Joshua Mitchell speaks about the threat identity politics poses to American life, and how we might work to counter it.
Civility as Wool for Woke Wolves
Opponents of social justice ideology sit on the horns of a dilemma. Social justice ideology can never serve as a sound basis for civic friendship, yet it has come to dominate many of our opinion-making institutions, especially, as is well documented, in higher education. We are beginning to understand its power in tony elite private schools. K-12 public education is deeply infused with this virulent ideology.
Exemplary of the problem is a new federally funded report produced by educators concerned about the future of civics education. Many are friends, deeply trained in the history of political philosophy, and published on Law & Liberty to boot. Focused on public K-12, Educating for American Democracy: Excellence in History and Civics for All Learners attempts to show a civil way forward. But its unprincipled model of civility actually promises only a dead end and defeat for those who would preserve self-government. The report recognizes that the country faces internal threats reflecting “civic dysfunction.” The country is “deeply polarized,” and Americans “deeply disagree.”
The report never explains exactly what poles divide us. The country, according to the report, is afflicted with cynicism (presumably the problem of the Left) and nostalgia (presumably the problem of the Right). The report is particularly hard on the nostalgic. Apparently much of schools’ curricula, reading material, and teacher preparation and development are shaped by the idea that America is a nation without problems. Students can, the report asserts, “make it into their teens without knowing. . . that George Washington not only was a foundational leader but also enslaved people.” The struggles of “historically marginalized” people are known to professional historians, but their insights haven’t made their way into an integrated history of America for students. Scholars know about the importance of social movements, but this “new learning” does not make its way into the K-12 curriculum.
So worshipful are the nostalgic, according to the report, that America has not yet had a truth and reconciliation committee—something the report insists we need in order to “arrive at a shared understanding of the past.” Perhaps one is in the offing. As a cure for such nostalgia, we can celebrate “the agency of those who have experienced oppression and domination.” Balance in American will arrive only when the Right loses its benighted nostalgia—that is, when the Right loses.
The Road to Civic Suicide
The nostalgic might believe that the nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It is difficult to know from the report what cynics think. It never mentions identity politics or social justice education or critical race theory or multiculturalism. Cynics believe that high ideals such as a dedication to human liberty mask the pursuit of material self-interest or power. Today’s cynics presumably think that the country was conceived in racism and dedicated to maintaining racism in whatever form the age demands. Cynical students might make it into their teens without knowing that America is conceived in liberty—though again that problem is never mentioned in the report. The Left might have to lose its cynicism, but the report dares not say this. Civility not only demands silence from the Right but agreement with the Left’s assertions about the “nostalgic” character of too much American civics education.
But everyone who signed on to the report can agree on something: civics education receives insufficient funding and honor. America has “unsatisfactory knowledge and skills for civic engagement” and majorities are “functionally illiterate on our constitutional principles and forms” because of “declining investment in time and resources.” Not enough honor. Not enough testing. Teachers enter the classroom “without adequate intellectual support, instructional time, and guidance.” In fact, “national polarization” itself “has created obstacles to investment.” Our deep disagreement makes it “easier to neglect civics and history than to court controversy about content or pedagogy.” Equitable provision of these resources would help too. We do not teach the wrong things. What we teach seems great. We just do not teach enough and well, which would presumably be remedied with more resources.
The Left does give up something in the Report. If they are to converse, it seems that the Left must drop the threats of violence. The Left, flush with victory after victory, must enter into a “shared, national conversation about what is most important to teach in American history and civics, how to teach it, and above all, why,” just as the Right must drop its nostalgia. The Right, losers without much institutional cache, would be happy for the conversation. But why would the Left stop itself and compromise with the nostalgic?
Assuming against hope that the Left would engage in a cease-fire, what would a conversation look like? To only slightly modify Lincoln’s letter to Alexander Stephens after southern states had seceded, I would say to the Left: “You believe America is racist and ought to be replaced, while I think America is an imperfect guarantor of liberty and ought to be mended. That is the only material difference.”
Can there be a shared national conversation—an “ideologically pluralist” conversation, as the report suggests—on the basis of such a difference? Conversationalists must share a language—and mean the same thing by the language. The civil ignore this problem—but ignoring it is misleading and dangerous. Misleading, in that it wrongly holds out hope to find a common ground that is the basis for genuine civility. Dangerous, in that it promises a way out that does not include the Left jettisoning central aspects of its social justice agenda. Civility without a shared civitas is a suicide pact.
The report imagines a new civitas of inquiry that will guide questions about America’s past. It offers “seven themes” and “six core pedagogical principles” as a pathway forward. The themes are all general and procedural, without content. The principles include things like “excellence for all” “self-refection and growth mindset,” “inquiry as the primary process for learning,” and “practice of constitutional democracy and student agency.” All involve processes while ignoring the substance or conclusions that citizens should reach. Should students love or like their country? It does not say. Should inquiry lead to conclusions? It does not say. What is America? It does not say.
The principles are bereft of answers because of five “design challenges.” How can we motivate agency (e.g., protest) while sustaining a republic? How can America emphasize its plurality while maintaining a “shared story”? How can we celebrate and critique compromise? How can we be honest about our past while loving or liking our country? These are challenges only if we accept the Left’s critique of the country’s history and only if we accept the Left’s view that America is irredeemably racist, sexist, and such.
This all leads to an unpleasant, ungentlemanly, and perhaps immoderate conclusion: Civility and shared conversation cannot maintain a country. There must be a shared way of looking at the world and a shared experience of what people see. If some look at the police and see a defense of the rule of law, while others see instruments of oppression, no amount of shared principles or themes will unite them. If some see the flag representing a land of hope, while others see a symbol of oppression, there is no common ground. Civic education divorced from the truth of the matter cannot heal the nation’s division.
The committee that drafted Educating for American Democracy values civility. But the practice of civility as reflected in the report leads step by step to tyranny.
The Road to Civic Peace
Compare Educating for American Democracy with the 1776 Report. The 1776 Report identifies identity politics as the contemporary corrosive on American civic education. Never focusing on resources, the 1776 Report hones in on the ways in which today’s regnant social justice ideology miseducates American students and encourages Americans to despise their country. The 1776 project likens identity politics to “the false theories that have led too many nations to tyranny.” Instead of civility, it tries to get at the truth. The project provides a pathway to civic peace and friendship, but only after leveling a full-throated attack on identity politics.
In contrast, Educating for American Democracy refuses to identify those who peddle the ideology that is undermining the education toward decent, informed patriotism; it focuses on the lack of resources; and it would have the Right cede ground to the Left without getting anything in return.
Educating for American Democracy faces a fundamental question, one that it is uncivil to ask. Is social justice education or identity politics consistent with classical liberalism or the idea of a decent nation? The 1776 project could hardly be clearer on these questions. This new woke ideology projects intractable group conflicts into politics, stigmatizing rational deliberation and compromise as services to the oppressive status quo. It undermines the idea of individual rights and replaces it with group identity, whether oppressed or oppressor. It also establishes inequality of the law as the normal expectation of political practice, making it just a question of whose ox is being gored.
Getting along in the short term demands that we suppress such questions and focus on the need for more resources, never asking what those resources will fund. Civility demands we impute good motives and a desire for civic friendship to our ideological competitors, despite evidence to the contrary. Educating for American Democracy inadvertently compounds all the problems of an unprincipled civility with naivete about the imperial claims of today’s Left. It cries wolf about American nostalgia while cloaking the wolves of wokeness under a blanket of sheepish civility.