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Hillsdale historian: American republic at stake if civics education isn’t improved

“The United States’ failure to educate its citizens has raised the question of whether it is still capable of sustaining a republican form of government.”

That’s according to Wilfred McClay, a history professor at Hillsdale College, in a recent policy brief for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Titled “Restoring Civics in Higher Education,” McClay argues “the gravity of the current crisis of civic ignorance outweighs the maintenance of the academic status quo.”

The scholar wrote that current legislative efforts underway in several statehouses to require public colleges and universities to mandate robust civics courses on foundational American principles are the best solution and override concerns about academic freedom.

In an interview with The College Fix, McClay said K-12’s and higher education’s shift to an emphasis on “global citizenship rather than national and local citizenship” has led to ignorance about what he calls the “common treasure” of America’s republican self-government.

“I think this is a mistake—there is really no such thing as global citizenship—and is leading to the neglect of the areas of citizenship that are most meaningful,” he said via email.

He said “the emerging willingness of state government and state institutions to take up this challenge” is a step in the right direction.

In his policy brief, he took on the thorny issue of academic freedom concerns, writing that while it’s important, it is “not an all-purpose trump card whose requirements transcend all other considerations.”

Pointing out public institutions should be held accountable to the public, he wrote that they have a responsibility to “inculcate an appreciation of the blessings and responsibilities of liberty.”

Making matters worse, he wrote, a patriotic education within such institutions is now often dismissed as “a form of propaganda or jingoism, a form of partiality that in itself constitutes a kind of moral transgression.”

But a patriotic belief in American democracy is essential to achieving active democratic participation and that education should “introduce the young to the whole of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans, enabling them to become literate and conversant in its many features and to take full advantage of all it has to offer them, both its privileges and its responsibilities,” according to McClay.

The report cites legislative efforts in North Carolina and Utah as positive ways to address the crisis.

A stalled bill in North Carolina, the NC REACH Act, would require “at least three credit hours of instruction in American history or American government in order to graduate from a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina with a baccalaureate degree or a community college with an associate degree.”

Although it fumbled in the statehouse, the University of North Carolina, which runs 16 campuses across the state, is set to implement a program called “Foundations of American Democracy” to promote the same goals.

Utah’s proposed legislative effort under Senate Bill 226 is more expansive and would require students in the public University of Utah system to “complete a 42-credit hour common core curriculum,” according to the bill.

The core curriculum would be run by a newly created School of General Education and “would consist of a set of courses on western and world civilizations, economics, science, and U.S. history, government and literature — and universities may not add to it,” The College Fix previously reported.

McClay, in his brief, wrote the common core curriculum “would go a long way toward solving the civic education problem.”

However, McClay told The Fix that “legislative solutions are not automatically translatable into educational solutions, and we still need to work out the best ways to impart civic knowledge to the next generation.”

“One size doesn’t fit all individuals and situations,” he said, adding scholars and administrators need to take some responsibility as well.

“[C]olleges have to step up to the table, and recognize that they have a role to play in rectifying that problem,” he said.

MORE: ‘Land of Hope’: New history textbook aims to tell America’s story with honesty, context

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Sophia Vitter is a student at the University of Calgary majoring in international relations. She grew up just outside of Washington, D.C., where she developed an interest in global affairs and politics.