Schools must teach more history, civics

While searching for important documents that might shed some light on the lessons of history (to be included on the website dataforamericaspastthroughlocalhistory.com), the following quote, selected from among many created during the formation of our country, seems to be particularly relevant today. I can’t help wonder how many graduates of our schools have never heard of the Federalist Papers, or have been exposed to them but have not internalized their meaning for revealing important understandings about today’s political controversies. A result is civic ignorance, which plays a major role in behavior that is being played out across this land.

Beginning in 1786, Alexander Hamilton addressed the people of the state of New York, asserting in the “General Introduction” of the Federalist Papers that “Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.” (Emphasis added.)

In a prior Guest Commentary, retired Justice Souter’s thoughts about civic ignorance were featured that deserve repeating: “I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military, as has happened in some other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power, and I will solve this problem.’

“That is how the Roman Republic fell. Augustus became emperor not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.

“If we know who is responsible, I have enough faith in the American people to demand performance from those responsible. If we don’t know, we will stay away from polls, we will not demand it, and the day will come when someone will come forward, and we in government will, in effect, say, ‘Take the ball, and do what you have to do.’

“That is the way democracy dies, and if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about at night.”

Improving the level of civic knowledge and understanding is a responsibility of our schools.

Solving the problems connected with civic ignorance begins when those in decision-making roles acknowledge that schools have major responsibilities for the current state of affairs. The extent of civic ignorance is obvious in the current political discourse, and there is widespread ignorance about what to do about it.

Democratic processes require in its citizens a tolerance for ambiguity, a willingness to examine rigid positions regarding the application of values and clarity about those values that contribute to human decency. These are personal orientations that can be developed in schools. Absent these orientations, democratic processes are hindered or prevented from happening.

Many citizens assume positions in politics that appear to reflect an ignorance about and a lack of tolerance for democratic processes. Education in its present form does little to affect the development of those attitudes, values and personal orientations required for conducting democratic processes.

Implications for sustaining a democratic republic within ever-increasing global connections places a heavy burden on schools that cannot be ignored. If we do not move now to correct this situation, we risk enduring the same results as with the Roman Republic before us.

A recent publication of the Sons of the American Revolution Foundation, a national organization, announces an effort to ensure a commitment to our democracy and its processes, and “seeks to help fill the ever-increasing gap in history and civics education within our school systems through its newly developed Center for Advancing America’s Heritage.”

They explain that “since the 1960s the American education system has consistently reduced the amount of time/emphasis spent on social studies and history relating to our system of government, our founding fathers, and our struggle for independence during the American Revolution. This trend affects our ability to teach our children the stories of our past to better understand the issues of today.”

Recognizing the need for increased emphasis on history in the school curriculum is a positive development. Increased emphasis can be expected to help preserve our constitutional form of governance and make a positive contribution toward elimination of civic ignorance. The question remains, however, what kinds of experience offered in schools will develop an understanding and lasting commitment to the principles of democracy that aid development of an understanding of the issues of today?

The Valcour Battle Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution has launched a program to address this question. It is based on a belief that young learners can find excitement in learning history and can become lifelong learners of history if they actively engage the materials and tools of inquiry that belong to historians.

The Valcour Chapter of SAR has introduced its plan under the title “America’s Past Through the Eyes of Local History.” An in-depth study of the local community, using the methods and materials of the disciplines of history and geography, links the events and patterns of history, geography and cultural phenomena to the personal lives of local citizens. An in-depth local study develops self-understanding in the context of the place and times where life occurs. It provides a powerful motivation for continuing to investigate theirs and other places and times, and to internalize the lessons of history and geography, having realized the positive connections that each of our lives can make with the past.

Our website, americaspastthroughtheeyesoflocalhistory.com, invites participation.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

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