I learned something new when I taught the very first class of the TPPF Summer Institute for high school civics teachers. “By the time student reach middle school age,” a teacher told me, “they come to class already cynical about the American form of government.” Another teacher added, “and it gets worse each year.”
The challenge we face—civic illiteracy—isn’t new. An Illinois politician, at the age of 29, spoke about the “mob-o-cratic spirit.” That was Abraham Lincoln, and the year was 1838.
Civic illiteracy was why, 167 later, then-President George W. Bush established Sept. 17 as Constitution Day (it was on Sept. 17, 1787 that the delegates to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia signed our Constitution). Under the new law, each educational institution which receives Federal funds is to hold a program for students every Constitution Day.
But has that fixed the problem? No, not yet.
National polling finds that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of the government. This is down from 38 percent in 2011, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Worse, 33 percent of Americans surveyed were unable to name even one branch of government. The survey also found that 37 percent of those polled could not name even one right protected by the First Amendment.
As bad as this, there is something worse than not knowing the facts about your country—thinking you know facts about your country that are, in reality, false.
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Over the summer, the New York Times began the “1619 Project,” which attempts to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding. Why 1619? Because, the Times contends, that’s the date of the arrival of the first African slaves to the land that would eventually be called the United States of America.
A few years ago, a professor published the results of 11 years of his quizzing his students at the start of each year on what they knew about American history and Western civilization. He found that students overwhelmingly believe that slavery “was an American problem…. Their entire education about slavery was confined to America.”
But what if America was not unique in holding slaves? What if America didn’t invent slavery, as our students have come to think? In fact, slavery was first documented nearly 9,000 in Mesopotamia. Enemies captured in war were commonly kept as slaves by their conquerors.
The Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptian pharaohs in the 1700s B.C.; the ancient Greeks, too, relied entirely on the slave labor of captives.
But Greek slavery paled in comparison to that in ancient Rome. According to historian Mark Cartwright, “slavery was an ever-present feature of the Roman world,” in which “as many as one in three of the population in Italy or one in five across the empire were slaves, and upon this foundation of forced labor was built the entire edifice of the Roman state and society.”
By the 8th century A.D., African slaves were being sold to Arab households in a Muslim world that, at the time, spanned from Spain to Persia. And by the year 1000 A.D., slavery had become common in England’s rural, agricultural economy, with the poor yoking themselves to their landowners through a form of debt bondage. The number of slaves captured in Germany grew so large that their nationality became the generic term for “slaves”: Slavs.
As for the Atlantic slave trade, this began in 1444 A.D., when Portuguese traders brought the first large number of slaves from Africa to Europe. And 82 years later, in 1526, Spanish explorers brought the first African slaves to settlements in what would become the United States—a fact missed by the Times.
In America, the first abolitionist society was established by Quakers in 1775. Betsy Ross, whose American flag design has been deemed politically incorrect by the shoemaker Nike, was herself both a Quaker and an abolitionist.
Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to abolish slavery, and that was just four years after its founding. Congress’ Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territories.
The U.S. was also quick to prohibit the import of slaves—President Thomas Jefferson signed a law to that effect in 1807. Slavery was completely outlawed in 1865, with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
But the slave trade continued to thrive elsewhere; the last country to abolish slavery was Mauritania, in 1981. The United Nations now estimates that even today, 40 million people are trapped in modern forms of slavery worldwide.
Despite what the 1619 Project would have us believe, slavery was not primarily an American phenomenon; it has existed worldwide. American didn’t invent slavery. Nor did slavery end in 1865.
We must neither ignore nor minimize the history of slavery in the United States. We must instead present the full facts about the history of slavery worldwide. That is requisite to understanding American slavery—as well as our successful efforts to end it.
But if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that our “national DNA” is ruinously soiled by a sin for which there is no atoning, how can we expect our misinformed citizens to possess the confidence in their own principles that is required to defend individual liberty and limited government? How can we expect them not to embrace the false, fatal promises of utopian regimes?
Our badly educated students—through no fault of their own—appear well on their way to such a fatal embrace.
What can be done?
A growing number of state legislatures are taking on the civic literacy crisis. Here in Texas, a bill was signed by the governor that will require the embedding of 10 questions from the U.S. citizenship test into the junior year U.S. History end-of-course exam. The new law also requires that students’ aggregate results on each of these questions be posted online for parents to inspect. We will have the first results from this test by the time the Legislature convenes in 2021.
If we are successful—and we MUST be successful—in restoring civics education, we may come again to understand why the Declaration and Constitution have been looked to by nations across the globe as both an inspiration and a model for their own reforms. We may come again to understand why Lincoln declared the nation built on the Declaration’s principles to be “the last, best hope of earth.”