Presumed Guilty: The Plot of the New Civics 

“How can we offer an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is simultaneously honest about wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the founding of the United States without tipping into adulation?” 

That’s a line from the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, the document that serves as a programmatic guide for the massive civics education initiative currently underway. (See here for one major component of the push.) 

The Roadmap has its conservative critics, including myself (see here, and also here, here, and here), but some prominent conservatives support it (see here, here, and here), doing so precisely because of what the statement quoted above signals. It is worth a closer look. 

The statement appears in the report that accompanies the actual Roadmap and is labelled as one of the many “Design Challenges” that shall address certain “learning goals that exist in mutual tension.” You can see quickly what the specific tensions in this case are—honest criticism versus appreciation, cynicism versus adulation—which the statement balances in judicious diction and syntax. 

The report doesn’t offer any concrete images, but think of this layout as steering well between the wacky hippie who has loathed all things American ever since the Vietnam War and the know-nothing chauvinist whose motto is, “America—Love It or Leave It!” This particular challenge falls under the heading, “Civic honesty, reflective patriotism,” not one of whose four words, one may assume, should inspire anything but concord. It is easy to see why defenders of the Roadmap, liberals and conservatives both, cite it as proof of the balanced, nonpartisan nature of the approach. 

In truth, however, this seemingly equitable and prudent frame is no such thing. Conservatives who believe that the insertion of language like “appreciate the founding” and “avoid cynicism” shall serve to maintain a traditionalist conception of American civics against the progressive, Zinn-like denunciation of the American past have already ceded the field to the Left. They have deferred to a progressive premise of historical guilt that shall shape everything else that follows, from the books students read to the assignments they complete. The moment they accepted the terms “honest about wrongs of the past,” they set the civics classroom on a course of illumination in which conservative devotion to the American heritage becomes itself one more wrong to overcome. 

The last word in the statement above, adulation, is a curious choice. It signifies an excessive, servile posture toward a person or thing, and is to be avoided just as much as its counterpart, cynicism. But this is a misleading pairing, which sets up the Roadmap’s “civic honesty and reflective patriotism” as the only options, leaving out the most common form of patriotism over the course of American history: fervent love of country and joyful celebration of its achievements. 

This long-standing patriotism is not an attitude of servility, but it certainly marks a willingness to serve. No blind devotion, but wide-awake devotion, based on a conviction that the United States is an exceptional nation with a record of greatness, producing more freedom and prosperity than any nation in human history. It doesn’t ignore lapses in American ideals, nor does it love the country in spite of Jim Crow, Wounded Knee, etc.. It loves America because those lapses remind us that inequality and conquest have been the rule of human history, that it is a downright miracle that they are ever overcome, and that America has enacted more of those miracles than has any great and powerful nation before it. 

If we hold up the yardstick of the long historical chronicle of civilizations, not the yardstick of utopia, we see how hard it is to sustain individual freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights—and this makes us revere our nation all the more. 

The word adulation isn’t really an objective term. It has a rhetorical purpose: to discredit this traditional kind of patriotism without actually saying so, skipping the Reagan-style outlook entirely so that it comes to appear inseparable from adulation, which we are to eschew. Adulation is a straw man, and not even a very good one, for, I would say, something not too far short of adulation is precisely the right attitude when we think of the Constitution, General Washington at Valley Forge, Emily Dickinson in her room upstairs, Yosemite Valley, Malcolm Little in prison reading all day and night, and “Citizen Kane.” It’s what produced long lines at enlistment centers in early 1942, the Preface to Leaves of Grass (“The United States are essentially the greatest poem”) and Lincoln’s transcendent Union (“the last best hope of earth”), and tears on the cheeks of immigrants in 1910 swearing the oath of citizenship. 

When Ronald Reagan called for an “informed patriotism” in his Farewell Address, he didn’t have anything like the “Reflective Patriotism” of the Roadmap in mind. He meant straight up “love of country,” an “unambivalent appreciation,” a sure faith that “America was special.” To be “Informed” was to remember Winthrop and the Pilgrims, 30 seconds over Tokyo, and D-Day (all mentioned by Reagan), along with reverent faith in the “shining city on a hill.” 

Progressives don’t like that kind of ardent patriotism. They believe it was precisely that patriotism that licensed the “wrongs of the past” about which we must learn to be more “honest.” That’s what adulation of America amounts to in progressive eyes: dishonesty. To end it, then, requires close attention to the misdeeds of our forebears. They form the basis of a plot the Roadmap lays out, which begins with an old America that denied rights and voice to most Americans. The Roadmap repeats these former injustices over and over: 

  • “In 1800 a substantial majority of American men were not permitted to vote.”  
  • “For much of American history, most schools presented U.S. history and civics largely from the perspective of white, Protestant, propertied men.”  
  • “What civic roles have been available to those without full political rights?”  
  • “Explore the causes and consequences of different groups’ marginalization from participation in the polity.”  
  • “positions of disempowerment” 
  • “those without full political rights” 
  • “those long been denied justice” 
  • “why does marginalization happen” 
  • “groups without formal decision-making power”


There are many more such reminders of the bigoted past. 

From there, the plot proceeds with those marginalized groups gaining their rightful place. We learn that while for some the term “America” is an “attachment,” for others “it has been a term of marginalization, yet one which has held out the ideals and offered the tools through which to contest exclusion.” Students are not asked how conservative Americans have prevented aggressive reformers from steering public institutions toward illiberal ends, but students are sternly directed to “Analyze the role of groups without formal decision-making power in influencing change in the U.S. government.” We don’t have anything about the erosion of religious liberty and freedom of association because of recent movements of (putative) “anti-discrimination,” but a “Key Concept” in the Roadmap is “Explore the extent to which the U.S. has made progress in expanding rights and legal statuses for various groups over time.” 

The course of the plot is straight and true, ever in a progressive direction. We focus on group identities, not individuals—“What groups am I part of? How do I know I am part of a group?” (K-2 “Sample Guiding Questions”)—especially those groups suffering unequal treatment. The core action of the plot is consistently movements of social change (another question for first graders is “Why is it important to speak up when you are trying to make something better?”), and we may be sure that change in the civics classroom will always run in a leftward course. We’re not going to see any figure in a Roadmap lesson plan of people standing athwart these progressive movements and yelling, “Stop!” We can’t, because the Roadmap has already defined the American past as an era of wrongs. 

As I have said, the proper U.S. history according to the Roadmap project, the one kids ought to study, is a tale of “refoundings,” each one an improvement of that original enacted by Madison et al. It goes so far as to suggest that the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, marked “a kind of generational refounding,” a ridiculous notion that reveals how committed the Roadmap designers are to do-overs of the founding (this may be preparation for moves to lower the voting age to 16, a position favored by at least one key sponsor of the Roadmap. . 

And the plot hasn’t ended—no denouement as of yet—not until every marginalized group gets its just deserts. The Roadmap is, in fact, a fresh player in the drama it purports to describe. It wants to advance the story of progress. A math or foreign language roadmap would lay out a body of knowledge and skills from grade to grade. The plot would run from rudimentary understanding to advanced understanding, and that’s all. The civics Roadmap, however, has bigger ambitions, more refoundings, and it pledges to be instrumental to them. 

It begins with the premise of historic wrong, of national guilt. Yes, we have numerous insertions in the Roadmap of the nuts and bolts of civics, how laws are made and the like, along with ideas that went into the founding, and conservatives who’ve signed on to the project cite them as evidence of balance of Left and Right. 

But the overall story of America that the Roadmap tells isn’t balanced at all. The meaning of America, the deeper civic sense of things, the basic conception of their country that students shall form—the Roadmap defines them in decidedly biased ways. It will plant a progressive model in young heads that will stay with them. A few students will dig further into the plot and find complications of the progressive plot, but most of them won’t, graduating from high school with the bare outline settled: the past wasn’t so good, recent times are better, but we still have far to go, always toward the progressive vision of perfect equity. 

It is astounding that conservative leaders such as the three Republican secretaries of education who signed a pro-Roadmap op-ed in the Wall Street Journal do not see the bias. Perhaps, knowing how hard-Left the social studies teaching corps leans, they are willing to grant the premise of American guilt if they get a few traditionalist ingredients into the final product. Or, because they’ve been outnumbered for so long, they’ve been slowly acculturated to concede way too much before the deliberations even start. 

What passes unnoticed in all this is how odd it is for a civics education program to teach kids that their nation began with wrongs. And how confusing and dispiriting it must be for them to learn that so many groups in America had to protest and march and fight and, sometimes, die before they enjoyed equal rights. This is not the way to instill civic knowledge. 

A proper civics education begins with the rights, not the wrongs, leaving the latter for more advanced instruction. It invites students to apply critical scrutiny to the past, certainly, but only after a base of “unambivalent appreciation” has been established. It acknowledges that heroes are sometimes the ones who resist change, that citizenship doesn’t always require activism, that activism itself can turn illiberal and betray its original motives. 

A conservative cherishes the best of America, foregrounds it and passes it along, and young Americans absorb it because they want to believe that their home is a worthy place. The conservative doesn’t demand that all citizens be activists, either, or to see themselves as members of groups. The tone of a civics design should be that of Reagan’s farewell, grateful and optimistic, not the guarded admonishment we have here, which tells everyone to stop being so dishonest. Collective guilt is no ground for citizenship. 


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