The Forum | Civic Literacy

The Disgrace at the Capitol: Civic Education and the Way Forward

January 8, 2021 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Centuries ago, the Roman statesman Cicero admonished, “We are slaves to the law in order that we may be free.” 

The rioting, the destruction, and the rage directed at the United States Capitol, the very symbol of our republic, must tear at the hearts of all who regard America as an inspiration to the world, a bastion of law and liberty. Not only our liberty, but also our prosperity, rest upon the stability of our institutions and the confidence that other nations have in us.

In late spring and over the summer, Washington, DC and many other American cities were witness to violent protests. Iconic statues fell to angry crowds, businesses were destroyed. On Wednesday, a mob furious that President Trump did not gain re-election assaulted and vandalized the Capitol, and the work of Congress was disrupted. Whether civil violence and disorder come from the Left or the Right, they are an affront to our principles of freedom and a threat to our republic.

Ronald Reagan knew that our future depends on making the American story part of every child’s education, as he asked poignantly in his Farewell Address, “Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?”

From where does the ignorance of the Constitution and disrespect for the rule of law manifested in these displays of violence stem? Clearly, we are facing a crisis in citizenship, the foundation of which is the failure to educate young Americans on the principles that have made our country the longest lasting constitutional republic in history. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s annual surveys show that 82% of colleges and universities in the United States do not require students to take a basic course in U.S. government or history. Numerous elite institutions fail to require a single course on our nation’s history even for students majoring in history.

The principles upon which our precious freedoms are founded must be taught, understood, and appreciated to preserve our way of life and our nation’s well-being. It is the sacred duty we owe each generation that follows our own.

To prevent the chaos and destruction we have witnessed from ever happening again, we must make certain that college students graduate holding the ideals of freedom and democracy much dearer in their hearts. Educators have the power to ensure that the ideals enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are also the ideals of our future. Without the understanding of our history, without respect for the rule of law, and without properly educated citizens, we risk failing the great experiment in self-government that began in 1776.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More