Conservatives Should Give the New Civics Roadmap a Fair Chance 

Peter Wood’s statement on behalf of the National Association of Scholars repudiates a national study on K-12 civic education, Educating for American Democracy, that we helped to write across the past two years. He accuses the study’s “Roadmap,” intended to guide curriculum development in states, districts, and local schools, of containing only a veneer of national-consensus spirit or content, offering not a common American civics but a counterfeit, leftist one. He mentions us by name because we had defended the EAD project against earlier, equally ferocious criticisms, convinced it is a worthy effort to overcome decades of conflict over civics curricula which has only produced less time for, and lower quality of, civics learning in schools. 

Wood insists that those who “read closely” the Roadmap will see that it “is designed with Swiss clock precision to chime on all the notes of America, land of oppression,” such that that we, along with several other conservative experts on the American founding, American history, and American political thought and constitutionalism who contributed to the study, have fallen for a clever a plot to insinuate an anti-American, leftist civics—“protest civics”—into schools nationwide. 

In response, we ask for the real counterfeit to please stand up. Where is the National Association of Scholars that stands for carefully reasoned, rigorously sourced, and constructive contributions to American academic and civic life? Where is the scholarly spirit that would stand in contrast to, rather than mirror, the ideological cant of the Left? 

Wood claims that the EAD Roadmap teaches only “cynicism” about America; it is “essentially a sales brochure” that features “progressive political views” that will lead teachers to undermine “traditional and well-attested concepts of American history and civics.” 

Very well: In addition to the few passages he quotes, consider these examples from the Roadmap’s Grades 6-8 and Grades 9-12 questions that states, schools, and teachers can use to build a detailed curriculum:

  • Why does the Declaration of Independence close with the signers stating they “mutually pledge” their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor”? Why does Lincoln ask Americans to be “dedicated” to ensuring “a new birth of freedom”? Why did many abolitionists, women’s suffrage advocates, and civil rights advocates not lose faith in what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the American dream” of equal justice even when they long had been denied justice? (EAD Roadmap p. 8, “Civic Participation” theme)
  • What values, virtues, and principles can knit together “We, the People” of the United States of America? (p. 15, “We the People” theme) 
  • What rights and duties do citizens of the United States of America have?
  • What is meant by Article IV (section 4): “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government”? Why was it important to “guarantee” such a system in every existing or potential state?
  • How do state constitutions and other membership charters, in addition to the federal Constitution, define who “we, the people” are?
  • How do the principles of liberty and equality contribute to defining the American people?
  • How can we ensure “liberty and justice for all”?
  • What values and virtues does the Pledge of Allegiance ask us to think about?
  • What key texts and songs help us understand the values and virtues of citizenship and civic participation?
  • What is significant about the final sentence of the Declaration—for the founders, and for us today? (p. 18, “We the People” theme)
  • What role is played in my own life and in American society by values and virtues such as patriotism, civic duty, toleration, respect, dignity, civil disagreement, civic friendship, courage, justice, initiative, service, and volunteerism? (p. 19, “We the People” theme)
  • How did the founders of the United States draw on the history of prior experiments with free government around the world and over history as they pursued the Revolution and designed the Constitution?
  • What historical precedents (classical, British, Native, and other) shaped the founding documents of the United States?
  • How unified were the rebellious British colonies and the early United States?
  • What did the words of the Declaration of Independence mean in 1776? Was the nation founded on equality or inequality?
  • What is meant by “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and by the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence? What other ideas of religion, philosophy, or law are invoked in the Declaration?
  • What trade-offs were involved in declaring independence and establishing the Articles of Confederation, state constitutions, and the U.S. Constitution? (p. 23, “A New Government and Constitution” theme)
  • Did Lincoln intend a “new birth of freedom” as a refinement of, or revolution against, the founding of the United States? Did the Great Awakenings of the 19th century or the rise of evangelicalism in the 20th century change American culture in ways that add up to a refounding? (p. 28, “Institutional and Social Transformations” theme)
  • How did the American Revolution impact international law? What vision for foreign relations did Washington set out in his Farewell Address? (p. 33, “A People in the World” theme)
  • What is reflective patriotism? How can we balance critical and constructive engagement with our society, our constitutionalism, and our history, and still be proud to be Americans? (p. 39, “Contemporary Debates & Possibilities” theme)

There’s more, but anyone who is fair-minded can recognize that the EAD documents actually contain ample centrist and conservative content, not just window-dressing. Conservatives should read the Educating for American Democracy documents for themselves, not be led by repeated caricatures that give no indication of having studied and digested the entire project. 

Indeed, Wood’s critique, like those of our other conservative friends, follows a template: selectively quote a few seemingly outrageous phrases from the EAD study, then spend as much or more time quoting other sources—left-liberal tracts or leaders in civics education—so as to play a guilt-by-association game.

Only Leftist Partners? 

Wood writes as though the EAD Roadmap is a product of the Left produced in partnership only with leftist institutions. He never states that one of the present authors, a constitutional conservative, is a lead co-author of the Roadmap and that the department Paul Carrese directs at Arizona State University, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, is a lead co-sponsor of the study. 

Nor does Wood cite the leading roles played by several conservative partners—including the Bill of Rights Institute, the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, Reagan Presidential Foundation, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute. Is it scholarly to cite only the left-liberal or progressive institutions and leaders involved in the EAD study and ignore the conservatives involved? 

The study advertises itself as a national-consensus, collaborative effort across philosophical and political differences. Of course there are left-liberal partners, and ideas, in the project; that is part of the point. Will Wood’s strategy of supporting only purist conservative approaches to civics and history education gain any traction beyond already conservative schools and teachers, important as these are? Repeating that approach is not adequate to confronting the widespread civic ignorance and civic disaffection now so prevalent in America, a condition produced in part by decades of his preferred strategy of meeting progressive reforms only with conservative indignation. 

Only Leftist Terms? 

Wood, though speaking for a scholarly association, never notes that terms such as the following permeate the EAD Report and Roadmap: civic knowledge, reflective patriotism, civic virtues, civic friendship, self-government, constitutional democracy, e pluribus unum, the republic. Nor does he mention that the Report and Roadmap admiringly cite traditional sources such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, The Federalist, Washington, and Lincoln. 

Instead, he imputes to the document six terms—“new civics,” “social justice civics,” “protest civics,” “action civics,” “culturally responsive teaching,” and “civic engagement”—the first three of which appear nowhere in any EAD document! The next two are absent from the Roadmap and the main Report, appearing only in an appendix and in an accompanying document on forms of pedagogy. 

That leaves “civic engagement,” a term that seems neutral to us and can be appropriated by the Left only if conservatives disengage from bipartisan and cross-ideological reform efforts.

Teaching Only About Change and Transformation? 

Wood has searched the EAD Roadmap and finds most offensive the questions that address change, development, or transformation in American history or in our civic institutions. Does opposition to Hegelianism and historicism require scholars to deny that things change in human affairs? Isn’t there a famous document that invokes “the course of human events” and announces itself as a bold departure from traditions of injustice? 

A conservative scholar and a sensible civics teacher wouldn’t deny the reality and even the central challenge of human change but instead would ask, was a given change for the better or for the worse, and is it irreversible or subject to reconsideration? The EAD Report and Roadmap recommend just this approach. 

The American Revolution itself came about as a response to change, principally the centralization of control over the colonies in the British Parliament and Ministry. Didn’t the Civil War come about because of change, mainly the growth and ambition for expansion of the slave power? Further, as noted, the EAD Report and Roadmap are suffused with references both to the new achievements of America and regard for our foundations, and to why these worthy monuments deserve respectful attention from teachers and students.

Pyrrhic Victories and the Need for a New Strategy 

Wood is aware, as of course we are, too, that EAD is not the first attempt to address questions of history and civics at the national level. He correctly notes the fiasco of the 1990s National History Standards, developed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and then repudiated by the NEH director who awarded the grant and by the United States Senate—only “to become a kind of stealth curriculum in many of the nation’s schools.” 

EAD also began with a NEH grant—under President Trump—but that is where the similarity ends, for this time there was a concerted effort to ensure cross-partisan participation: Conservatives served as a co-author of the final report, on the executive steering committee, as co-chairman of the political science and civics task force, as members of the history task force and the civics and political science task force, and on sounding boards for periodic reviews of drafts along the way. Conservatives and thus conservative and centrist ideas are in the very tissue of this study. 

As for Wood’s attempt to smear EAD as the second coming of Common Core, “one of the most hated curricular reforms in the history of American schooling,” it is nothing short of malicious. He admits that the Common Core initiative avoided history and civics, and he knows or ought to know that it originated with state governors and education bureaucracies and sought to impose national standards of “critical thinking” aimed at college and career, while EAD is a joint project of university faculty and a nonprofit group, iCivics, focusing on questions that point to the substance of what should be known without imposing standards or limiting its attention to the college-bound.

While we applaud the past work of NAS in resisting bad reforms, we note, as Wood himself admits, that instruction in American history and civics, such as it can be found, has lurched to leftward over the past generation, despite a few highly publicized conservative “victories” that blocked bad projects. A focus only on preventing leftist harms has helped to produce an American educational system that undervalues civics and history education, given how contentious these topics can be, and this in turn has reinforced the advantages in terms of financial support and instructional time held by the subjects of math, science, and reading. The obstruction strategy thus has unwittingly contributed to both the deteriorating condition of civics and history education in our schools and to the polarization of our politics, in which too many of our citizens and leaders are gusted by passions but have no ballast of civic knowledge and civic virtues. 

We think it is time for conservatives to recognize Pyrrhic victories for what they are and to consider the need for a change of strategy. Our judgment is that, rather than continue an ineffective whack-a-mole game in reaction, we should get conservatives at the table to ensure that a national reform effort on civics pulls the national debate, and subsequent state and local efforts, toward the reasonable center.

“For everything there is a season . . . a time for war, a time for peace.” Americans have long shown the capacity for serious disagreement about matters of public policy and even about morality and justice, settling law and governance through our shared constitutional institutions, with the recognition that no settlement is permanent (there is always a next election) and that the basic rights and liberty of all must not be invaded. 

Whatever can be said about curriculum battles in the past, we think the moment is ripe—despite, maybe even because of political polarization on so many issues—to shore up our shared institutions with an agreement about what all citizens need to learn and know, whatever our other interests and inclinations. Who is afraid to give that a fair chance?

About Paul O. Carrese and James R. Stoner, Jr.

Paul O. Carrese is the director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. James R. Stoner, Jr. is the Hermann Moyse, Jr. Professor and the director of the Eric Voegelin Institute in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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