October 8, 2022

JN Fenwick

The classroom is not a platform from which to preach, indoctrinate, or propagandize. It is not a venue from which to politicize, ostracize, or reimagine. It is a sacred space. One that holds within its walls our most sacred treasure, our children. The ones who will, for better or for worse, perpetuate or continue to neglect the foundations of this great country depending upon the torch we pass them.

“We are raising a generation of people who are historically illiterate and ignorant of the basic philosophical foundations of our constitutional free society. We can’t function in a society if we don’t know who we are and where we came from.”

– David McCullough, historian and author, 1933-2022

And what torch are we passing them?

It’s not the same torch we were given. It’s not the same one our parents or their parents received. In the past few decades, so much of what is powerful about our nation’s past has been diluted and distilled to the point that it’s almost impossible to wade through all the rhetoric and the “wokeness” to uncover the truth of who we are as Americans.

Without that understanding, the question then becomes, who will we become?

According to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) report titled Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions, (2007), “American college students are woefully uninformed about this nation’s history and its founding principles.”

ISI’s 2007 report presented four pivotal findings:

  1. The average college senior knows very little about America’s history, government,
    international relations, and market economy. Their average score on the civic literacy test was 53.2 percent. ‘No class of seniors scored higher than 69 percent, or D plus.’
  2. Prestige doesn’t pay off. ‘An Ivy League education contributes nothing to a student’s civic learning. …There is no relationship between the cost of attending college and the mastery of America’s history, politics, and economy.’
  3. Students don’t learn what colleges don’t teach. ‘Schools where students took or were
    required to take more courses related to America’s history and institutions, outperformed those schools where fewer courses were completed. The absence of required courses in American history, political science, philosophy, and economics suggests a negative impact on students’ civic literacy.’
  4. Greater civic learning goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship. ‘Students who
    demonstrated greater learning of America’s history and its institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service, and political campaigns.’

And that was almost 15 years ago! The continued decline of history education, and civics, in particular, has reached a critical level in the ensuing years since that study was released. If the momentum doesn’t change and change soon, our system of self-governance and our future as the bastion of freedom and liberty we have been for nearly 250 years is in real jeopardy of extinction.

We witnessed the very real repercussions of this decline in the summer of 2020 when protestors targeted historical monuments and buildings across the country. Among them, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, African American heroes of the Civil War, and St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C., a church that had stood for hundreds of years in Lafayette Square. As Victor Davis Hanson explained in his best-selling book The Dying Citizen, “Apparently the young iconoclasts learned little about the Civil War in either high school or college but a great deal about the supposed unwarranted privilege of anyone who had earned commemoration from a supposedly racist society.”

If there’s one critical thing we learned from the covid lockdowns it’s that there’s a woeful amount of education actually occurring in our education system. Our eyes have been opened to this fact and because of that, more attention is being paid to what and how our students are being taught. That’s a good thing. As parents step up and become more involved in their children’s education and at the local school board levels, one thing’s certain, accountability will follow.

Any attempts to suppress and intimidate parents into silence is simply wrong. Parents, by design, are the protectors and guardians of their children, not the schools and certainly not the government. Their involvement is a vital part of our education system, or it should be. Parents have every right, and more importantly a responsibility, to question what is being taught, how it’s being taught, and to what extent they want their children exposed to any and all information being disseminated in the classroom.

JN Fenwick, former US History teacher

Getting back to the basics isn’t a bad thing.

Getting back to the basics means more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic, though. It means taking a good, hard look at history and civics education too. It means putting a curriculum in place that teaches the history of our country using both context and reason. A curriculum that doesn’t pick and choose which aspects of our history to teach, or that attempts to redefine what that history means. History, after all, is the story of humanity and as such contains the good and the bad of human nature and behavior. It must be taught with respect if it is to be respected.

Exposing students during their formative years to the basic foundations and principles of our constitutional republic and then building on, fostering, and nurturing those ideals into their secondary and post-secondary education is vital if they are to become active citizens. Our Founding Fathers understood this. That’s why their goals included a public education system that would enable future generations to participate fully in and sustain the republic they established.

In her 2017 article Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools, Amanda Litvinov explained this aspiration, “One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.”

The story of America’s beginning is just one of many underpinning the vital importance of teaching history using both context and reason and including a robust civics education along with that history.

The goal of education, after all, is not to indoctrinate but as Dr. Martin Luther King stated in his 1948 speech to the students at Moorehouse College, “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

It doesn’t get any more basic that that.

In a 2018 survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, almost 75 percent of those polled were not able to identify the thirteen original colonies. Over half had no idea whom the United States fought in World War II. Less than 25 percent knew why colonists had fought the Revolutionary War. Twelve percent thought Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded troops in the Civil War.

From The Dying Citizen by Victor Davis Hanson

So where do we go from here?

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it can’t be shoved back in. Nor should it be.

What we’ve discovered, in the past few years especially, is that wokeness and reinterpretation of historical events to fit an intentional and alternate narrative are widespread in our public education system. It has to stop. If our system of self-governance and our future as a constitutional republic are to be preserved and protected, it has to stop now.

First and foremost, we need to consider how and why such ideologies as critical race theory and the 1619 Project infiltrated our public school curriculum. What purpose do they serve? Why, at this moment in history after generations of moving ever closer to the ideals of equality underpinning our foundation are we taking such giant steps backward?

Second, we need to ask these questions with our students’ well-being and futures at the forefront. What good can possibly come from tying the yoke of responsibility for past wrongs, both real or imagined, around the neck of this generation? How does perpetuating racism, for example, promote equality? How will reimagining history prevent this generation from repeating the mistakes of the past, the same ones that wars were fought to redress and countless sacrifices were made to rectify?

Third, we need accountability. Teachers, principles, and school boards, funded and paid for by taxpayer dollars, need to be held accountable for how they operate and what ideologies they are perpetuating in the classroom under the guise of education. History, government, and civics are critical parts of educating our students, but care has to be taken as to how they are being taught. Logic, critical thinking, and context are paramount to teaching and learning about the past, understanding the present, and looking to the future.

Finally, we need to address the woeful lack of historical and civic knowledge our students are being exposed to in the present system and fill in the gaps with a robust curriculum whose goal is to enable them to become the well-rounded, functioning members of society we all want them to be; that public education is supposed to enable them to become.

“It’s just critical that if we are going to survive as a nation, that all our citizens know and understand the fundamental beliefs that caused the formation of this country and stand at the bottom, the bedrock foundation, for the things in which we most strongly believe. So you have to start at the beginning – and that means the Declaration of Independence.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (retired)

JN Fenwick is a former US History teacher and editor and contributing author to In the Eye of the Storm and In the Aftermath of the Storm. She writes under the pen name mothjournal14.

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