The teaching of American civics in our schools faces a grave new risk. Proponents of programs such as action civics seek to turn the traditional subject of civics into a recruitment tool of the progressive left.
We write to express our objection to this subornation of civics education and to dedicate ourselves to joint work to restore true civics instruction, which teaches American students to comprehend aspects of American government such as the rule of law, the Bill of Rights, elections, elected office, checks and balances, equality under the law, trial by jury, grand juries, civil rights, and military service. American students should learn from these lessons the founding principles of the United States, the structure of our self-governing republic, the functions of government at all levels, and how our key institutions work.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education issued A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (2012), a report which called for a “New Civics” to replace the traditional approach. This new form of civics sidelines instruction on the responsibilities of American citizenship, and instead emphasizes identity politics, highly contestable forms of environmental activism, and a commitment to global citizenship. The New Civics, or “action civics,” replaces classroom civics instruction with political commitment, protest, and vocational training in progressive activism. It does so with the support of the Federal Government and through a host of private organizations such as Generation Citizen and iCivics.
Since 2019 the New Civics advocates have become much bolder. In August 2019, the New York Times launched “The 1619 Project,” which called for “reframing” all of American history (and civics) as the story of white supremacy and black subjection. The 1619 Project’s advocates brag that tens of thousands of students in all 50 states have used its curriculum resources and that “five school systems adopted the project at broad scale.” Not every advocate of action civics supports the 1619 Project, but the 1619 Project Curriculum already promotes action civics lesson plans. Action civics is taking over our K-12 civics and history classrooms. Activists in states such as Massachusetts and Illinois now seek to impose action civics on teachers and students by state law and through mandates by state departments of education.
We oppose all racism and support traditional American pluralism, e pluribus unum—out of many, one. These beliefs are not those of the radical New Civics activists, which espouse identity politics with overlapping ideologies of critical race theory, multiculturalism, and so-called “antiracism.” Unfortunately, these dogmas would ruin our country by destroying our unity, our liberty, and the national culture that sustains them. They have replaced traditional civics, where historical dates and documents are taught, with a New Civics based on the new tribalism of identity politics. Their favored pedagogy is service-learning, alternately called action civics, civic engagement, civic learning, community engagement, project-based civics, and global civics. These all replace civics literacy with a form of left-wing activism that adapts techniques from Alinsky-style community organizing for use in the classroom.
The New Civics has already advanced in America’s education system to a far greater extent than most people realize. It has succeeded partly because it has received unwitting support from those who fail to see the many wolves in sheep’s clothing. Well-intentioned reformers must not collaborate with those promoting an ideology that would destroy America. They should not endorse supposedly nonpartisan New Civics education that is really left-wing activism in disguise. They must instead work for true civics education that explicitly excludes the imposter New Civics and its favored pedagogies.
We endorse the general principles of the Civics Curriculum Statement below and we ask our fellow citizens to join us in working to restore American civics education according to its principles. Some of the signatories prefer different programmatic specifics, such as curriculum standards and testing controlled at the local level rather than the state level. Independent commissions are favored by some but not others. We endorse the Civics Curriculum Statement as a series of exploratory options designed to inspire initiatives by states, local communities, schools, and patriotic citizens, rather than as a binding legislative program. The concern that unites us is the need for legislation that prevents New Civics from retaining any power within America’s schools.
Civics Curriculum Statement
- Ever shrinking numbers of American high school graduates and college graduates know crucial facts of the history of the American republic, such as the date of our nation’s founding with the Declaration of Independence, the date or context of the Emancipation Proclamation, The Gettysburg Address, or the speech, I Have a Dream;
- Ever shrinking numbers of American high school graduates and college graduates know the framework of the United States Constitution or principles such as federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, or the Bill of Rights; and
- Instead of this factual and historical knowledge, American students are being subjected to a relentless form of anti-American propaganda teaching that the United States is a uniquely evil and racist country, by means of deceptively named theories and pedagogies such as Action Civics, Anti-Racism, Critical Race Theory, Globalist Civics, and Neo-Marxist forms of “Social Justice” Activism;
We call on all Americans to insist that their local institutions of public education adopt real and rigorous civics education, in both K-12 schools and state universities, and to exclude from these institutions the pseudo-civic education that instills hostility to America and its heritage.
This real civics education will be based on instilling knowledge of historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution and will teach foundational principles of our limited and representative government such as federalism and the separation of powers. It will ban the teaching of political activism and will prepare our young people to become informed citizens in a self-governing republic who respect the differing political viewpoints of fellow Americans.
K-8 Civics Curriculum
Elementary and middle schools should lay the foundations for knowledge of American geography, history, and government. English Language Arts and Social Studies should include substantial coverage of admirable Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Abraham Lincoln, who will inspire young Americans to love their country.
High School Civics Curriculum
The 9-12 Civics Curriculum should include:
- a one-year course on the history and structure of the American government. This course should include and test for knowledge on documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, extracts from the Federalist Papers, and the Emancipation Proclamation.
- a one-year course on American history from the Mayflower to the present. This sequence should include significant material on the War of Independence and the Constitutional Founding. Throughout, it should be designed to include significant biographical material on exemplary Americans—civic heroes—and to provide both our constitutional history and its historical context. For example, materials and teaching on slavery should situate the American practice of slavery within the pervasive practice of slavery throughout human history and mention how exceptional was the American abolitionist movement.
- A ban on political activism. The 9-12 Civics Curriculum should contain exclusively academic instruction and should ban any form of political activism, with no credit for and no encouragement of service-learning, civic engagement, action civics, or any cognate activity.
The College Board’s AP United States Government and Politics Advanced Placement Examination now asks students to complete a Project Requirement of action civics. No high school class should teach an Advanced Placement class that requires action civics; no state money should fund taking advanced placement tests that require action civics; no public university should give credit to courses that require action civics.
Hich School Civics Assessment
All public K-12 students should take a culminating civic literacy examination that was developed independently (i.e., not by the local school or classroom teacher). Such tests, which could cover both American history and American government, would provide a means of assessing civics instruction in the high school, and would provide information that colleges can use to determine whether incoming students possess sufficient civics literacy to take a college-level course.
College Civics Literacy Test: Matriculation
Each state should require all incoming students at public universities to take a civics literacy test, for which the high school civics examination described above can substitute, to determine whether they possess basic civic literacy. Students who have not passed that test must take a remedial civics literacy course that will cover the material they should have learned in high school. Students who have completed this course must take the civics literacy test again and will not be allowed to graduate, or progress to more advanced civics instruction, until they pass this test.
College Civics Curriculum
Each state should integrate a college civics curriculum into their public university General Education Requirements. The College Civics Curriculum should include:
- two semesters of European history, from Periclean Athens to the present, which highlight the historical development of republics and democracies, and the intellectual, social, and cultural developments that have sustained the birth of free nations in Europe. These courses should also fulfill distribution requirements in the Humanities.
- two semesters of United States history, providing an undergraduate-level survey. These courses should also fulfill distribution requirements in the Social Sciences.
- two semesters of United States government, fostering students’ ability to engage in intelligent discussion and argument about the core political texts of our republic, and to integrate associated historical material as a supplement (but not a replacement) to close reading of these texts’ actual words. The two courses in the United States government sequence should consist of:
- The American Founding. This course should focus on the texts and debates of the period between 1763 and 1796. It should include extracts from philosophical inspirations, such as the works of Locke and Montesquieu; revolutionary polemics by figures such as John Adams and Thomas Paine; close discussion of the work of Thomas Jefferson, including the Declaration of Independence and the Notes on the State of Virginia;the Constitution; the Federalist Papers; the Bill of Rights; and George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796).
- The American Debate. This course should focus on the political debate among the different heirs to the Founding Fathers, and the debate’s institutionalization in the party system. This course should include material on the Jacksonian challenge to the remnants of social and political deference in America; the crisis of slavery and secession that led to the Civil War and reshaped America’s constitutional order; the Progressive and New Deal re-modelings of the constitution; a survey of contending philosophies of constitutional interpretation; and a parallel survey of notable judicial decisions from Marbury v. Madison (1803) to District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).
These courses should also fulfill distribution requirements in the Social Sciences.
This College Civics Curriculum should contain exclusively academic instruction, with no credit for and no encouragement of service-learning, civic engagement, action civics, or any cognate activity.
Dual-Course Credit, Core Transfer Curriculum, and Mutual Recognition Among States
All courses in the College Civics Curriculum should be available for high school students, both as dual courses taught in public K-12 schools and as dual credit courses in community colleges. All courses in the College Civics Curriculum should be incorporated into a Core Transfer Curriculum, to allow students to transfer credit easily among public institutions. Different states should review the courses in their College Civics Curricula and allow students to transfer course credit between different state university systems.
College Civics Literacy Test: Graduation
Each state should require all graduating students at public universities to take a civics literacy test. Students who have failed this test must take the civics literacy test again and will not be allowed to graduate until they pass this test.
Teachers in state public schools who teach English or Social Studies must have passed all six (6) courses in the College Civics Curriculum, taught by the college of liberal arts and not in schools of education.
Each state legislature should create two commissions, both independent of the state board of education and the state department of education, one to create state civics standards and one to enforce them. One of these commissions, composed of national and local scholars who support traditional, academic civic education, should develop civics curriculum standards and assessments that meet the requirements outlined here for rigorous and real civics education. The second commission, also composed of national and local scholars who support traditional, academic civic education, should be empowered to investigate and report upon administrative and classroom practice, to ensure that the required civics curriculum standards are being observed and put into practice.
The civics curriculum should focus on educating students exclusively on the academic content of civics. The courses should not be exercises in partisanship or ventures in social activism. Students will study primary sources throughout and read serious secondary books and articles in quantities appropriate for college-level courses. They will learn the tools of analysis and critique and be able to converse and argue about any key idea in both oral and written forms. While these courses will go into depth on the topics of how our government works and why it is organized as it is, they must also aim to help students acquire some of the civic virtues that higher education is especially suited to provide, especially the ability to engage in civil debate. Civics classes must teach these virtues and capacities because legal protections of rights in a free republic ultimately depend on a cultural consensus that must be transmitted to each new generation. This consensus includes individual liberty for every citizen, especially with respect to political speech and conscience. When such traditions decay in everyday life, purely governmental protections risk becoming a dead letter.
No Action Civics
No funds disbursed by a state may fund, facilitate, or in any way support any “Service-learning,” “Service-learning Coordinator,” or “Service Sponsor,” as defined in 42 U.S.C. §12511(40, 41, 42) (Definitions: Service-learning, Service-learning Coordinator, Service Sponsor). This ban should be broadened as necessary to prevent funding of civic engagement, action civics, or any cognate activity.
The different states should each adopt their own version of this Civics Curriculum. The federal government should play no role in this effort and no state should accept federal funding for the Civics Curriculum, since such funding inevitably entails federal regulation and control. Neither should a compact of the states attempt to subvert federalism by establishing a monolithic, national Civics Curriculum. The mutual recognition of state Civics Curricula to allow course credit transfer between different state university systems, for example, should not inhibit each state’s ability to set its own Civics Curriculum.
Any state-level education bureaucracy or assessment may itself be captured by radical activists. State-level Civics Curriculum reforms therefore should grant authority to local school boards and independent charter schools to adopt or develop their own K-12 civics curricula and assessments.
The civics curriculum throughout should emphasize tensions among ideals within the constitutional system—how different liberties can conflict, how some may be irreconcilable, and how some are subject to compromise that leaves mutual dissatisfaction among contending parties.
The civics curriculum, in other words, should teach students to understand their opponents, to live with their political to-do lists unfulfilled, and, most importantly, to understand that true civic engagement includes an appreciation for the constitutional order, whose preservation should be deemed a virtue outweighing any substantive political goal—save only the imperative to preserve every American’s inherent and inalienable liberties, which the Constitution is intended to secure, but did not create.