Words of Thanks for John Fonte

I write to thank John Fonte for his careful review of the Educating for American Democracy roadmap and passionate engagement in the question of how we can secure high quality civic learning for a rising generation of Americans. We are fortunate to live in a time where this question is once again fully engaged on both Right and Left. We are blessed that patriots across the political spectrum see this as indubitably one of the most important tasks before us.

I was one of the lead drafters of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. As a professional, I’m a political philosopher and scholar of public policy. I’ve written books on topics as varied as ancient Athenian punishment, Plato, the Declaration of Independence, American race relations, and political friendship. I run a civic education provider called the Democratic Knowledge Project; we seek to meld instruction in core knowledge (philosophical foundations of democracy; principles of constitutionalism) with development of civic identity and capacity for effective civic participation. As a citizen, I love this country and I’m committed to free self-government for free and equal citizens. As a partisan, I’m a Freedom Democrat, and a manifesto detailing my views is available here. From 2020 to 2022 I ran for governor in Massachusetts as a Democrat. So there you have it. All my cards are on the table. I have no buried agenda. It’s all on the surface and available for scrutiny, engagement, and feedback. 

I take the time to spell out these personal details mainly because Fonte’s article was farthest afield when it came to its descriptions of the people involved in the work of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. For instance, iCivics is explicitly not an advocate of action civics. (For the ins and outs of debates about action civics please see the exchange between myself and Stanley Kurtz in National Review.) Nor is any one of us who leads the Educating for American Democracy work of the view that good civic education should come down “on the side of emphasizing the ‘failures’ of America’s past.” To the contrary, to a person, each of us believes that good civic education will simply seek to engage students in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Our first commitment is to honesty, wherever that leads. Also, our reasonable expectation is that honesty will reinforce, not undermine, commitments to the common good.

With a personal introduction now complete, let me turn to the matter at hand: Fonte’s engagement with the substance of our Roadmap. Here I must profess great delight. As Fonte rightly notes, “the Educating for American Democracy roadmap is presented as a series of questions.” Indeed, a commitment to honest inquiry is at the heart of our work, and one of our goals is to help members of the teaching profession become comfortable at open-ended, inquiry-based pedagogy, where the answers are not obvious in advance. Our hope has been that our questions would foster serious discussion of important themes in American history and civic practice. And Fonte has offered serious answers to some of our questions. This is the highest compliment that could possibly be paid to our work.

He calls out a few questions from the Roadmap and offers answers. I’m going to replay the dialogue here with some further commentary:

EAD Q: What role has mass incarceration played in shaping American life? 

Fonte A: The answer is actually no role. Out of 100,000 Americans approximately 540 are incarcerated, hardly “mass incarceration.” But that’s not where the EAD is going with this. 

It would be wonderful if a student proffered an answer like this, and if another student might share the fact that nearly half of Americans are related to someone who has been incarcerated, and then a conversation might unfold about how to assess the meaning and impact of our criminal justice system in comparison to those of other societies. In an EAD classroom, students would be supported in sharing views, including dissenting views. They would also be supported in learning to have productive conversations across lines of difference and disagreement. Any functional democracy does, after all, require skills of compromise. 

We on the EAD leadership team are proud that in our work, we found our way to numerous compromises. Here are just two examples: After spending weeks arguing over whether we were educating for a democracy or a republic, we compromised around the recognition that we are educating for a constitutional democracy where order, structure, popular sovereignty, and universal inclusion all matter. 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. Conservatives should count it not merely a rhetorical victory that a large progressive community has learned how to re-embrace patriotism.

EAD Q: What obligations does the term ‘indigenous’ carry, both to and from America’s native population?

Fonte A: Pace EAD, the only “obligation” is to treat them equally, the same as any other Americans. 

There is no need for a “pace,” here, Fonte, for yours is a good answer—serious, reflective, and worthy of engagement by others who might offer a different answer. Again, we hope for classrooms where one student says something like this, and another student says something different, and teachers are equipped to facilitate a productive conversation that leads to broad learning and substantive reflection.

EAD Q: How can American constitutional democracy benefit from the many dimensions of diversity? 

Fonte A: Why not ask, how does the contemporary cult of “diversity” weaken American constitutional democracy?

When the Roadmap first introduces the phrase “dimensions of diversity,” it defines it thus: “dimensions of diversity that might be considered include race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, religion and spiritual experience, political viewpoint, socioeconomic status, immigration status, geographic origins and language, disability, family structure, and family participation in the military.” By rejecting the question as formulated, and posing another related question, Fonte again acts beautifully in the spirit of the Roadmap. The Roadmap itself includes other questions that might well lead to the kind of conversation he imagines, for instance: “How have the many dimensions of diversity pertained to the challenges and opportunities involved in forging one people out of many?”

But even more importantly, the Roadmap offers two categories of questions: Driving Questions and Sample Guiding Questions. The Driving Questions are the ones we hope a good civic education will equip students to reason well about. The Sample Guiding Questions are just that—samples, which is to say, examples of the kinds of questions one might potentially use to support students in pursuing the exploration of the driving questions. They are “sample” guiding questions, because we hope that people will think for themselves and formulate their own questions, just as Fonte has done here. He has, in other words, said, “I don’t like that particular sample guiding question, so what about this alternative one?” And that’s just fine, as long as he is prepared to hear an answer from a student who says, “I don’t think we do have a cult of diversity; I think we have an important if flawed effort to work our way to a truly inclusive constitutional democracy.” 

My question for Fonte would be how he would help scaffold a productive classroom conversation when both of those sets of views emerge in the classroom?I would have loved to see this dialogue go on. For instance, I’d be grateful to see Fonte’s answers to some of the other Roadmap questions as well, for instance: 

  • What qualities of character, virtues, or values make a good citizen, resident, and/or leader?
  • When and how have religious groups been excluded from civic and social life? How have they gained the right to participate in American constitutional democracy, and at what cost?
  • What are the leading principles and values guiding our ideas of good governments and what they do?

In his review of the EAD Roadmap, Fonte has beautifully exhibited both how the Roadmap works and how it was intended to work. It is intended to provoke thought, spark debate, and support our collective learning about how to negotiate hard questions and disagreements. We owe him a hearty thanks for the helpful example. I’ll hope for another installment of this exchange.

Before closing, I also want to address two of Fonte’s other concerns—the treatment of immigrants and the vocabulary of “enslaver” in place of “slave owner.”

Fonte rightly notes that our Roadmap seeks to help citizens understand the rights and responsibilities, virtues, and values of good citizenship and also seeks to help those who aren’t citizens understand how they can play a positive role in our society. This is simply a necessity of education in a context where not all are citizens. Some who are not citizens are among us on valid visas; some are not. Either way, honesty requires recognizing that something must be said to those who aren’t citizens, and one hopes that what is said will be productive. Relatedly, it’s important that the story of American history has often been about the efforts of those without the political rights of citizens—women in advancing women’s suffrage; African Americans in advancing abolition, and then full enfranchisement. The American story has always had interwoven a story of citizens and civic participants working on behalf of a whole and healthy constitutional democracy. We cannot erase the actions of noncitizens, and we need a name for the role they play.

About the word, “enslaver.” There I am surprised that Fonte sees a “calculated strategy designed to delegitimize Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.” Nothing could be further from the truth. As I said at the top, I’ve written a book that advocates the value of the Declaration of Independence. I’ve made the Declaration a cornerstone of the civic education that my organization offers. I do seek to parse Jefferson’s complexity in the book, but I would defend keeping monuments to him and the other three up, respected, and protected. I have built on Washington’s lessons for our own current moments of difficulty, calling out the Farewell Address as a font of wisdom on which we should continue to build. I have defended the Constitution and Madison’s contributions in essays, books, and op-eds

But the simple fact is this: As a matter of natural law, enslaving another person is an act of theft. One cannot hold legitimate title in that person. With no legitimate title to pass from one “owner” to the next, no person who purports to “own” another person, in fact, does so; each instead participates again in the act of theft. And each who participates in this process of “purported” ownership has within their power at each moment, the opportunity to make the theft right via an act of emancipation. The failure to emancipate is a recommitment of the act of enslavement. So, yes, those who owned slaves were also enslavers. Sadly, the two concepts cannot be separated from each other. Washington did make the transition from enslaver to emancipator, as is well known, and that fact is to be celebrated. I imagine Fonte would not object to Washington being called an emancipator?

Fonte’s is precisely the kind of engagement we sought to invite with the Roadmap. And we’re grateful for it. Our invitations to those who care about the future of this country and see that its future is closely tied to the quality of the civic education we offer have been widespread and heartfelt. For instance, in winter and spring 2021, and again in fall 2021, we reached out to Hillsdale leadership and the Hillsdale K-12 curricular team to invite them to include materials from their 1776 Curriculum in the catalog of online resources we were pulling together to exemplify the Educating for American Democracy spirit. We regret that our invitation was not accepted. It is still open. 

In sum, we are grateful that Mr. Fonte has accepted our invitation to engage with the questions we posed. We look forward to further installments of this important conversation as we seek to steady the course for this country that we all love.

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About Danielle Allen

Danielle Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She is a member of the Educating for American Democracy Implementation Consortium Committee and the author of Our Declaration, among other books.

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