Alumni | General Education

A republic if you can keep it

Failing to teach first principles
ROCK VALLEY BEE   |  July 8, 2009 by Public Interest Institute

Today an urgent need exists for a broader understanding of history and government. America is facing a crisis in civic education. Americans are not being good stewards with the legacy left by the Founding Fathers, and the nation is facing a national emergency of losing not only its identity, but also its history and values. Americans have a citizenship responsibility that requires an informed patriotism based on our history and institutions. Students across the nation, including Iowa’s students—at all levels—are not learning the fundamentals of civic education.

Numerous studies from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, The Bradley Project on America’s National Identity, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have demonstrated that higher education has failed to teach college students basic civic education, that is, history, government, and economics. In fact many students can graduate from college and not take a course in American history, government, or economics. Russell Kirk in his book The American Cause wrote that “many Americans are badly prepared for their task of defending their own convictions and interests and institutions against the grim threat of armed ideology.” Kirk correctly stated that “ignorance is a dangerous luxury.”

Forces have been at work to undermine civic knowledge and American identity. Some of these factors include modern liberalism, political correctness, multiculturalism, globalization, nihilism, and radical secularism among others. “How does one sever a people’s roots? Answer Destroy its memory. Deny a people of who they are and where they came from,” wrote Patrick J. Buchan in The Death of the West.

Many, of these forces are at work in colleges and universities across America as well as in society and government. Matthew Spalding, a constitutional scholar at The Heritage Foundation, noted that modern liberalism “has attempted to ‘re-found’ America around evolving rights, unlimited government, and a ‘living’ Constitution.” This is exactly the policy direction of President Obama and his administration.

One major problem facing higher education is the core curriculum. Many colleges and universities, both private and public, follow a traditional liberal-arts based core curriculum in their general education requirements. Students have the opportunity of taking courses in the liberal-arts fields (physical and biological sciences, social sciences, humanities, writing, and mathematics), but often times students have a wide field to select courses from. This has been described as a “hollow core” because students do not have to take fundamental core courses that are especially relevant to civic education. Dr. Barry Latzer wrote “that this cafeteria-style approach is a poor substitute for a true, carefully designed core curriculum.”

Hillsdale College, located in Michigan, and Patrick Henry College, located in Virginia, are two leading examples of institutions of higher education that institute a traditional liberal-arts curriculum that emphasizes civic education. For example students at both colleges must take a course that focuses on the United States Constitution. In addition, both colleges place a high emphasis on having their graduates leave campus with an understanding of American history, government, and fundamental institutions. Hillsdale and Patrick Henry have incorporated civic education into their core curriculums and it is the moral foundation of their academic programs and both serve as solid examples.

President Ronald Reagan in his Farewell Address warned of an eradication of patriotism. President Reagan’s warning must be taken seriously. Although many students are leaving college ignorant of American history or even appreciating our great heritage—the problem runs deeper in our culture at large. Families, educators at all levels, businesses, and civic leaders all have a responsibility to foster and teach civic education. Civic education and patriotism must be restored. The nation has failed in teaching first principles and the future of the republic is at stake if America continues to neglect its heritage and values. As President Abraham Lincoln warned: “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”


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