Six Fundamental Principles for Evaluating American History, Government, and Civics Education
America faces a civic education crisis. An entire generation is growing up without a basic knowledge of the history and principles of their country. How can we “keep” a republic, as Benjamin Franklin said, if we don’t know what one is? But the problem goes even deeper. Too many young Americans are adopting a skewed vision of U.S. history, because it is too often taught from biased, whitewashed, or politically-charged perspectives. As a result, our young people are not seeing themselves as part of a shared American story animated by our Founding principles of self-government. It’s no surprise, then, that too many of them have neither the respect for nor devotion our country needs to perpetuate freedom in America. At its heart, ours is not a crisis of facts or information. It is a crisis of understanding and devotion.
To address this crisis, below are principles that should guide every school’s American history, government, and civics program. If our children receive an education guided by these principles, we can end a nationwide civic education crisis and secure the future of our republic.
1. Is it guided by questions?
Education is not about indoctrinating students or even just giving them information. It’s about spurring them to pursue and discover the truth for themselves.
Pursuing truth is caused by wonder, and wonder is sparked by good questions. Good questions inspire students to explore, analyze, and wrestle with the past in ways that deepen their understanding and appreciation for their country and ultimately help them answer the most fundamental question of American history, government, and civics: What does it mean to be an American?
So it is critical that rather than simply mandating the memorization of facts or information, which students often find boring or pointless, curricula should encourage teachers to ask good questions
2. Is it based on primary historical sources?
Students ought to learn history directly from the primary documents of our past. Learning from the words of those who lived and wrote our history draws students into the wonderfully interesting story of America.
Textbooks can be boring or biased and quite often both. But learning from the words found in the speeches, letters, laws, court decisions, and diaries that tell the American story brings history alive and motivates students to come to their own conclusions about the documents and debates that have defined America.
3. Is it centered on conversation?
History and government classrooms should be based on conversations, not lectures. By engaging in thoughtful conversations students can discover the truth for themselves.
Conversation involves thinking, listening, waiting one’s turn to speak, and expressing one’s view thoughtfully. This is how free and equal individuals converse with one another, and this approach to learning cultivates the kind of civility, seriousness and deliberation needed for students to become responsible citizens.
4. Does it teach America’s Founding principles?
The number one takeaway students should receive from their American history, government, and civics courses is that to be American means to uphold the principles of self-government – equality, individual liberty, consent of the governed, the rule of law, and limited, constitutional government – that are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and put into action by the Constitution. These are the principles that make us “one people,” as the Declaration says.
5. Does it teach American history as the shared struggle to live up to our Founding principles?
The second important takeaway for students is that American history is the story of our struggle to live up to those Founding principles. Teaching the struggle of America to live up to its principles—including past mistakes and failures along with achievements and successes—equips our youth with the knowledge they need to understand the full, complex American story.
America isn’t perfect. We haven’t always lived up to our Founding principles. But America’s Founders, despite their varying backgrounds, shared a common spirit and understanding of government that allowed them—even when they disagreed with each other—to create what has become the most free and prosperous country on earth where we have the freedom to flourish and govern ourselves as individuals, families, communities, and a nation.
An honest understanding of America’s full, unvarnished story encourages students to love their country because it is good while also striving to make it better.
6. Does it ensure teachers are sufficiently educated?
Teachers are the key. We cannot expect students to learn the truth about America if their teachers do not have a deep understanding of and passion for the subject they teach. Great teachers know their subject, love their subject, and love teaching students their subject.
The most important work in America is teaching American history and government. This work is essential to preserving what has always been distinctively good about America.
About the Ashbrook Approach to Education
The Ashbrook Center applies these principles in educating teachers to utilize conversations based on primary source documents as the centerpiece of their classrooms. Tens of thousands of educators across the nation — more than 20% of the nation’s civics education teachers — have attended Ashbrook programs or utilized Ashbrook’s classroom resources. If you are a teacher or administrator who would like to learn more or attend a free Ashbrook seminar near you, please visit Ashbroook.org and TAH.org.