Civic education in grades K-12 finds itself at the center of a heated debate over how we teach the American citizens of the future. While the current trends in education are harmful to students, the inhumane ideas behind them were developed more than a generation ago. Yet with considerable hard work from all of us, the current spasm in education can become the last in a series of convulsions of ultimately doomed ideologies. America is, after all, a land of hope.
But the present problem is very real. Teaching students what they need to become good, self-governing, and responsible citizens is the purpose of civic education. Current educational fads, however, refuse this solemn responsibility to our next generation. Instead, those captured by this pessimistic approach to civic education encourage young people to focus primarily on the evils done by our ancestors. This is a tragic mistake.
To go down this negative road is to stoke anger and hatred, cruelty and inhumanity, in our classrooms and the hearts of our young people. Students will be healthier, happier, and more capable of justice to others if their hearts are instead full of wonder, love, and humanity.
The newly released Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum fulfills this need to educate, first and foremost, in a loving way. It understands the best way to help the country is to help students grow into young men and women of character and intellect – that is, into good people and good citizens.
The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum doesn’t shy away from the evils done in our past but introduces them in a wiser, more honest, and humane way than the often faddish, fist-shaking curricula of our current moment. A polluted river is not well understood unless one first sees a healthy, clean one. Good must always precede evil, and goodness must outweigh evil in our minds. Otherwise, we mistake justice and slip into impotent rage and despair. We don’t want that for our children. Indeed, we want what’s good for our children.
The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum starts with the good, teaching the heroism of our founding generation who sacrificed much to win our independence. It teaches our country’s founding principles, not simply because they are old or familiar but because they are true and good. These are the principles of equality – that all people have dignity and are to be treated so under the law – and liberty; and justice for all, which requires that we, as a people, live out what “America the Beautiful” so beautifully recommends, “Confirm thy soul in self-control / thy liberty in law.”
Living out these principles is difficult. It’s a challenge for young people to become responsible and hard-working people. It means practicing honesty, spending one’s money wisely, providing for one’s family, treating everyone with respect, and serving one’s church, local community, and country. These things not only make for a stable, just society but also individual happiness and flourishing families. These habits don’t arise from thin air nor do they grow on trees. In part, they come from a wisely crafted curriculum that models these virtues by observing their practice in history and, in the right way, by observing them in the breach, as in the case of the evil of slavery.
Good civics and good American history require contact with the truth of the past. That means facts and dates, names and places, but also primary sources. It is also very important that students come into contact with the minds and hearts of their forbearers. With primary source materials and study guides, students get to think along with George Washington as he works to unite the former colonies. They get to consider the worry of New Yorkers over the quartering of soldiers in their homes despite both chartered law and common decency.
Primary sources help today’s American children to admire, empathize, understand, and feel united to a long chain of causes that have brought them the economic, legal, moral, political, and social goods they now enjoy. Used appropriately in the right time and manner, primary sources can foster a due sense of moral feeling for past injustices, while allowing students to share in the joy of those who overcome those evils.
Yet today’s new ideological and uncivil civics rejects all of this. Instead of equality under the law, it teaches the favoring of some at the expense of others. Instead of the freedom found in self-government, it teaches the elimination of obstacles to even the most irrational desire. Because it does not teach history well – sometimes misleading by overemphasis or even by simple misstatement of fact, often to make political points – it leaves students ignorant of the uniqueness and fragility of American equality and liberty and the great lengths to which so many have gone to preserve them. This unwise kind of miseducation often leaves students with the false impression that they are the first to concern themselves with justice for all Americans.
When faced with a sea of such curricular troubles, it is natural to lament the times and worry for the country’s future. With Hillsdale’s 1776 Curriculum, offered free to the public, we need not continue to lament. With units for grades K-12 on the American founding, Civil War, civics, and government, the curriculum relies upon a deep reading of America’s historical documents, careful scholarship, and decades of teaching experience. It provides students with a clear and optimistic understanding of our country’s principles and history and prepares them to be good citizens.
This curriculum is a civic service to the country, but it is up to you, dear reader, to see that it serves its true purpose, that it be placed before an eager child, ready to learn, with a loving parent, teacher, or mentor there to guide them.
The United States is governed by its citizens, so it needs those citizens to be good and well-educated people who know and love America, its people, its principles, and its history. They must be able to speak to the fundamental truth of equality and liberty, which every generation must strive to live well. Helping to educate these young citizens is the work of a good civic curriculum. Our children will take the torch of freedom in their day, and before then, we must help them become good, equal, and free Americans. If we abandon them to pessimistic and angry accounts of our shared past, we run the risk of spiritually disenfranchising a generation. That would be a theft. Like truth, goodness, and beauty, this curriculum is both very old and very new. So, hand on what is good to another generation, and use well this Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum.