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Flunking Democracy: Warning America’s voters about historical ignorance

Written By | Mar 2, 2020

WASHINGTON: Many years ago, when I was in what was then called Junior High School, the New York City public schools decided that teaching grammar was no longer important.  Learning the parts of speech and how to diagram a sentence was completely abandoned. Ironically, some years later I taught eighth grade English for a year at a private school, which had not abandoned grammar.  I was one step ahead of the students and, often, one step behind.  Now,  history and civics, our Democracy, is being abandoned in the same way.

No one is asking the question of how citizens in a democracy are to make informed decisions about candidates offering themselves for public office if they don’t know what has come before?

How can they properly judge programs candidates propose if they don’t know that such proposals may have been tried in the past and failed?

Professor Danielle Allen, a political theorist at Harvard University, notes that

Danielle Allen,  Author, Democracy, history, Writers, 20th Century

Professor Danielle Allen, Harvard

“Over the past decades, our nation has undergone a significant decline in the provision of civics education.  We downshifted from delivering three courses in civics to most high school students in the mid-20th century to now delivering one single semester course to approximately 85 percent of students.”

In his book “Flunking Democracy,” Michael Rebell reports that by four years after the implementation of No Child Left Behind, a meaningful percentage of school districts had reduced social-studies instruction to devote more time to English and math (33 percent in a nationally representative sample of 290 districts).

Statewide rests that focus on math and English, as important as they may be, give schools no incentive to invest in history and civics instruction.

Read Also: Reclaiming the American Political Philosophy in 2020
A far-reaching and fascinating discussion with author Rebell that parents, educators, students, and politicians should review:

This shift has been most pronounced in the case of low-income students.

A 2017 report from the Education Commission of the States says,

“Urban schools with low-income, diverse students provide fewer and lower-quality civic opportunities and affluent white students are twice as likely as those of average socioeconomic status To study the legislative process or participate in service activities and 150 percent more likely to do in-class debates.”

Only about 30 percent of U.S.millennials consider it “essential” to live in a democracy,  while 72 percent of Americans born before World War ll do.  Indeed, scholars such as Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Peter Levine of Tufts University believe that the neglect of civic education in the past fifty years is a root cause of our civic and political dysfunction.

In Harvard’s Professor Allen’s view:
“No democracy can survive if its citizens do not believe that democracy is worth having.  The long-term future of our system of government depends not only on restoring a supermajority of citizens who demand democracy but also on ensuring that that percentage exists across the generations…Some states have recognized the need to rebuild civics education.  In 2010, Florida passed the Sandra Day O ‘Connor civics Education Act, which has dramatically ramped up civics education in that state.   More recently, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Arizona have passed important legislation or developed more demanding …standards around civics.”

The study of history, Democracy, has, until recent years, been considered vital for a healthy society.

In a 1941 essay,  “The Use of The Past,” from The Ground We Stand on: The History of a Political Creed, John Dos Passos writes:

John Dos Passon, Author, Democracy, history, Writers, 20th Century,

John Dos Passos

“Every generation rewrites the past.  In easy times history is more or less of an ornamental art, but in times of danger we are driven to the written word by a pressing need to find answers to the riddles of today.  We need to know what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.  In spite of changing conditions of life they were not very different from ourselves, their thoughts were the grandfathers of our thoughts, , they managed to meet situations as difficult as those we have to face, to meet them sometimes lightheartedly, and in some measure to make their hopes prevail.  We need to know how they did it.”

Considered one of the Lost Generation writers that included Ernest Hemingway, Dos Passos published his first novel in 1920 One Man’s Initiation: 1917, that like J.R. Tolkiens Hobbit, or There and Back Again, was written in the trenches during World War I.

Dos Passos, argues that,

“In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning,  a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot delusion of the Exceptional Now that blocks good thinking.  That is why, in times like ours, when old institutions are caving in and being replaced by new institutions not necessarily in accord with most men’s preconceived hopes, political thought has to look backwards as well as forwards.”

Professor Wilfred McClay of the University of Oklahoma is the author of “Land of Hope: An Invitation To The Great American Story.”  He notes that

McClay, Democracy, history, Authors, Writers, 20th Century, “The impulse to write history and organize our world around stories is intrinsic to human beings. We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events.  What we call ‘history’ and ‘literature’ are merely the refinement and intensification of that basic impulse, that need.”

Dr. Mcclay makes the point that,

“The word need is not an exaggeration.  For the human animal, the meaning is not a luxury, it is a necessity.  Without it, we perish.  Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity.  Without memory, without the stories by which our memories are carried forward, we cannot say who, or what, we are.  Without them, our life and thought dissolve into a meaningless, unrelated rush of events.  Without them, we cannot do the most human of things, we cannot learn, use language, pass on knowledge, raise children, establish rules of conduct, engage in science, or dwell harmoniously in society.  Without them, we cannot govern ourselves…A culture without memory will necessarily be barbarous, and easily  become tyrannies, even if it is technologically advanced.”

The respected author Isaac Bashevis Singer points out that,

Isaac Bashevis Singer

“When a day passes it is no longer there.  What remains of it?  Nothing more than a story.  If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts, only for the day.  The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”

The results of a survey commissioned by Common Core, an organization working to bring comprehensive instruction, including history and liberal ars, to American classrooms reveals an embarrassing ignorance among America’s students of basic U.S. and world history.

Out of 1200 17-year-old respondents, nearly a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, less than that could place the Civil War in the correct half-century, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and religion.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter McDougall, in the article The Three Reasons We Teach History, sums up three important reasons studying history encourages intellectual growth as well as serving an important civic and moral function.

McDougall writes:

“History is the grandest vehicle for vicarious experience;  it truly educates young minds and obliges them to reason, wonder, and brood about the vastness, richness, and tragedy of the human condition.  Studying history provides a context in which to fit all other knowledge—-like math, science or literature—-that a student may learn.”
We abandon the teaching of Democracy at our peril.

There is a distinctly American political philosophy that even some who hold high political office seems not to understand.  It involves a fear of excessive government power.  Because of this fear, the Constitution divided power between an executive, legislative and judicial branch, our system of checks and balances.

Sadly, whichever party is in power tends to expand the reach of government.

Read Also: Arbitrary Executive Power is against the Constitution and Framer’s intent

Free societies have been rare in history.  No other country in the world now lives under the same form of government it did two hundred years ago.  The Founding Fathers planned for the future as best they could.  Their creation, whatever its flaws, is still with us.

We imperil its continuity into the future if we do not transmit our history to the next generation.


Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.