Do We Need a 1776 Commission?

How do we prepare youth for active participation in a democracy?

Posted Sep 30, 2020

Tom DeCicco/Shutterstock
Source: Tom DeCicco/Shutterstock

In a White House news conference on September 2, 2020, President Trump proposed establishing a “1776 Commission” to restore “patriotic education” that would apparently counter “left wing indoctrination in schools”. Two weeks later, on September 17, at the National Archives, he elaborated that the Commission would offer a replacement for a “… warped, distorted, and defiled … American story” with exposure to what made us “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” Commentators from the political right and left immediately took aim at this proposal. The former lauded it as a counter to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, while the latter worried that white-washed history would be tantamount to indoctrination and no history at all.

Any political commission dealing with patriotism at this moment in our nation’s history cannot be disassociated from ongoing political battles. Serious scholars of social studies and civic education realize that such strife can easily trickle down and seep into school curricula, impinging on what should be taught, how, and by whom. There is a glimpse of this in the language President Trump used in his announcement which envisions teachers as dupes of “revisionist historians” who want to feed children the view of America as “… a wicked nation plagued by racism.” This view that teachers blithely adopt a negative view of America seems to prevail despite actual 2010 data collected by the American Enterprise Institute documenting that most social studies teachers present a conventional, admiring, and positive view of the nation’s history. And the assumption that acknowledging deep faults in our history is anti-patriotic does not give due credit to young people's ability to recognize the difficulty of trying to live up to ideals in the long arc of justice.

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As students of civic education and youth development, we want to offer some constructive comments should an actual commission be formed. Civic education begins with well-informed parents who discuss political matters, say, at the dinner table, and model civic behavior through their neighborly behavior and volunteer activities in local organizations. Focus on possible ideological influences on schools distracts from the basic fact that civic life and patriotism begin at home.

Second, the very idea of a commission on patriotic education elicits an immediate image of fact-based learning grounded in texts such as the Constitution which sets forth ideals. It is an illusion that love of country arises from reading history rather than from actual experiences in one’s neighborhood and larger community. Words and promises that appear in books do not override first-hand experiences of feeling accepted, being safe, taking a hand in solving problems, being able to help, or making contributions to a common local issue. These action-based behaviors help to define mutual respect, equal opportunity, and freedom to develop, much more than do words on paper which may or may not prove actionable in reality. This is why we, along with other scholars, have argued that civic education should be grounded in community-based experiences that bring values to life. Patriotism cannot be implanted reliably in youth via textual readings alone, any more than dislike of country can. Children and youth regularly ferret out the difference between adult-imposed ideals and reality-based values. Historical knowledge is an uncertain path for civic education. The lasting and meaningful way to patriotism starts with youth’s contributions to communities and awareness of how communities make impacts on their lives.

There may be a lesson to be learned here from our nation’s effort to promote democracy in Germany after World War II. The Marshall Plan included educational reform in which the Nazi atrocities were included and confronted in the teaching of German history. It is a fact that Germany today is one of the main anchors of the European Union and that Germany itself is example of a functional democracy that was able to incorporate peacefully the former Communist Eastern German state. Hitler, death camps, and millions of lost lives through expansionistic war are not topics denied, but facts of history that allow democratic Germany to be what it is today. German democracy does not hide from its fascist past but goes beyond it. So too, American democracy is a work in progress for which no one moment in history has precedent so long as we see movement toward making our ideals come to life for more of us.