WHEN THE Soviet Union in 1957 launched the Sputnik satellite, beating the United States into space, it galvanized reforms in U.S. education. Knowing that the best and brightest scientists, engineers and mathematicians were needed to win the race for space and compete economically with the world, the country undertook a major overhaul of education with massive investments in teaching science and math. Today, the United States faces a new challenge, but this time the threat is from within: growing cynicism in government, civic dysfunction and challenges to democratic institutions. Recent troubling events — notably the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol — should be a Sputnik-like spur to strengthen American democracy with improvements in civics and history education.
Well-timed, then, is an initiative announced this week offering a strategy to build excellence in civics and history instruction for K-12 students. Educating for American Democracy, a two-year effort funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Education Department, provides national guidance that states, local school districts and educators can use to strengthen and help transform the teaching of civics and history, designed with a diverse 21st-century student body in mind. The guidance was developed by a team of more than 300 historians, political scientists and educators from diverse backgrounds and different political viewpoints. The group hopes to build a grass-roots movement that will get state and local buy-in. Meanwhile, bipartisan legislation pending in Congress would support civics education, particularly helping schools that lack the resources.
There has been a steady erosion in the teaching of civics and history over the past 50 years. While the country spends about $50 federal dollars per student per year on science and math education, only five cents per year per student is allocated for civic education. Ten states have no requirement to teach civics. Such inattention shows in the numbers of Americans who can’t name the three branches of government and don’t understand the importance of checks and balances. Misunderstanding of government leads to distrust and disengagement and provides fertile soil for paralyzing polarization.
Of course, that polarization extends to how Americans view their own history. What is thrilling about the initiative from this diverse group of scholars is that it does not try to ignore or paper over that polarization. It is not a curriculum or set of standards. Rather than glossing over differences and disagreements about the country’s past, it celebrates them as issues to be debated and discussed. Indeed, that is what American democracy is all about.