A Political, Not an Academic Argument

I thank Danielle Allen for her skillful and lively response to my essay on how the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) project represents a textbook case of conservative accommodationism. Professor Allen is the daughter of my friend, the great Bill Allen, who served President Ronald Reagan and continues to serve American education with distinction. Although a progressive, Ms. Allen speaks “Straussian” and has been effective in recruiting some conservative intellectuals to the allegedly “bipartisan” EAD project that, in reality, advances leftist goals. 

I find it revealing that the response to my critique of conservative accommodationism comes from a progressive educator and not from the conservative accommodationists supporting EAD—Paul Carrese (Arizona State University), James Stoner (Louisiana State University), and Rick Hess (American Enterprise Institute)—who are the main subjects of my essay. 

But let us get to our core disagreements. 

On the Founders as Enslavers 

Despite all the qualifications (e.g., her scholarly work on the founding), Allen still insists that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were “enslavers” because by failing immediately to emancipate their slaves, they “recommit[ed] the act of enslavement.” 

This is convoluted and twisted logic, essentially presentist thinking, as if the founders were living in the world of today. To immediately emancipate their slaves upon inheriting them was not a realistic option in 18th-century Virginia. It was not “within their power at each moment,” as Professor Allen puts it. 

Many students today seem unaware that slavery was a worldwide institution that had existed for thousands of years, not something unique to America. They should learn that the founders, to their credit, recognized slavery’s injustice and sought (in Lincoln’s words) its “ultimate extinction.” Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration; the congressional end of the slave trade; Washington in his will, not only freeing his slaves but also providing for their education; and the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest territories all attest to this abolitionist sentiment. 

Most importantly, by definition, “to enslave” is an active verb. One seizes someone who is free and makes him or her a slave. In this vein, EAD’s “enslaver” assertion is false, neither Washington nor the other founders “enslaved” anyone.  

If Allen is right and the founders really were active “enslavers,” then the founders themselves were essentially bad men, and therefore the American regime they created (400 years of “systemic racism”) was indelibly stained. Indeed, that is the point of the Left’s embrace of the weaponized concept of “enslavers.” 

The word “enslaver” itself has—and is meant to have—a brutal, cruel, and inhumane sound to American ears. Hence, it serves as a powerful tool of delegitimization. The progressive premise is if you delegitimize the founders, you delegitimize the founding itself, and, thus, you ultimately delegitimize the American way of life, past and present, and pave the way for the “fundamental transformation of the United States of America.” 

Whatever Allen has written positively about the founders, her acceptance of the concept of “enslavers” borrows from and supports those who seek to delegitimize historic America. And as my original essay asks from a conservative perspective, why are right-of-center thinkers like Carrese, Stoner, and Hess supporting EAD, which endorses the founders-as-enslavers falsehood? 

On Patriotism 

Professor Allen (perhaps inadvertently) reveals the mindset of the EAD project when she writes: “After arguing for months over whether the dispositions that good civic education should cultivate include patriotism, we came to concur that civic education should indeed cultivate reflective patriotism, a form of patriotism grounded in a commitment to honesty.” 

EAD was “arguing for months” over whether to include patriotism in civic education? Really? Why was there even five minutes of argument? Surely, the EAD executive committee must know that political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu and Madison (as well as the overwhelming majority of the American people) insist patriotism is indispensable to sound civic education. It should not be a problematic concept that one spends months arguing about. 

Allen states that none of the leaders of EAD “come down on the side of the ‘failures’ of [the] American past.” Yet, the EAD document declares, “To those who believe in America’s principles and promise, what we have inherited is painfully imperfect.” Actually, many of us “who believe in America’s principles and promise” understand with our founders that given the vicissitudes of human nature, no society of human beings will ever be “perfect” (a false utopian dream that leads to tyranny.) The American founders favored a more perfect, not a perfect, union. The American Revolution was not the French Revolution. 

Allen proclaims, “good civic education” seeks to “engage students in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Well then, why not unapologetically teach the truth that historic America (“what we have inherited”) and yes, “warts and all” has produced one the greatest polities the world has ever known?  

On Action Civics 

Professor Allen contends that one of the key institutions supporting EAD, iCivics, is not explicitly an advocate of “action civics” or “protest civics,” in which students obtain class credit for what are invariably left-wing causes such as driver’s licenses for illegal aliens and anti-fossil fuel activism.  

The operative word here is “explicitly.” In fact, Allen is being completely disingenuous regarding the connection between EAD and the action civics movement. The EAD executive committee is packed with long-time advocates of action civics, including Louise Dube of iCivics, the principal organizer of the EAD project, and Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsburg of Tufts University, who have promoted action civics in their writings that have been specifically endorsed by EAD. 

For that matter, Danielle Allen herself has promoted action civics through Harvard’s Democratic Knowledge project. In addition to iCivics, other (even more radical) action civics groups are part of the EAD coalition, including CivXNow and Generation Citizenship. The goal of these groups and many in the EAD coalition is to mandate and federally fund a broad expansion of action civics in K-12 and higher education. 

Indeed, Louise Dube, the head of iCivics, was leader of the coalition that pushed Massachusetts to impose an action civics mandate in public schools in 2018. CivXNow published a case study praising Dube’s role in the Massachusetts legislation. 

Clearly, EAD endorses action civics and related “service learning” as “proven practices” that are “woven into” and “reflected in the EAD Roadmap and its Pedagogy Companion.” Not surprisingly, EAD’s leaders are the major supporters of federal and state legislation that would fund and mandate action civics.  

On Mass Incarceration 

Professor Allen continues to argue that “mass incarceration” exists, but 99.5 percent of all adult Americans and 98.8 percent of African American adults are not in prison. In reality, there is no “mass incarceration.” 

On Content (Facts) vs. Questions (Inquiry) 

In a seminar at Harvard on April 13 of this year, Professor Allen stated that her “big dream” would be to move from content (facts) based state history-civics standards to inquiry (questions) based standards. Thus, when studying the American Revolution, instead of emphasizing historical knowledge and events like the Boston Tea Party and the Stamp Act, inquiry standards would focus on conceptual questions about the attitudes of different groups toward the American Revolution, which would tilt student learning to the Left.   

On American Citizens vs. “Civic Participants” 

When I criticized EAD’s blurring of the line between citizens and illegal immigrants, Allen responds by declaring, “We cannot erase the actions of noncitizens, and we need a name for the role they play.” True enough, but we should be clear that decision-making in our constitutional democracy belongs to citizens, not to noncitizens. Further, we surely can draw a clear red line between citizens and illegal immigrants. Allen failed to make this distinction when she advocated driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants during her campaign for governor of Massachusetts in the 2022 Democratic Party primary. 

On “Equity” 

EAD affirms support for equity: “EAD teachers focus on inclusion and equity in both content and approaches.” Allen, in the April 13 Harvard seminar, reiterated “a commitment to equity.” Many of us are not naïve. We know what “equity” means in the real world: a rejection of the traditional American ideal of equality of individual citizenship and an embrace of the un-American concept of statistical equality of result in all aspects of life (employment, college admissions, corporate board members, etc.) for different racial, ethnic, and gender groups. 

In conclusion: the arguments over Educating for American Democracy and the controversies over the teaching and learning of history and civics in our schools are not academic arguments about whether we should adopt “inquiry-based pedagogy” in civic education. Instead, they are a civilizational-level conflict about whether we should transmit and improve our long-standing American way of life to future generations or whether we should “fundamentally transform” and, in truth, essentially repudiate (equity replaces equality) the legacy and principles that we have inherited.

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About John Fonte

John Fonte is a senior fellow and director of the Center for American Common Culture at Hudson Institute. He is the author of Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or be Ruled by Others? and co-editor of Education for America's Role in World Affairs, a book on civic and world affairs education used in universities and teacher training institutes. He has been a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute where he directed the Committee to Review National Standards, and also served as a senior researcher at the US Department of Education, and as program administrator at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). He has served as a consultant for the Texas Education Agency, the Virginia Department of Education, the California Academic Standards Commission, and the American Federation of Teachers. He was a member of the steering committee for the congressionally-mandated National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) which issued the "nation's report card" on civics and government. He served as principal advisor for CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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