Trustees | General Education

A strong United States needs citizens educated in history and civics

SEATTLE TIMES   |  July 2, 2010 by Ryan Blethen

The Founding Fathers’ intent has become a form of political self-assurance and a political conversation killer. Challenge a point of view and have the Founders’ intent spit back in your face. End of debate. You are wrong. The person you are debating—with the Founders “backing”—is right.

I am not going to try and extrapolate how the Founders would feel about their intent being used to prop up modern-day arguments. I can’t because I have no clue what they would think. Not as a group, and not as individuals. The world is a different place than it was in the later half of the 18th century. What might have made sense then could look very different in 2010. I will only venture to guess that their opinions would be as diverse as ours are today.

When I hear the Founders’ argument, I roll my eyes and wonder how much those people really know about our nation’s history. Can they wax eloquent about the Alien and Sedition Acts? Or is their knowledge of that explosive time no more than the image of George Washington standing boldly at the bow of a boat crossing the Delaware River?

Contemporary political arguments might lead people not too familiar with early American history or civics to believe that the Founders would have viewed health-care reform as in infringement on individual rights, or banking reform, or immigration. Really? In reality, who knows? And who cares? It matters little how the Founders would have come down on current issues.

What matters is not what we believe the Founders’ intent was in relation to today’s political battles, but using the framework they left to figure it out for ourselves instead of lazily saying that is how it would have been done in 1776.

This corralling of the Founders into political corners is of concern. It exposes the poor job we do as a nation teaching American history and civics.

I am a history buff. A lot of the people I know from high school and college are not. I took as many history classes as I could, while most of my friends toiled away in business classes.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that less than 15 percent of the colleges and universities it surveyed require a survey class in American history or government. Students can graduate from any of the schools in U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 without taking a course in American history or government.

I have asked friends why they did not care for history. Most said it was not that interesting in high school so they did not want to take it in college. That is a problem if a lot of students have already tuned out history and civics before college and colleges do not require classes on those subjects.

My interest in history can be traced to my grandfather, who used to take me and my brother fishing and tell us stories about serving in the 11th Airborne Division during World War II in the South Pacific. His tales and visible scars made history close and real. My study of World War II then pushed me to learn about the politics of the time. History and politics are linked.

The recession has made government close and real. The poisonous political atmosphere and the terrible economy has exposed our nation’s lack of civic understanding.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in endorsement meetings with candidates for the primary. There are a lot of angry people showing up who really do not understand our system. I have been shocked by how unprepared some candidates have been and the shallowness of their answers to our questions.

Couple this perverting of our forefathers’ intent with the sad state of civic knowledge and the future of the United States is bleak.

We are lost as a nation unless we know where we came from, have a historical understanding of our democracy’s framework and are not afraid to make our own decisions.

The Founders might agree.


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