Civics, history education needs a dose of honesty

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

By Marty Rochester

America is a “medina shel chesed, a nation of kindness.” 

— Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson


Sunday was Flag Day. In the midst of a pandemic, economic recession, and crisis over race and policing, I am daring to call for Americans to recover a sense of patriotism, by which I mean respect for and love of country.

I agree with the Rebbe. I think it is fair to say that for all its many flaws, the United States is the single most successful, prosperous, largest experiment in mass democracy in the more than 200,000 years Homo sapiens have inhabited the planet — no small achievement.

Yet there is declining respect for its accomplishments on the part of its own people. David Brooks has noted that “as late as 2003, Americans were the most patriotic people on earth, according to the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center” (New York Times, Sept. 16, 2016). However, that may have been a brief post- 9/11 bounce in flag-waving. 

The longer-term trend is one of decreasing devotion, culminating in the recent flak over Drew Brees having to apologize for respecting the flag.

A Gallup Poll last year revealed that “American patriotism is at a record low” (New York Post, July 2, 2019). Among its findings:

• Only 45% of U.S. adults indicated they were “extremely proud” to be Americans, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question in 2001, when 70% reported such.

• The Gallup Poll showed 76% of Republicans identifying as “extremely proud.” Even during President Barack Obama’s administration, GOP pride never fell below 68%. In the 2019 poll, in contrast, only 22% of Democrats declared themselves “extremely proud.” 

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• Young people (18-29 years of age) were especially cynical, with only 24% expressing extreme pride.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon, but I believe the primary fault lies with our educational institutions, which have failed to provide adequate civic education in giving students basic knowledge about our political institutions and culture and an appreciation of those things. 

The abysmal ignorance of the American public is well-documented. In a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only two out of five respondents could identify the three branches of government, and one out of five could not identify a single branch of government. As problematic as these cognitive failings are, the aforementioned affective failings may be even more so.

Some readers may well question patriotism as a value worth promoting, equating it with virulent nationalism, which Albert Einstein called “the measles of mankind,” or believing we should all think of ourselves these days as “multiculturalists” or “global citizens.” 

However, Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University explains how wrong this view is: “Civic education is inextricably interwoven with patriotism, without which commitment to the values that make free government possible will not exist. Civic education depends not only on understanding of fundamental processes and institutions … [but] on some kind of admiration for the country that created them” (Education Next, Spring 2020).

We have never really gotten the teaching of American history fully right. We have alternated between using our classrooms to create “America Firsters” one moment and “America Worsters” the next.

For much of our history, our textbooks have portrayed America in a highly sanitized, mostly celebratory fashion as an “exceptional” nation, a “city on the hill” – in Jefferson’s words, “an empire of liberty.” 

Of course, there was the obligatory mention of slavery, the relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral tribal lands to reservations, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and other such blemishes on our record. But these facts were secondary to the saintly reverence accorded the Founding Fathers and patriotic figures such as first spy Nathan Hale and naval hero Stephen Decatur, whose ringing words – “ I regret I have but one life to lose for my country” and “My country, right or wrong” – we dutifully memorized in grade school. 

This was the education that most public and private schools offered through the 19th century and much of the 20th century. I remember it well in my own upbringing. 

The last vestige of that sense of patriotism was President John F. Kennedy’s call in his 1961 inaugural address for Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” My generation — the flower children of the ’60s — was responsible for what followed, an extreme shift away from celebrating American history to condemning it.

Make no mistake that civic education over the past several decades has been critical to a fault, not so much examining American history warts and all but mostly focusing on the warts.

No writer has done more to produce a more jaundiced view of America, based on sloppy, ideologically slanted historical analysis, than left-wing academic Howard Zinn, whose “A People’s History of the United States” is the best-selling survey of American history, having sold almost 3 million copies since its publication in 1980 and having found its way into hundreds of high schools and colleges. 

I recommend your reading Mary Grabar’s meticulously researched book “Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History that Turned a Generation Against America.”In his review, Roger Kimball writes, “Zinn’s book has probably done more to poison the minds of high school students than any other work of history. Grabar provides an overdue anatomy of Zinn’s many errors and tendentious interpretations of the United States as an evil, racist, empire … a much needed antidote to one of the chief intellectual frauds of our time.” 

Sam Wineburg of Stanford University, perhaps the nation’s leading social studies expert, adds that Zinn’s history is “educationally dangerous.”

As bad as Zinn is, The New York Times has arguably outdone him when it comes to revisionist, bogus history that smears America, with its 1619 Project that is now making its way into our schools. According to the Times, the 1619 Project aims to “recast all of American history as being centered on and made possible by the Atlantic slave trade” that began 400 years ago, with “the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” 

Many renowned historians, such as Gordon Wood of Brown and Sean Wilentz of Princeton, have questioned the historical accuracy of the 1619 Project and denounced it. Peter Wood, head of the National Association of Scholars, rightly says that “the ultimate implication of the ‘1619 view’ … [is] all of America was built upon a lie. Freedom, liberty and natural rights are swept away with a broad brush. The real founding principles of America are oppression, inequality and suffering. … This is the endgame of the 1619 Project, a radical, political campaign thinly veiled behind a façade of dubious pseudoscholarship.”

Should we be surprised that the latest polls show a majority of young people now favoring socialism over capitalism and viewing America in a negative light? What is needed is an honest history that is neither triumphal nor self-flagellating, that recognizes slavery and racism (as well as sexism and other failings) as important elements of our history that we have tried to overcome while also acknowledging how the United States has been, more often than not, as the Rebbe suggested, a light unto the nations worthy of our salute.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.