College and even high school football players are following cues from the NFL and “taking the knee” in protest during the pre-game national anthem. We should view this as a unique moment in our nation’s history—American students, at all levels, are more engaged than ever on the questions that drove our founders to declare independence. But has a lack of civics education hurt the ability of these students to fully engage the ideas and principles at work in the larger national debate?
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, high school football coach Brian White doubles as a government teacher. “The people that find it offensive that anyone would [kneel], I think they find it offensive because they hold such high regard for this flag, this object,” White told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “I get that completely. But, in my opinion, that does not [supersede] an American’s right of free speech. We have to hold that dear. Once we start with the censorship stuff, once we start censoring, where does it stop?”
White’s students are fortunate; many in high school and even in college don’t have teachers as thoughtful and well-informed about the nature of our government and our freedoms.
American higher education can and must do better at providing civic education, without which our democracy cannot survive. And that begins with how we view education. Historically, it has always been viewed as more than simply vocational training. It is not accidental that the word “liberal” in “liberal education” has the same root as the word “liberty.” Liberal education is an education for and through liberty.
Yet U.S. students are shockingly ignorant about the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the foundational documents of our nation. This cannot help but alarm those of us who believe, with the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, that no nation can expect to be “both ignorant and free.”
To this end, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has laid out a kindergarten through college curriculum for civics education. It begins with titles such as “A Picture Book of George Washington” by David Adler in elementary school, and extends to the writings of James Madison and Supreme Court jurisprudence at the higher levels.
Let’s bring it back to those kneeling football players. Civics education is at the heart of their protests and their concerns.
The American theory of justice argues for human equality; for the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; for government established by popular consent; and for the right of the people to rebel should government cease to fulfill the purposes for which it was instituted. On this basis, the United States is more than a mere address, more than its history, and more than its demographics. It is, in its essence, an idea.
The questions students are asking and the issues they’re raising are important to all of us.
The questions regarding the meaning of human equality, inalienable rights, popular consent, and the right of revolution require study of the Declaration, along with Frederick Douglass’s 1852 address, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” and Chief Justice Taney’s infamous opinion for the majority in the Dred Scott case (in which Taney denies that African-Americans have any rights that whites are bound to respect). Against Taney, Frederick Douglass’s and Abraham Lincoln’s scathing critiques of the Dred Scott opinion need to be taught.
The Declaration needs also to be scrutinized in its relation to the pro-women’s suffrage, 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that was delivered on the National Mall in 1963.
Finally, a solid civics education is the best response to the disturbing tide of illiberalism and censorship we see taking place on our nation’s college campuses.
That Cedar Rapids football coach and government teacher has it right. As Americans we all have a right to protest. That right is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and vigorously defended in the Federalist Papers. But do our students know that?
Tom Lindsay, Ph.D., is director of the Foundation’s Center for Higher Education and senior constitutional scholar at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Opinions expressed by Texas Monthly guest columnists are their own.