The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s review of state standards for U.S. history and civics comes at a critical moment in American civic life. As a nation, we are failing to maintain a high functioning democratic society on multiple fronts. This sorry state of affairs has everything to do with the polarization of our politics, which is partly due to the fact that we have little sense of shared identity as Americans. And that lack of shared identity, in turn, owes substantially to the fact that we lack a reliably shared sense of American history, the workings of our government, and—perhaps most importantly—the expectations associated with a culture of citizenship.
In its outstanding report, the Fordham Institute identifies the ways in which state standards successfully articulate, or fail to put forward, pathways for developing these shared areas of knowledge and civic character development in American students. In so doing, it does a great service by advancing both our general and our specific awareness (in the context of primary and secondary education) of the need for a better roadmap.
In particular, the ideal vision of civics and U.S. history put forward in this report is appropriately rooted in the outline of an age-appropriate, sufficiently comprehensive curriculum (with attention to the elementary school years) that helps students understand what it means to be an American while also developing the skills and dispositions that are essential to fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship. Toward those ends, the report takes solid inventory not just of the spread of topics and themes that states currently cover but of their narrative consistency. Civic education cannot be about checking the boxes of required topics outside of the necessary historical context. The development of civic skill and character rests most firmly upon the bedrock of historical understanding, which is why the report’s attention to the arc of history is so important to our understanding of the care (or lack thereof) that states currently take in cultivating civic understanding and awareness in our students.
The report focuses on the need for us to find a balance between the unum and the pluribus in American civic life. Therefore part of what it rightly demands is that sufficient attention be paid to the histories of America’s various ethnic groups in a way that weaves these histories into the broader flow of American history. Per the sidebar on page 26, it’s encouraging to read that many states have made real progress when it comes to giving more considerable attention to the rich and complex history of African Americans and other groups within their standards. But the report also makes clear that there is significant work left to be done.
In practice, any attempt to weave the histories of particular groups into a balanced overview of our shared history is an invitation to controversy, and completely eliminating bias can seem an impossible task. But the best corrective that is available to students and educators when it comes to this and other matters of politics and historical interpretation is a civic disposition rooted firmly in respect for the views of our fellow citizens and the expectation that there will be serious and valid disputes in a pluralistic society. So it’s a great stride forward that this report analyzes the attention paid to this, as well as other civic virtues and dispositions, in state standards.
States with inconsistent approaches to the transmission of historical and civic understanding may need to revisit their understanding of the purposes of these subjects. It is tempting, with limited resources and any number of competing educational imperatives, to stick them wherever they seem to fit in our current K–12 system. Likewise, ignoring or glossing over difficult concepts or parts of our history may seem like the safe thing to do. But if we truly care about the long-term sustainability (or even the medium-term stability) of our democratic society, then we must invest the requisite thought and resources.
The cultivation of a deeper appreciation of our shared history as the foundation for an ever-strengthening relationship with the sacred concept of citizenship isn’t a self-executing project. It requires state standards that actually hold us to such standards. Fordham’s report is a vital step forward in the struggle to focus American attention on this duty. May we rise to its call.
John Wood, Jr. is the National Ambassador of Braver Angels.