Today an urgent necessity exists for a broader understanding of history and government. America is facing a crisis in civic education, which is the knowledge of history, government, and economics. Americans are not being good stewards with the legacy left by the Founding Fathers, and the nation is facing a national emergency of losing not only its identity, but also history and values. Americans have a citizenship responsibility that requires an informed patriotism based on our history and institutions. Students across the nation, including Iowa’s students — at all levels — are not learning the fundamentals of civic education.
Numerous studies from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The Bradley Project on America’s National Identity, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have demonstrated that higher education has failed to teach college students basic civic education. In fact many students can graduate from college and not take a course in American history, government, or economics. “Many Americans are badly prepared for their task of defending their own convictions and interests and institutions against the grim threat of armed ideology,” wrote Russell Kirk in The American Cause, a short but powerful book on the principles of the American Republic. (1) In addition Kirk argued that “ignorance is a dangerous luxury.” (2)
Forces have been at work to undermine civic knowledge and the American identity. Some of these factors include modern liberalism, political correctness, multiculturalism, globalization, nihilism, and radical secularism among others. “How does one sever a people’s roots? Answer: destroy its memory. Deny a people of who they are and where they came from,” wrote Patrick J. Buchanan in The Death of the West. (3) Matthew Spalding, Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, recently wrote:
While there is much that we have forgotten of late about our history, the growing absence of America’s foundational principles in our country’s life is not simply a case of national amnesia. Over the course of the 20th century, America’s principles have been attacked, undermined, and redefined by progressive liberalism — in our culture, in our universities, and in our politics. Based on the anti-foundational concepts of relativism and historicism, liberalism has attempted to ‘re-found’ America around evolving rights, unlimited government, and a ‘living’ Constitution. (4)
Forces and ideologies are at work undermining both civic education and American identity. “Destroy the record of a people’s past, leave it in ignorance of who its ancestors were and what they did, and one can fill the empty vessels of their souls with a new history…,” wrote Buchanan. (5)
One major problem facing higher education is the core curriculum. Many colleges and universities, both public and private, follow a traditional liberal-arts based core curriculum in their general education requirements. Students have the opportunity of taking courses in the liberal-arts fields (physical and biological sciences, social sciences, humanities, writing, and mathematics), but often times students have a wide field to select courses from. (6) This has been described as a “hollow-core” because students do not have to take fundamental core courses that are especially relevant to civic education. “This cafeteria-style approach is a poor substitute for a true, carefully designed core curriculum,” wrote Dr. Barry Latzer. (7)
Many of Iowa’s private and public colleges and universities have broad core curriculums, which follow the liberal-arts, but they tend to be hollow. Both Hillsdale College in Michigan and Patrick Henry College in Virginia are two examples of institutions of higher education that institute a traditional liberal arts core curriculum that emphasizes civic education. For example students at both Hillsdale and Patrick Henry Colleges must take a specific course that focuses on the Constitution. In addition, both colleges place an emphasis on having their graduates leave campus with an understanding of American history, government, and fundamental institutions. Hillsdale and Patrick Henry have incorporated civic education into their core curriculums and it is the moral foundation of their academic programs.
In his farewell address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan warned of the eradication of the American spirit and patriotism. (8) The decline of civic education and American identity is a serious problem. Although many students are leaving college ignorant of American history or even appreciating American history and values, the problem runs deeper in our culture at large. Families, educators (elementary and secondary), businesses, and civic leaders all have a responsibility to foster and teach civic education.
“We have forgotten that the proper function of the school is to transmit the cultural heritage of one generation as to make them capable of absorbing ancient learning and applying it to the problem of its own day,” wrote Barry Goldwater. (9) The leadership of higher education, policymakers, and parents need to restore civic education back to the core curriculum. Hillsdale and Patrick Henry serve as solid examples of institutions that place an emphasis on civic education in their core curriculums. The nation has failed in teaching first principles, and the future of the republic is at stake if America continues to neglect its heritage and values.
1. Russell Kirk, The American Cause, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2004, p. 1.
2. Ibid., p. 1 and 4.
3. Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002, p. 147.
4. Matthew Spalding, “A New American Fusionism: Recovering Principles in Our Politics,” Heritage Lectures, No.1114, March 17, 2009, p. 2.
5. Buchanan, p. 147.
6. Barry Latzer, The Hollow Core: Failure of the General Education Curriculum, A Fifty College Study, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Washington, D.C., April 2004, p. 2 and 12.
7. Ibid., p. 4.
8. Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation, January 11, 1989,” Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989, pp. 416-417.
9. Barry M. Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, MJF Books, New York, 1990, p. 67.
Public Interest Institute's POLICY STUDY, "A Republic If You Can Keep It: Failing to Teach First Principles," can be viewed at www.limitedgovernment.org.
John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.