By David Davenport
Originally printed in the Washington Examiner, September 20, 2018
An important life was cut short this week in Ashland, Ohio, when 44-year-old Roger Beckett passed away. As executive director of the Ashbrook Center, Roger’s noble goal was nothing less than saving the republic by strengthening America’s anemic approach to civic education. The tool he chose to do this was both surprising and powerful: training and retraining teachers of history and civics to teach using primary documents.
Roger had followed the normal course to prepare himself to be a teacher, completing a master’s degree in one of our nation’s notable schools of education. But he finished the program dispirited and discouraged about teacher preparation. He felt he had been taught the wrong things — techniques of teaching, but not the subject matter he was to impart. Did you know that high school teachers of history or civics (or math or science for that matter) may have studied very little of those topics themselves? That was lesson one for Roger’s campaign to reinvent civic education: Teachers need to know and be excited about their subject.
Roger was also disheartened by the boring and biased textbooks used to teach American history. Textbooks manage to take spirited debates about turning points in our history and turn them into a few paragraphs of dry summary material. Some textbooks (such as the widely used People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn) are so skewed politically as to lose all objectivity and undercut students’ appreciation for their country. As one of the Ashbrook Center’s teachers, Gordon Lloyd, has said, “It’s hard to love an ugly founding,” which is what textbooks such as Zinn’s portray. Augmenting or even replacing these textbooks with more exciting and straightforward historical material became plank two in Roger’s civic education platform.
By the time we realized there was a civic education problem, Roger and his colleagues were hard at work. They began training hundreds of teachers on the campus of Ashland University in Ohio to teach using primary documents, and then thousands of teachers around the country in weekend seminars called “Rediscovering America.” Teachers read documents of the period they are studying. Not only traditional documents such as the Constitution, but also speeches, debates, and articles written by participants in the history, and the documents bring to life important issues of that time. Participants are then encouraged to draw their own conclusions, not that of some textbook author or editor, about history. Then, teachers are prepared to take that approach to teaching back to their own students, multiplying the effect of the training many times over.
Think how much more interesting history would be if students understood and entered into the debates of the time. It reminds me of books I used to devour as a kid myself, the We Were There series, taking a child like me into the life and times of historic events. Imagine how relevant it could be to debate the causes and solutions to the Great Depression in times of modern economic difficulty, to finally understand how valuable it could be in our time of political polarization, as we topple statues and erase names from history without truly knowing their life and times, to enter into the study of American history without our 21st –century glasses.
We live in a day when only 23 percent of our students test at the level of basic proficiency in American history and only 18 percent in government. A mere 1-2 percent reach the advanced level on tests. Students cannot name one of their home state senators, and many believe Judy Sheindlin (Judge Judy) is on the Supreme Court. Polls show young people increasingly discouraged about and disengaged from our democracy.
So far, no billionaire has stepped forward to throw money at this problem. No national movement such as STEM for math and science education has been formed. But there is this: Roger Beckett and his colleagues just may have started a revolution to bolster civic education and save the republic by teaching with primary documents.
David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner ‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a visiting fellow at the Ashbrook Center.