Self-governance is hard. The founders thought each generation would need to attach to democratic principles and practices for the republic to survive. Expanded K-12 education became the major vehicle for promulgating democratic sentiments and civic engagement. Unfortunately, civic education has become diminished at present. A broad group of educators, myself included, has created Californians for Civic Learning to help remedy this situation.
Civic education has been neglected for several reasons, but among the most prominent are civics and history being squeezed out by excessive focus on reading and math, educators lacking an in-depth knowledge of our history and democratic ideals and practices, and the fear of becoming embroiled in controversial issues.
One of Californians for Civic Learning’s first projects was to develop a statement to support local and state educators who wish to expand civic education including the teaching of controversial topics but need ammunition to fend off extremist attacks or anti-democratic internal pressure from both left and right.
The statement listed Californians for Civic Learning’s core beliefs under the theory that the specifics matter in any public discussion and being for something is more powerful than just opposition or being dismissive. Then, it rejected extremes on both sides, which in many cases are causing educators to avoid or skew the teaching of these democratic ideals and practices. Some quotes from the declaration follow:
We believe schools should help students understand, cherish, and be willing to protect our democratic ideals, norms, and practices and pursue the continual struggle to make our nation “a more perfect union.”
We believe students should understand the organization and structure of American governance, the role of private institutions and community organizations, the issues that have tested our nation’s unity, and the opportunities to realize its ideals and practices moving forward.
We believe students should understand and commit to our democratic creed originating in the universal ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the ideals and structures expressed in our Constitution, including:
- the ideals of consent of the governed, majority rule with protections for the minority, the right to vote, periodic elections, the peaceful transfer of power, federalism and the separation of power, an independent judiciary, and protections against using government power to harass individuals or groups;
- individual rights and protections from the government
- individual responsibility for acting as a good citizen;
- liberty and autonomy to pursue individual or group goals;
- tolerance, equality, and respect for the humanity of fellow citizens and cultures regardless of race,culture, or opinion;
- the pursuit of justice;
- the rule of law, equal protection of the law, and the idea that no person is above the law;
- free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion;
- accountability and transparency of government and the idea that elected representatives must respect our institutions and be accountable for their actions, veracity, and lack of corruption;
- the importance of compromise based on discussion, deliberation, and truth grounded in evidence and facts; and
- the idea that the purpose of those in government is to further “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of its people and protect the Constitution not enrich itself.
We believe students should learn America’s ever-evolving story and the stories of the various groups and cultures which have contributed to the creation of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic diverse country comprised of citizens from all parts of the globe. We believe students should learn when we have failed to live up to our ideals, such as slavery and discrimination, and the ongoing progress we are making to correct these evils.
We believe schools can no longer avoid controversial and complex topics, with global information flow in the palm of every student’s hand. We therefore believe instruction should be neutral and unbiased, where students learn the skills and dispositions to argue from facts and evidence without personal attacks, while listening to and understanding alternative viewpoints.
These value statements have changed and expanded over time and there are continuing disagreements over their meaning. But a good curriculum incorporating these values as outlined in the California History/Social Studies framework [rated among the five best in the country by the Fordham Institute] encourages citizenship grounded in these democratic ideals and habits. The framework also includes expositions of why these values are crucial to the health of our nation and what happens when they start to erode as has occurred in some failed democracies. As important, it recommends a history which includes our struggles to live up to those ideals which sometimes were successful and often fell short. Finally, the framework is a useful tool to combat extremist pressure groups.
What Californians for Civic Learning rejects:
We reject the ideas of some of the extreme left:
- instilling collective racial guilt in today’s children (while we support efforts to examine the horrors of our past and develop a passion for justice going forward);
- advocating that American democratic ideals and institutions as being hopelessly corrupted by racism;
- believing that race (or gender or sexuality) is the primary lens to view our history and that a person’s identity limits legitimate comment on discrimination; and
- discounting the progress the nation has made in becoming a more perfect union (granting that we still have a long way to go).
We reject the ideas of some of the extreme right who want to:
- present a whitewashed version of American history and civics;
- disregard the evils of slavery, slaughter, and discrimination in our past;
- refuse to address continuing injustice and racism in the present; and
- pass dangerous laws and school policies prohibiting content that doesn’t support their views.
A final note. Many advocates on both sides maintain that the ideas we reject are strawmen. Fine. If you don’t believe in these extremes than join the large coalition that desires civic education and a robust history.
However, many educators dismiss the idea that Critical Race Theory is being taught in schools by the disingenuous ploy of saying that CRT is a decades-old complex academic subject primarily confined to law schools and graduate studies and can’t be found in K-12 classrooms. They also argue that opposition to CRT means opposing teaching about racism. Yet, CRT’s progenies are being taught in some places and promulgated to teachers in trainings by the equity industry—white guilt, the illegitimacy of democratic ideals such as the rule of law, individual merit, color-blindness, and objective truth as being fronts for protecting male white privilege. They also advocate that the primary way of viewing society is through a narrow racial or gender lens so racial and gender identity conveying victim or oppressor status become paramount in viewing the world. Other important identities such as individual personality, place, job or profession, class, family status, religion, moral beliefs, political stances, etc., which describe the rich human complexity of each unique individual and the human condition are discounted.
Parents know what they see and hear. Yes, there are astroturf groups exaggerating CRT problems for political gain, but that does not negate valid complaints about CRT excesses. Most parents want schools to encourage empathy, compassion, respect, tolerance, magnanimity, and a willingness to fight injustice. These parents don’t want schools stoking shame, resentment, tribalism and hostility. Dismissing legitimate complaints as unfounded just jeopardizes public education by alienating such parents and losing their support for a more robust civic education.
As an example, in California, university CRT advocates on the committee to develop a guide to the newly mandated ethnic studies curriculum produced a document that was chock full of CRT ideas and language. It was rejected by the State Board of Education. A second draft was much more aligned to the ideas expressed above. The legislation provided $50 million for grants to local districts to develop an ethnic studies curriculum. Many of the advocates who developed the rejected first draft have repudiated the adopted second draft and are convincing some districts to submit proposals in keeping with the rebuffed first draft. Guidelines are being developed, so we shall see if they prevent such maneuvers.
Similar examples can be found in the previous New York City superintendent indoctrinating his staff and teachers in a variety of CRT ideas, the Virginia state superintendent promulgating comparable statements, or the enormous effect that CRT true believers have had on the curriculum in the top fifty elite private schools.
On the right, while it is true that many conservatives have agreed that slavery and the attempts to overcome racism should be included in the curriculum, there still are voices that don’t want teachers to teach anything negative about this country. Polls show significant portions of Republicans oppose schools teaching about the history of racism and about how the history of racism affects America today. Some even want to ban books such as the story of Rosa Parks or prevent students from viewing the Norman Rockwell painting of a little African-American girl braving the mob to attend school.
We believe that most parents and citizens will support the Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass approach emphasizing the importance of our democratic ideals and practices as a beacon for the continuing struggle to create “a more perfect union.” Our hope is that, if given the specifics of what should be taught, well-meaning educators will reject both extremes and assure that each student receives a powerful education in civic engagement.
Bill Honig is a former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction and former chair of the California Instructional Quality Commission, which developed the California History/Social Studies Framework. He is a board member of Californians for Civic Learning.
Last updated December 9, 2021