewell address and the controversy over national history standards, citizenship education (broadly understood) has always been a vital function of American schools for the perpetuation of the American way of life. That’s about to change for the worse.
Educating for American Democracy (EAD) is a coalition of educators that aims “to transform teaching of civics and history to sustain our constitutional democracy and meet the needs of a diverse 21st century K-12 student body.” EAD in 2019 received start-up funding of $650,000 from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Under a cooperative agreement with the federal agencies, iCivics will lead an EAD collaboration in partnership with four other organizations: Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics; Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE); Tufts’ Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life; and Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.
The core argument of EAD is, on the surface, a compelling one with widespread support. To wit, that education in civics and history is vital for American citizenship, but this education has been neglected in recent years and must be strengthened. Indeed, Ronald Reagan made a similar argument in his farewell address in which he called for an “informed patriotism.”
EAD proclaims that its project “will require a sweeping national commitment that includes everyone, from educators to school and state administrators to local, state, and federal lawmakers, to parents. It will require a harmonized effort across all jurisdictions – local, tribal, state, and national – to ensure adoption.” (Bold in the original.) Further, a draft report narrative states that K-12 educational “Standards and curricula can and should be developed in alignment with this [EAD] Roadmap.”
The project insists that “The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap demonstrates that an ideologically, demographically, and professionally diverse group agrees about content and pedagogy.” Since it appears that EAD is about to promote a de facto national curriculum, let us examine this project in some detail.
While there are a few genuine conservatives and non-leftists (about 10) among the over 300 participants in Educating for American Democracy, the critical mass and thus the dominant and driving force within the project is overwhelmingly progressive.
Four of the five institutions involved in the project (iCivics, Harvard’s Center for Ethics, Tufts’ CIRCLE, and Tufts’ Tisch Center) are decidedly left of center. Right of center scholars on the executive committee are outnumbered 8-2. The same is true with the other task forces that developed the EAD Roadmap.
Moreover, EAD leadership is not simply liberal in the Walter Mondale sense, but more reflective of what journalist Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology,” – that is, the “successor” to liberalism. The successor ideology is the woke progressivism of the 21st century that has superseded traditional Arthur Schlesinger 20th century liberalism with a new emphasis on racial, ethnic, and gender group consciousness over the rights of individual citizens.
EAD wokeness manifests in its embrace of “equity.” We are told that “EAD teachers focus on inclusion and equity in both content and approach,” not on the traditional American concept of equality. Indeed, “equity” has come to mean a repudiation of the traditional principle of equality as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and (as Shelby Steele recently discussed) in the original civil rights legislation.
Instead, equity signals an embrace of a neo-Marxist narrative of “systems of oppression,” in which the explicit end goal is equality of outcomes for oppressed racial, ethnic, and gender groups.
Addressing Myriad Injustices
EAD rightfully notes that post-1960s historians have, to their credit, examined previously understudied histories of minorities and women. Yet it ignores the fact that contemporary historians have, to a large extent, presented America’s story through the crude lens of oppressor versus oppressed groups, thereby damaging the spirit of American citizenship.
For example, in September 2020, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) declared:
The best historical inquiry acknowledges and interrogates systems of oppression—racial, ethnic, gender, class—and openly addresses the myriad injustices that these systems have perpetuated. . . . Critical race theory provides a lens through which we can examine and understand systemic racism . . . .”
The prevailing mindset of the “Educating for American Democracy” project is clear enough. Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, told the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Rick Hess that civic education “is undergoing a transformation in leadership and rethinking about how diversity and equity must be addressed.” Since the George Floyd protests, she notes, “it’s about realizing that we have been teaching civics primarily from one perspective, that of the white male.”
White male perspective? This is an artificial, meaningless category. Think of D-Day and General Eisenhower versus German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, both white males. Which one represents “the white male perspective”? Dubé further insists, “we no longer gloss over systemic racism, but give students the tools to address it.” iCivics, Dubé declares, “made a commitment to pointing out institutional systemic racism in teaching about our institutions. This will alienate some, but it is the moral imperative of today.”
The current text of an EAD document laments that “students can make it into their teens without knowing, for instance, that George Washington was not only a foundational leader but also enslaved people.” Really? George Washington took people who were free and enslaved them? This is a blatant lie that apparently escaped the notice of the 300 or so educators involved in this project. Obviously, students should learn that Washington was a slaveholder who made provisions for freeing his slaves in his will while also providing for their economic and educational future as free individuals.
With a more than 96 percent majority among the participants and a 75 percent majority on the executive committee, it is not surprising that Educating for American Democracy has produced a left-wing product in tune with the latest theories of the wokerati. They prefer to denigrate George Washington as an active “enslaver,” rather than present him as a slave owner who wrote of slavery in 1786, “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
Educating for American Democracy degrades the meaning of American citizenship and the stirring oath of allegiance that naturalized citizens take to our Constitution by using the term “civic participant” to include anyone living in the United States, citizen or noncitizen, legal permanent resident or someone who just crossed the border illegally. EAD suggests that noncitizens as “civic participants” should be engaged in politics, policy, and public decision-making. In so doing, the “civic educators” of the EAD project reject and repudiate the very essence of American citizenship.
The EAD is not entirely devoid of positive content. There are references to the necessity of a “reflective” and “informed patriotism.” The project states that it is important to leave “space to both love and critique this country” and to cultivate “civic honesty.” No arguments there.
But what role, if any, do conservatives and non-leftists play in the “Educating for American Democracy” project?
As noted, there are around 10 out of over 300 participants in the project that could be described as serious right-of-center scholars and practitioners. Of the five lead institutions in EAD, only one, Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership has a proven track record of comprehensive civic education that focuses on America’s founding principles and on the intellectual, economic, and cultural framework of the American regime.
Interestingly, EAD leaders made a great effort to recruit conservative scholars for the purpose of lending the project a façade of national credibility as a “cross-ideological” and “trans-partisan” initiative. (Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute was particularly active on this score.) An EAD draft statement proudly announces: “We reached a consensus on a substantial educational vision.”
One wonders what kind of national “consensus” agrees that equity (narratives of “oppression”) is preferable to equality under the law; that post-1960s historical scholarship is a “great achievement,” that simple residency in our nation (permanent or transient, legal or illegal) is tantamount to American citizenship; that George Washington was an active “enslaver”; that training students to be left-wing activists should be at the heart of 21stcentury civic education.
Is this what the few conservatives and non-leftists involved in EAD signed up for? Are they improving the product or providing political cover for the debasement of American citizenship education?
The Predominance of “Action Civics”
In the final analysis, the end goal of the “Educating for American Democracy” project is to mandate “action civics” nationwide, (advocating “a sweeping national commitment”) particularly in red states. “Action civics” is sometimes called “new civics” and “project-based learning.”
The origins of action civics go back to the thinking of John Dewey and the progressive educators of the early 20th century. The theory is that students learn citizenship better by “doing civics” (participating in public policy and social action) than by learning book-based facts (studying about the separation of powers, federalism, and the like.)
Educating for American Democracy stipulates that students should both master the requisite civic knowledge and participate in civic action. EAD claims action civics is consistent with different ideological and political perspectives and helps students to become better citizens.
Nevertheless, whatever assurances the leaders of EAD provide, action civics is (in practice) almost always ideologically biased in favor of the progressive Left. Students are trained to be activists in left-wing protests.
Thomas Lindsay and Lucy Meckler of the Texas Public Policy Foundation examined 27 action civics projects at the college level. They found students protesting in support of the Green New Deal, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, the Dream Act, climate change action, gun control, increasing teachers’ salaries, “LGBTQ+ homelessness in Berkeley,” and “critical stances to help people rethink what is normal.”
One can assume, with a fair degree of certainty, that “action civics” will not see students involved in pro-life and pro-gun rights protests or in projects supporting the hardworking, underpaid (often Latino) agents of the U.S. border patrol who risk their lives daily to enforce our nation’s laws.
In a vivid video example of “action civics,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is confronted by a group of school children ages 7 to 16 from the Sunrise Movement, a climate change group, demanding she support their version of the Green New Deal. Feinstein sensibly tells the children, “There is no way to pay for it, so nothing will happen.” Feinstein ends by suggesting they read her version of the legislation before criticizing her.
The Coming Civics Mandates
Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has described in detail how “leftist action civics is already widespread in blue states and activists (and EAD) hope to force it onto deep-dyed red state school districts via statewide civics mandates.”
What will these state mandates look like?
EAD points to Illinois as an example of “best practices” and a model for the nation. What is Illinois doing? New state rules, called “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards,” mandate that all teachers “assess how their biases . . . affect their teaching . . . how they access tools to mitigate their own behavior (racism, sexism, homophobia, unearned privilege, Eurocentrism, etc.)” Teachers are required to embrace the narrative of “systems of oppression . . . teachers . . . understand that there are systems in our society that create and reinforce inequities, thereby creating oppressive conditions.” Teachers must create “a risk-taking space that promotes student activism and advocacy.”
Illinois’ mandatory standards appear to be directly tied to teacher certification and licensure. It seems likely that teacher performance appraisals, promotion, and career prospects are related to how enthusiastically they implement the progressive agenda. This would apply to every teacher in the most conservative, rural, small-town counties in the state.
And this, of course, is the ultimate goal of left-wing educators and of the critical mass of the leaders and participants of EAD—to force “action civics” and woke civic education down the throat of every school district in red-state America.
Stanley Kurtz has outlined how action civics and the EAD project would be implemented nationwide.
Under the guise of promoting long-neglected civic education, state legislatures would pass bills requiring courses in civics and history. At the direction of state boards of education, state curriculum specialists (overwhelmingly left-wing) would develop standards, curriculum, and rules that include mandatory teacher certification and licensing requirements “aligned with” the Roadmap of the “cross-ideological” EAD project.
In a fashion similar to the Obama Administration’s promotion of the “voluntary” Common Core agenda, the Biden Administration will claim the initiative is “optional” but use carrots (funding) and sticks (regulations) to promote action civics and the “latest” (meaning most woke) history and civics scholarship as de facto national mandates.
At the same time, left-wing private foundations would provide lavish funding to train teachers in understanding new forms of “civic engagement” including Ibram X. Kendi’s critical race theory.
Thus, traditional American citizenship education would be replaced by what the National Association of Scholars describes as the “anti-civics” mindset at the heart of “action civics.”
The Educating for American Democracy project working with the progressive educational establishment and the Biden Administration to “harmonize” and “redefine” citizenship education serves as a Trojan Horse in the ongoing undertaking to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” It must be stopped.
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John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or be Ruled by Others? (Encounter Books) winner of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) book award for 2012.