The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for American history/civics education is the real culprit as to why we created a nation of citizens who do not know, appreciate, and value the principles of our Founding and what we risk by losing them.
Here's how it goes, perhaps you may remember from your school days.
Let's also focus our attention since 1990.
The SOP is that we cover the material (the years of the curriculum) in order to get ready for "the test."
The mid-term test, the end of year test, the state test, the unit test.
Any test will do.
Since we focus on "covering the material" we have to maintain a pace that allows us time to "cover" every unit that will be on the test. If we slow down too much we run the risk of not "covering" everything. And since our focus is on “covering the material,” the content is rushed, superficial, and repetitive. Students have heard the same story of the Stamp Act every year they study early American history. But they haven’t learned to study the “habit of thinking” of the moral and political principles that emerged out of the Stamp Act. Nor have they learned that the Stamp Act launched a transformation in the hearts and minds of the American colonists that they would never look back from.
Tragically, because the SOP is repetitive, shallow, and rushed, students do not get to grapple with the human elements of freedom, tyranny, justice, and power. They do not get to see the generations that came before them as they saw themselves. Instead, we expect students to memorize names, dates, and events without appreciating how those names, dates, and events, are fundamentally a part of the American story of freedom, tyranny, and human nature.
This also leads to more “presentism” in education and not enough study of the past. “Presentism” is looking at everything through the lens of today. If you do that then every single person of the our Founding period is evil for either having slaves, knowing people who had slaves, or for being ambivalent about the institution. If every person of our Founding generation was evil there is not much we can learn from them and why should we even bother appreciating their sacrifices and accomplishments. Then if that is the case we don’t have much to revere and celebrate about our Founding.
The other failure of the SOP is neutrality. If George Washington isn’t an evil man, he also isn’t a great man who suffered through combat, weather, and war for his country and who gave up power twice. Instead, we must be neutral because he was a slave holder. Thomas Jefferson can’t be honored by writing the greatest anti-slavery document in all of history because he too had slaves. The principles of our Constitution aren’t unique in history because the ⅗ clause was included.
A better way forward is to dive deeper into the principles of our Founding and to appreciate the Founding generation as men, not Gods. They weren't all knowing, all powerful Beings. They were men living in their time who left us with three powerful Charters of Freedom, 13 state Constitutions, and a culture that was uniquely American.
This recipe of shallowness, presentism, and neutrality is a shame because it leaves a void of what should have been learned. Students are dying for a more profound learning experience of our past and the principles that forged America. They want to learn about the great principles of liberty, equality, tyranny, consent, power, and happiness. They are tired of the same-old-same-old history class that asks them about the separation of powers but doesn’t express why the separation of powers was put in place to protect us from ourselves and the wickedness of our human nature.
After decades of rushing through a curriculum and not teaching the truth of our history and our Founding we now have a society with a void that must be filled. Consider the unfulfilled learning potential when the typical student either gets rushed, shallow, and “neutral” or evil and wrong as their options. Either way the American student isn’t leaving history and civics class empowered and inspired by the legacy of liberty that we have been endowed with.
What has been filling this void has been anything and everything. The 1619 Project and their premise that the year 1619 was the real year of America’s founding is exactly what happens when generations of students graduate from High School and college bored, uninspired, disinterested, and uninformed.
But the real tragedy isn’t just the emptiness but the missed opportunity of the beauty that could have been. The opportunity to have students learn moral challenges of tyranny, the bravery required of freedom, the wisdom necessary to create Constitutions that protect Rights, secures liberty, and defends citizens from foreign and domestic danger. This type of learning can’t be accomplished by following the latest textbook or from an ugly powerpoint, it has to be searched through the pages of history by the writings of wise, brave, and important people. Students miss out on having an education that inspires them by the actions of the past and that grounds them in lessons learned. Instead, the American student receives the SOP history education that leaves them bored, confused, and uninspired.
The American student deserves better because what we are offering is not only ineffective, but it is unsustainable. That is a tragedy we all must come to terms with.