A Republic if You Can Teach It

President Biden has a civics lesson that he is fond of and regularly repeats. It is about how the United States is unique in the world because of the founding ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

“Unlike every other nation on Earth, we were founded based on an idea,” he notes before adding that “while we’ve never fully lived up” to those principles, “we have never given up on them.”

An overwhelming majority of Americans, 89%, agree that a civics education about those founding principles is “very important.” And yet, a similar majority across the political spectrum, 71%, do not believe that their children receive “an honest picture” of American history in school.

Those are among the findings from a recent nationwide survey conducted by RealClear Opinion Research in concert with the conservative Jack Miller Center. Americans overwhelmingly express a healthy appetite for civic education, but report a general dissatisfaction with what they believe is currently offered in the K-12 classroom.

The survey of more than 1,000 parents comes at a moment of intense debate over not just U.S. history but over the durability of democracy itself. And while plenty of politicians fall back on eloquent words about abstract ideals, basic civic literacy continues to decline.

One recent poll found that only two in five Americans could name all three branches of government. Another similarly disappointing statistic: just one in three knew that the Constitution was the supreme law of the land. That isn’t a trivial failure. Parents who responded to the RealClear survey believe lagging civic literacy represents a significant failure in education today.

[Related: “American Individualism, Rightly Understood”]

To fix this, a majority want curricula to focus on the fundamentals. Some 70% believe that the priority of any civics education ought to be on teaching students the basics of the American political system like the history and ideas behind the Declaration and Constitution. Just 22.8%, by contrast, reported that the priority should be instructing students how to “promote change in government.”

And while conservatives and liberals certainly disagree about the nature of many historical figures, an overwhelming majority, 92.5%, believe that history should be taught “honestly with the understanding that we can teach a person’s achievements even if their views do not align with values today.”

That was a flashpoint during the previous administration, particularly ahead of the 2020 election as Republicans worried publicly that “cancel culture” was erasing American heritage. At the foot of Mount Rushmore that summer, President Trump warned that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country,” adding that students were indoctrinated “to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains.”

To combat what they saw as liberal activism in the classroom, particularly to rebut The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which reframed American history around slavery, the Trump White House organized the so-called 1776 Commission, which advanced a conservative idea of “patriotic education” grounded in the idea that the country was founded in principles of freedom, not oppression.

Historians on the right and left subsequently had a field day fact-checking both products. But while cable news played footage on loop of demonstrators tearing down statues of historical figures for failing to live up to modern standards, voters are not nearly as divided.

[Related: “Preserving the American Dream”]

Republicans and Democrats have different interpretations of certain historical episodes. How could they not? Disagreements and debate about politics are as American as apple pie. Yet conservatives, 97.9%, and liberals, 86.7%, agree that, regardless of whether a historical figure has fallen out of favor in light of modern values, their history should still be taught.

And both camps are hardly as dour about the country as some politicians or most cable news coverage would suggest. Seventy-six percent of Republicans say that their children feel “gratitude” or “pride” when they see the American flag. By comparison, 48.6% of Democrats reported the same. Another 42.9% of that party said that, if anything, their children experienced “indifference” at the sight of the stars and stripes.

Democrats are much more likely to believe that public schools provide a fair and balanced view of history (62%), that a public school system funded by tax-payer dollars is the best place to deliver those lessons (85.7%), and that students are free to speak their mind in the classroom (45.5%). Republicans, meanwhile, think the classroom doesn’t foster a free exchange of ideas.

More than half of GOP parents, said that they did not believe their children were free to speak up and share their views in civics class. An overwhelming number, 86.6%, reported that they thought public schools “are promoting a politically liberal agenda.” A majority of those parents, 77.2%, said that they prefer a school system that allowed them to direct their tax dollars to public, private, or home schools on behalf of their children.

Overall, despite the partisan divide, Republicans and Democrats agree that a civics education about the republic is necessary if the country is to keep it.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics on December 2, 2022 and is republished here with permission.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Philip Wegmann

    Philip Wegmann is White House Correspondent for Real Clear Politics. He previously wrote for The Washington Examiner and has done investigative reporting on congressional corruption and institutional malfeasance.

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3 thoughts on “A Republic if You Can Teach It

  1. Which is more important, that students be “free to speak up and share their views,” or that they be instructed by someone who knows what they are talking about? I was a college teacher for 40 years, and I never ceased to be amazed at the nonsense that incoming students believed—about history, science, religion.

  2. “Republicans and Democrats agree that a civics education about the republic is necessary if the country is to keep it.”

    But who will teach it — as you really can’t teach that which you do not know yourself….

    Massachusetts K-12 teachers are more extensively educated than in most states (back in 1994, we eliminated the undergraduate education major as a path to certification, you now need a Master’s degree) and I know how little civics these teachers know. They consider it “unfair” to be expected to identify Massachusetts on a map — it isn’t like Colorado or Wyoming that are rectangular, Massachusetts has the “arm” of Cape Cod, and they *still* can’t do it. (Even though it’s on their drivers licenses…)

    And then there is “Juneteenth” — forget the 5th Amendment issues, slavery remained legal in the Border States until the ratification of the 13th Amendment some six months later — and Massachusetts had eliminated slavery as a violation of the Massachusetts Constitution some sixty years earlier (in either 1801 or 1803 depending on which case you cite). And confusing Reconstruction and the Resurrection, and, and….

    The 1994 Massachusetts Education Reform law, and the initial MCAS (statewide assessment) had some solid civics in it, but most of that has been washed away and replaced by the social justice pablum. I’ve taught these teachers — I know what they don’t know — and ISI has been demonstrating the same for a couple decades now.

    So who will teach the teachers?

    Forget the logistics and the expense (as the unions will demand that the teachers be paid to learn it, and that it not encroach into their summer vacations), WHO WILL TEACH IT???

    Yes, I could — but with the exception of some of my Doctoral research, everything I know about civics I learned outside of the School of Education curriculum. Those who have received Doctorates in Education in the past 10-20-30+ years were never taught civics — I wouldn’t know it myself but for happenstance and access to outside resources.

    And the other thing is that one has to also teach the teachers how to teach all of this in 180 days — reality is closer to 140 days as the equivalent of 40 will be lost to everything from in-school assemblies and fire drills to assessments ranging from the state assessment to the teacher’s own exams. One also needs to remember that a “day” consists of just 42 minutes — bell to bell — with a few minutes often wasted on both ends.

    And that it’s an understatement to say that Middle & High School students are not always interested in learning…

    Conservatives often advocate bringing in historians to teach the teachers and that will not work for several reasons. First, a PhD (or even MA) in History involves detailed research into a very specific subject, be it the Lincoln Presidency or lives of women in 19th Century California — and the completed dissertation will have been narrowed a lot more than that.

    Hence while a historian (or political scientist) could give a quite detailed presentation on the nuances of Lincoln’s suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus in Maryland, (a) most K-12 teachers would have no idea what the Writ of Habeas Corpus even is, and (b) those who did would never be able to use any of this in their classrooms.

    If they tried, they would both get buried down in nuances of detail and lose control of their classroom and then one of Suzie’s shoes would go flying across the classroom — and then you’d get students writing on the exam that “Lincoln was a terrible man because he owned slaves” (he didn’t — to the best of my knowledge).

    To be effective, K-12 curriculum has to be both age and developmentally appropriate — and build upon what the child already knows. Developmentally appropriate involves not only avoiding any discussion of General Hooker, but also that 16-year-olds are not 26-year-olds and that they haven’t developed the higher level thinking abilities necessary to understand such detailed discussions. (Many never will — only half that classroom will ever go to college.)

    Hence the purpose of the teaching methods courses, which are not intended to teach the teacher the actual subject (standard college courses are for that) but to teach the teacher how to TEACH the subject — to 16-year-olds… You really need to have people with degrees in education doing this except that there are damn few of us who know anything about Civics (or *actual* US History) in the first place.

    And this is why we really need to deal with the schools of education, our state departments of education, and our local school superintendents. Soonest…


    1. Bring back School House Rock videos. Embedded in a recent blog post that one of the creators passed away was the video on the Preamble to the Constitution. I watched it more than forty years ago, and recall the lyrics and melody perfectly. Upon watching the video, I found that my recollection was perfect. These videos work. That does not, unfortunately, solve the problem that anti-educators may make new ones themselves and destroy the culture.

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