Civics Education: Necessary Principles and Curriculum Sketch

We have copied the text of this webpage from David Randall’s Learning for Self-Government A K–12 Civics Report Card (Pioneer Institute and National Association of Scholars, 2022).

Civics Education: Necessary Principles

A proper civics education should teach students about all of America’s foundational ideals. These include ideals of libertyconstitutional orderthe expansion of libertythe preservation of the republicthe expansion of the republiccommercial expansionnational interestnational unitymoral crusadepopulist revolt, and moderation.

Civics classes should teach our ideals of liberty. These include ideals of political, religious, and economic liberty embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Greek philosophy, Roman republicanism, English ideals of local self-government, common law, and Parliamentary sovereignty, and Enlightenment philosophy; the enduring importance of liberty secured in natural law; and the long struggles by America’s forebears to achieve and to institutionalize ever greater amounts of liberty. Students should learn the outline of the millennia of intellectual and political history encapsulated in Lincoln’s phrase “a new nation, conceived in liberty.”

Civics classes also should teach how our constitutional order was framed to secure Americans’ liberty within the framework of an enduring republic. They should learn the importance of separation of powers, federalism, and the individual liberties secured by the Bill of Rights, as well as the effect on our constitution of later amendments and judicial decisions. This history of the later changes to the American constitution should be framed as the history of how Americans in each generation have sought to work within their extraordinary constitutional inheritance to reaffirm their natural liberty.

Students should learn how Americans have expanded their liberty. They should learn about the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, and America’s rededication to liberty for all. They also should learn about all our struggles for economic, social, and political liberty, whose successful outcome has characterized our republic. They should, finally, learn about the challenges to liberty posed by the ever-expanding administrative state, and the need to defend Americans’ hard-won liberties from illiberal managers who seek to govern in the stead of the people.

Civics classes should teach the fundamental need to preserve the republic. The republic first must survive before it can assure the liberty and well-being of its citizens. The survival of the Union is as important a moral goal as any substantive liberty the republic forwards. This, after all, was the moral imperative behind so much of antebellum political thought—that Americans should sacrifice other goals for the preservation of the Union. We cannot understand the spirit that animated men such as Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Stephen Douglas, the Compromises of 1820 and 1850, or indeed why Lincoln and the bulk of Northerners fought to preserve the Union, if we do not understand the power of that ideal. Nor can we teach our children that the preservation of the Union matters more than some crusade for liberty or social justice—that compromise to preserve the Union is a fundamental moral good. It is no use to teach children the way our republic works if we do not also teach them to cherish its survival.

Civics classes also should teach why our forefathers worked so hard to expand the republic—for a larger republic is a more durable republic, and one better able to foster the well-being of its citizens. The older republican tradition focused on military and territorial expansion; the American civic tradition has incorporated this imperative. Our children should understand that our conquest of half the continent fulfilled the moral imperative to expand the republic— and left as its residue in our constitutional architecture the expansion of the number of states from 13 to 50, a fact that any civics course should accord fundamental importance. It has also bequeathed to us the territorial resources for our prosperity and greatness. Our civics classes should teach students to be grateful to the pioneers whose conquests established our nation, and to whom we owe every comfort and private joy.

The newer commercial republican tradition focused on commercial expansion as the means of republican greatness; so too has America. Students should know that we foster economic growth in service of the republic—and in service of republican liberty, for the republican argument for commerce has always depended upon the concomitant that it buttresses our liberty. Students should understand that we support commercial expansion not as an absolute good in itself, but only insofar as it serves the republic and its citizens’ liberties; that we support American businesses only insofar as they support the republican order and do not decay into oligarchic malefactors of great wealth.

Both territorial and commercial expansion are meant to serve the national interest, which also has been served by the extension of our diplomatic influence on foreign nations. Students should understand and esteem the thread of national interest that links the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary, our interventions in successive world wars, the Cold War, and our shifting trade policies—all to serve the republic and the liberty and prosperity of America’s citizens. Students should understand that our foreign policy should serve the national interest.

Students also should understand the imperative of national unity—the need to unite and preserve the American nation. Here students should understand that the American nation was not founded in 1776, but in 1607 and 1620, by boatloads of English settlers. The American nation is the daughter of England, much augmented by adopted children from other nations, and its customs remain those of the English nation, as transplanted to American soil. The American republic was born in a declaration of abstract principle, but it was born in the American nation and to forward “its posterity.” The new republic built itself and has continued to depend upon the manners of these transplanted Englishmen—their religion, their law, their books, their entertainments, their attachment to liberty, their mutual affection for one another, and their con-mingled pride in their nation and their republic. It is a civic imperative to assimilate America’s adopted children to the manners of the Englishmen who founded the nation, to foster affectionate reverence for their adopted forefathers, to build in them affection for other Americans that supersedes all other affections of kith, creed—and ideology. Civics classes must teach student to love their fellow Americans as members of a common nation, no matter what principles they uphold.

Civics classes should teach students to cherish America’s national characteristics, including its Puritan predisposition to moral crusade. They also should teach students to recognize that the Founders framed our republic to slow the adoption by government of crusading zeal. The dispersal and balance of power within government, the difficulty of making amendments, the repeal of Prohibition, the failure to adopt the Equal Rights Amendments—all these, as much as the successful crusades for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage, witness the character and history of a government designed to ensure that an enthusiastic people only changes its constitution when the enthusiasms are general and enduring.

Civics classes also should teach students to cherish America’s national characteristic of populist revolt—a conviction, frequently justified, that our social and political elite have turned the rules of the game into an exercise in self-dealing corruption. The limitation of government power, and its dispersal, both articulate that same suspicion—but our constitutional machinery is not a sufficient means to prevent such corruption. Populist revolt, a radical suspicion of government, is itself an aspect of America’s civic disposition—the complement of the mutual good faith needed for the republic’s constitutional machinery to run in ordinary times. Our republic can grow brittle without regular populist rebellion against the sons of Belial and Mammon.

Finally, civics classes should teach the virtue of moderation. Barry Goldwater provided the best retort: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” But it is not entirely true. Moderation, even in the pursuit of justice and the defense of liberty, is also a virtue, and an eminently civic one. The spirit of moderation animates the desire to preserve the republic and to tolerate our fellow Americans, to check our own deepest convictions with some accommodation to the deepest convictions of our fellow citizens who disagree with us. Moderation eschews the desire for justice, though the skies fall; the moderate man would prefer the skies to stay where they are while he works slowly for justice. We should educate our children to praise and practice this virtue.

Civics Education: Curriculum Sketch

This catalogue of civic principles requires a complex syllabus, with a varied cast of American heroes to emblematize America and its virtues.

A civics curriculum should provide sustained coverage of colonial America, and not rush from the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence. Students should learn of the birth of the American nation, from Puritan theology and English common law, the practice of town meetings and colonial assemblies, the farmers’ conquests of the frontier and the merchants’ seaborne search for profit, the fire of the First Great Awakening and the unruly mobs who made the American Revolution. They should know above all of the civic virtues of the self-made Benjamin Franklin, but also of the preacher Jonathan Edwards, the rebel Jacob Leisler, and the pioneer Daniel Boone.

A civics curriculum should tell students of the founding of their country—of Thomas Paine who argued that liberty was common sense, of Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence, of George Washington who led the Patriot army to victory and independence, of James Madison who thought out how our Constitution could preserve liberty. They also should know of the ordinary Americans who fought and died to achieve independence—and who deliberated at length before they voted to adopt our constitution as the best means to secure liberty for their posterity.

A civics curriculum should provide sustained coverage of the desire to preserve and expand America. The iconic figure here should be Andrew Jackson—the man who fought the British and opposed John Calhoun, as well as the avatar of radical populism who fought and defeated the banking elites. A civics curriculum also should explain how the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine have served as the charter assertions of our continental republic and its right to act abroad for liberty and national interest.

A civics curriculum should teach of the expansion of American liberty. It should teach of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan. It should teach that crusades for liberty should be confident, but never self-righteous; and that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address teaches us to pursue freedom “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”

A civics curriculum should emphasize the importance of national unity and of assimilation into a common culture. The civics curriculum should praise iconic figures who have contributed to and been committed to the forging of a common American culture, including Noah Webster, William McGuffey, Irving Berlin, John Wayne, and Jackie Robinson.

A civics curriculum should praise the virtues of populist revolt. The iconic figure should be William Jennings Bryan, both preacher and rebel, who thundered, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The civics curriculum should explore how the Populists discomfited both the Jim Crow Democrats and the Wall Street Republicans—and how, if temporarily defeated, most of the measures they advocated eventually became law. A civics curriculum should mention both the successes of populist revolt and how populist revolts can go astray, and evaluate the contributions of the recurrent icons of populist revolt, including Huey Long, Ross Perot, and Donald Trump.

A civics curriculum should give due weight to the power of moral crusade in American history. A whole slew of figures should be placed within this tradition of moral crusade— William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown, Anthony Comstock and Charles Parkhurst, Carrie Nation and Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul and Jerry Falwell. A civics curriculum should evaluate the positive and negative contributions of these crusades, inspire students to crusade—and warn them to be wary of crusaders.

A civics curriculum should praise the virtues of moderation in the exercise of national interest. The iconic figure should be Dwight Eisenhower, who practiced moderation both as military commander of our European armies during World War II and as president at home—the great compromiser who made his peace with the New Deal but prevented its further expansion, whose appointees Earl Marshall and Herbert Brownell carefully forwarded the cause of civil rights, and who presided over the apogee of American prosperity.

Such a civics curriculum should be taught in history and literature classes as well as civics classes. There are limited numbers of classroom hours. By shorthand, however, we should say that a civics curriculum should teach together Washington and Jackson, Lincoln and Bryan, Eisenhower and King—the love of liberty, republic and nation; the populist radicalism and the smooth moderation; the crusading heart and the commitment to natural law. Together they articulate the civic virtues that have made America.