Civic Education for Our Revolutionary Moment

In his essay “Reforming Educational Authority,” Andy Smarick covers a lot of ground, and therein lie both the strengths and the limitations of his essay. By such a comprehensive approach, Smarick demonstrates that education policy and reform is complex and multi-faceted. In a federal system, reform must be undertaken on a variety of levels. On the other hand, because Smarick paints such a broad canvas, he is sometimes unable to provide the level of analysis necessary to adequately explain the challenges in U.S. education policy. For that reason, his discussion is, at times, more hortatory than analytical.

Government and Choice

Nonetheless, taking a global view of American education allows Smarick to describe a system in which each level of education governance has its role. Smarick further seeks to apply a principle of Catholic social teaching, subsidiarity, that incidentally was also formally adopted by the European Union. This provides a useful perspective even if it produces a somewhat benign view of the dynamics and challenges of contemporary education reform.

Smarick rightly notes that the federal government has arrogated to itself the states’ educational prerogatives and has made a mess of things; but he also acknowledges that too often local school districts have been in over their head. He approvingly describes a power shift from school districts to the state-level and he seems confident in what state officials can accomplish. Perhaps that is so, but surely meaningful reform will differ from state to state. Nonetheless, he is correct in his call for citizen action: someone needs to attend PTA meetings and state Board of Education public hearings, not wait for the next onslaught from Washington, D.C.

Back at the local level, Smarick decries the inequity in school financing and notes the Supreme Court’s refusal in the 1973 Rodriguez case to recognize education as a constitutional right deserving of “strict scrutiny.” Consequently, the Court declined to support a challenge to Texas’ school financing, which, as in other states, relies most heavily on property taxes. Accordingly, poor neighborhoods too often mean underfunded schools.

Smarick goes too far, however, in condemning families of means for choosing private education over public, or for moving to a different area in pursuit of a better school. He asserts, “It is unjust to allow a family of means to use its wealth to move to the district of its choice or pay for a private school while a low-income family is left with no options.” Really? What conception of justice informs this overbroad assertion? To be blunt, this is more authoritarian than principled. Besides, among the many facile assumptions in education reform, it is assumed that taking an excellent student out of the classroom will lower the quality of learning for those who remain. But that isn’t necessarily true. Teachers (myself included) often tend to teach to the brightest students: it is more fun, and teaching mediocre students can be tedious. But if some of the class stars pursue other opportunities, the instructor is likely to focus on those who need the most attention.

Smarick identifies three different movements that have emerged in the last several decades of K-12 reform, “the accountability movement,” the “choice movement,” and the “resources movement.” This tripartite overview is useful as far as it goes but—it is just so 2019.

At this point, a “revolutionary movement” is upon us. The challenge presented by the “woke” revolt in American education, especially in history, government, economics, and literature has arrived. Smarick may wish for incremental change but the zealots do not.

The Revolutionary Movement

The idea that education should be the engine of social and political change has been the hallmark of John Dewey’s progressivism for decades now. One of the baleful effects of progressive education has been its contentless character; but, as the idiom suggests, “nature abhors a vacuum” and now an ideology hostile to the American Founding is rushing to fill the void. By one estimate, well over 4000 schools have now adopted the curricula of the “1619 Project” and the numbers are rising quickly. According to the Project, America was founded not on freedom, but on slavery, as the preservation of that awful institution was the impetus for the settlement of North America. For that reason, the founding ideals of the U.S. were a ruse, and those who led the American Revolution, frauds.

We can’t say we weren’t warned: Recall this well-known passage from the 1983 report A Nation At Risk:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Although Smarick finds some improvement in education, he concedes that any gains are insufficient to offset the general decay over the last few decades. A Nation At Risk was forgotten—or the responses have been so clumsy and ill-conceived as to accelerate the decline. Proponents of meaningful education reform would do well to heed Smarick’s caution about federal solutions. For example, the attempts to establish History, Science, Reading, and Math standards were co-opted and politicized, providing the terrain for the destructive curriculum wars of the 1990s

Smarick importantly emphasizes the role of the family and the need for reliable civics education. In these concerns, we might turn to Abraham Lincoln who, at the tender age of 28-years-old, anticipated our contemporary circumstances in what is commonly referred to as his “Young Men’s Lyceum Speech.” A few weeks before the speech, a mob had chained a black man to a tree and set him alight. Lincoln uses the horrific incident as the context for his speech, which he formally entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” delivered in Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838. Thus, Lincoln is speaking in an environment aflame with racial turmoil, not unlike our own.

Lincoln first notes that the Founding Generation had passed away, and his principal concern was how the American experiment might be preserved in their absence. The men of Lincoln’s generation, he notes, were the “legal inheritors” of the “fundamental blessings” bequeathed by the Founding generation. These blessings include “a political edifice of liberty and equal rights” and the responsibility of Lincoln’s cohort was to “transmit” this inheritance to the next generation.

If threats to the American heritage are to come, however, “the approach of danger” will not come from without, but rather from within. He explains,

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Lincoln describes a mood eerily like our own. He notes “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country” and “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” Lincoln observes that such an atmosphere “is awfully fearful” and he identifies two large segments of the population, both of which are adversely affected by “this mobocratic spirit.” There are those who already have a tendency toward violence because, since they have “regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.” Yet others, who by habit are law-abiding and enjoy modest, stable lives, will lose confidence in their own government and may become well-disposed to a fundamental political change however ill-advised it might be.

For Americans, the past year offered too many instances of the “mobocratic spirit.” Rather than confronting the danger, the usual responses have been partisan: disorder is judged not by its nature, but by its purpose and setting. Perhaps the terrible display of “mobocracy” at the U.S. Capitol should not have come as a surprise because we may have already crossed a dangerous threshold as America’s social manners have yielded to something far less civil than that upon which the nation has relied. To further understand Lincoln’s warning, a reference to one of his sources, Federalist #55, is instructive. That essay is a response to those who argued that the proposed constitution did not allow for a House large enough to be truly representative. In the course of the essay, Publius makes a remarkable assertion in explaining that when a group of individuals reaches a certain size, their collective nature changes. He argues, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” This may not require a physical gathering—an agitated online social media community seems to suffice.

Lincoln warns of those who will appear in the future with little regard for the Founders’ legacy: “At such a time and under such circumstances,” he explains, “men of sufficient talent and ambition will . . . seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom. This challenge will test “the capability of a people to govern themselves.”

Lincoln asks, “How shall we fortify against it?” How might our liberty and “the liberty of our children be preserved”? His answer is the nurturance of two of the basic human faculties: reason and passion. Such is the task of education wherever we may find it. 

First, Lincoln advocates the cultivation of the intellect. He explains, “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.—Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.” Secondly, he prescribes a curriculum designed to evoke a love of country, a patriotic attachment to—not a disdain for—the nation. Though some may find Lincoln’s prose romantic, his advice is crucial:

Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; —let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. . . While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall . . . prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom.

These are the principal tasks of education, beginning at, and continuing from, the lowest levels of instruction which necessarily begin with the family. As Smarick notes, this obligation can be pursued in a variety of settings given the pluralism from which the fabric of the nation is woven. But pursue them we must.