by Dr. Keri D. Ingraham
Six former U.S. education secretaries, who served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, are sounding the alarm about the grave danger our constitutional democracy faces. Years of political polarization have culminated in riots in our cities spanning months, along with the storming of the U.S. Capitol. These events point to a root cause of our plight: our failure to provide sound civics and history teaching in America’s K-12 schools.
Even when civics and history are taught in our schools, there is discord concerning the content and how to teach it. And too often, teacher unions, instead of modeling positive social behavior, promote indoctrination of students on partisan political viewpoints. They also make outlandish demands in exchange for teachers returning to the classroom to provide the services they’ve been hired to fulfill — in-person schooling for our children.
Failure to Teach Civics
Civics, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens,” is nonexistent in most American schools today. Forty-two of our 50 states don’t require civics for graduation. This was not always the case. Civics used to be foundational to public education. As Charles Salter points out in an article for Education Week, since its beginnings, public education’s basic purpose was to “preserve and perpetuate a functioning democratic society by educating citizens in the ways of that democracy.” Thomas Jefferson wisely noted that public education should “educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
Salter goes on to say that without civics, we are producing “an electorate that has not been taught to think deeply about how a democracy is supposed to function, the public’s role in making it function, or how to assess the information it receives before making decisions.” This lack of education results in an inability to self-govern effectively. Look no further than the mob rule that has become commonplace in America’s largest cities during the last year for a dramatic example of this ignorance of civics playing out.
This deficiency is especially troublesome in an age of the proliferation of news not based on a balanced and objective presentation of facts, but rather intended to trigger emotion and manipulate public beliefs. Flipping between polar news stations will result in widely conflicting summaries of the day’s events — with a given event spun to fuel the larger narrative the station promotes.
Students are usually not prepared to make independent, knowledge-based assessments of what is being presented from the media and through social media. A prime example is the reporting on the “mostly peaceful” rioting in American cities throughout the summer of 2020 and beyond, which caused billions of dollars of damage to public and private properties and numerous injuries and deaths of law enforcement personnel. But depending on what media outlets you follow, your impression of these destructive events may vary greatly.
Another example is the conflating of a phrase that virtually everyone supports — that black lives, do in fact, matter — with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization. Protesting in cities across America by the millions, many of these BLM supporters were unaware that they are championing Marxist ideas — let alone what Marxism is at its core:
Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy named after Karl Marx. It examines the effect of capitalism on labor, productivity, and economic development and argues for a worker revolution to overturn capitalism in favor of communism…. As a result of the revolution, Marx predicted that private ownership of the means of production would be replaced by collective ownership, under socialism first and then communism. In the final stage of human development, social classes and class struggle would no longer exist.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of BLM, confirmed the connection between BLM and Marxism, explaining that she and fellow organizers are “trained Marxists. We are super-versed.” In her book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Cullors describes her introduction to Marxism as protégé of Eric Mann. She devoted years to studying Marxism under the former agitator of the Weather Underground domestic terror organization.
The 1619 Project — Redefining U.S. History
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ controversial 1619 Project, published in the New York Times Magazine in August 2019, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Hannah-Jones’ major premise reads, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
Scroll through the 1619 Project’s homepage, and you’ll find something other than straightforward historical content. Rather, in support of a radical reinterpretation of America’s founding and history, the project outlines what Princeton historian Sean Wilentz describes as “falsehoods, distortions, and significant omissions.” Teachers are encouraged on the website to use the project’s content in their classrooms, and a link is provided to access free resources, including curricula, guides, and activities.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) wasted no time adopting the 1619 Project as official district curriculum in September 2019, a mere month after its publication. The CEO of the district, Dr. Janice Jackson, provided each CPS high school with 200-400 copies in what she describes as a “resource to help reframe the institution of slavery, and how we’re still influenced by it today.”
Three states — Arkansas, Iowa, and Mississippi — are looking to ban the 1619 Project. But the Biden administration, despite the widespread criticism of the project’s historical accuracy, cited it as the type of instruction that would be a priority in a new American History and Civics Education grant program. This is far more than a slippery slope — it’s an outright abandonment of a fact-based education in exchange for an agenda-based indoctrination.
An alternative to the 1619 Project is 1776 Unites, which “represents a nonpartisan and intellectually diverse alliance of writers, thinkers, and activities focused on solutions to our country’s greatest challenges in education, culture, and upward mobility.” The group acknowledges racial discrimination exists and works toward eliminating it. But instead of attempting to “demoralize and demonize our country and its foundations from within” or turning Americans “against one another with false history and grievance politics,” 1776 Unites seeks to bring hope and solutions for America’s future.
Organizations such as the Freedom Education Foundation have been diligently at work to counteract the civics void in American high school and college classrooms by providing schools with an alternative. Their FreedomCivics curriculum is based on traditional U.S. history, free enterprise, and the founding documents.
In summary, history content in today’s classrooms is largely taught from a partisan viewpoint — that of the left and often the far left. Instead of presenting historical facts and fostering higher-order thinking skills, the indoctrination of our future electorate aims to produce generations who will blindly support ideologies without fact-based evaluation.
Teachers unions play a powerful role in shaping this radical narrative within K-12 schools. It starts with indoctrinating teachers through leveraging union influence obtained by controlling teachers’ purse strings. In turn, teachers indoctrinate students with far-left ideology.
In conjunction with indoctrinating teachers, unions attempt to sway the curriculum used in classrooms to align with their agenda. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teacher union in the U.S., unashamedly boasted of her work to get “the 1619 Project directly to educators.”
Additionally, teacher unions themselves model a serious lack of respect for civics and history. As increasingly seen during the pandemic, teacher unions exploit their power to manipulate state and federal governmental policy. Case in point is their lack of urgency for getting students back into classrooms.
For example, last July, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s teachers union, 35,000 members strong, asserted their schools should not reopen unless a host of demands were met on the state and national level, far exceeding any area in which they could claim legitimate union interests — and over which the local government does not have any influence. Their demand list included “implementing a moratorium on charter schools, defunding the police, increasing taxes on the wealthy, implementing Medicare-for-All, and the U.S. Senate and President Donald Trump approving House Democrats’ HEROES Act, which allocated an additional $116 billion in federal education funding to states.” These demands are so far outside the scope of their members’ roles in K-12 classrooms that they’d be laughable if not for the harm being done to our students.
Teacher union misbehavior doesn’t stop there. The AFT, which has 1.7 million members, has resolved to support the Green New Deal, including its more radical aspects. The California affiliate of the AFT, known as the CFT, has made a similar resolve, and California schools have adopted this content into school curricula. The result has been extreme fear-mongering directed at our children, who are led to believe that the Earth and all our lives are in imminent danger due to climate change.
The void of civics teaching, redefining history, and teacher union overreach all go hand-in-hand with the recent intrusion of extremist agendas in the political sphere more broadly. Using taxpayer money, a new wave of teacher training and student indoctrination is storming schools. Part three of this series will expose Critical Race Theory teacher training, woke education, and the redefining of mathematics.
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Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow at Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.