Keep civics education from splintering America
By JONATHAN BUTCHER | The Heritage Foundation | Published: March 19, 2021
Educators and parents of school-aged children are once again engaged in a national debate about teaching civics in schools. Recently, though, there’s been more heat than light.
Americans watched the expeditious release and then rapid rescinding of the 1776 Commission Report earlier this year. It was followed just weeks ago by yet another foray into the debate over teaching civics, as a new coalition — Educating for American Democracy, or EAD — released a plan that would expand Washington’s authority over civics instruction in local schools.
Though the plan talks about being a “reflective patriot,” seeking reform to civics instruction “while still loving America,” it promotes course material laced with the dogmas of critical theory. These intolerant ideas threaten our democracy and the true meaning of e pluribus unum.
The EAD is right to emphasize the problem in civic education today. Student test scores are too low, and surveys of adults’ civic knowledge are the stuff of late-night comedy. Fewer than one in four eighth-graders can demonstrate mastery over grade-level civics material, and one in three adults can name — at most — one branch of the federal government.
So EAD should be applauded for its “key concept” of building “civic friendship through informed civil dialogue and productive disagreement.” But its “Roadmap” feels more like the occupation of civics instruction by some groups who are neutral at best, and perhaps even intent on disrupting the notion of a shared national character.
For example, the group features course content from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice. The SPLC is not shy about teaching students there is “white supremacy” in schools. One of Learning for Justice’s lessons available on EAD’s site promotes the use of “deconstruction,” the critical theory idea of redefining words to find victimization in language, along with considering policies such as income redistribution.
Learning for Justice’s other projects are “diversity” trainings for teachers on the critical theory ideas of intersectionality, which instructs you to identify with more than one ethnic or gender-based category and cites oppression as part of these different groups. Another project: decolonization, which argues that students “are already quite familiar with the traditional literary ‘canon’” and teachers should focus instead on multicultural ideas.
Students should certainly learn the features of our pluralistic society and should be exposed to a diverse range of content. But given the poor results from civics tests cited above, along with the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their peers in math and reading that have persisted for 50 years, perhaps students are not as familiar with “traditional” material as critical theory activists assume.
EAD’s site also features a lesson plan from the Smithsonian that encourages teens to “claim power” and look for “systems of oppression,” which sounds like something from Brazilian Marxist Paulo Freire’s "Pedagogy of the Oppressed," a book that researchers find is used frequently in teacher colleges.
Not all of EAD’s recommended coursework reflects progressive priorities, but the Roadmap’s inclusion of gender identity and action civics as part of a redesign for classrooms steers away from the teaching of a shared set of ideas and historical experiences that unite a culture.
Adding critical theory to civics does not make a project bipartisan. A hallmark of CT’s worldview, in fact, is that it leaves no room for competing perspectives.
EAD also assigns new responsibilities to the U.S. Department of Education and calls for significant additional federal taxpayer spending, saying “serious reinvestment … is not for the faint of heart.” But instead of proposing more taxpayer spending and bureaucratic activity from Washington, state and federal lawmakers should consider what state officials can do to improve civic instruction.
Start with the basics: Utah legislators sent the governor a proposal to require educators to make K-12 curriculum and instructional material available to the public. Lawmakers in Arizona are considering a similar proposal. These proposals would not solve the crisis in civics education, but they would help parents be better informed, giving them the chance to advocate on behalf of their child without discovering objectionable lessons after they wind up in the local paper.
Instructional content sympathetic to Marxism is anything but tolerant. Critical theory proponent Gloria Ladson-Billings wrote that theorists “may have to defend a radical approach to democracy that seriously undermines the privilege of those who have so skillfully carved that privilege into the foundation of the nation.”
That is hardly the basis for teaching that America is worth celebrating — and is a nation that belongs to all of us.
Jonathan Butcher is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation.