Reviving Civic Education in Iowa

By John Hendrickson and David Randall, Ph.D.

If anything good has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic it is the growing awareness by parents across the nation about what is being taught in schools. This is especially true concerning civic education. For decades a crisis has existed over the decline of civic education. Numerous surveys and studies have shown that at all grade levels, including higher education, students do not have an adequate understanding of American history, American government, or Western civilization. Reform is needed to strengthen civic education in Iowa schools and the National Association of Scholars has issued social studies standards—a guide for curriculum in each classroom—that will help improve civic education in Iowa. American Birthright: The Civic Alliances Model K-12 Social Studies Standards is a guide to help improve standards in civic education.

Jeffrey Sikkenga, Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center, described the crisis in civic education as a “civic illness.” “The results make clear that too many young people around the country don’t know the basic facts of U.S. history and government. More important, they also don’t adequately understand the fundamental principles that guide our country,” wrote Sikkenga.

Numerous reasons exist for the growing national unfamiliarity of American history. One reason is the focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Over the last several years, education at all levels has been pushing STEM. Sikkenga notes that educational taxpayer funds and state and federal standards are focusing more on STEM. The argument being made is that STEM and technical education fields prepare students for today’s workforce. Our society needs more skilled workers, but we also need informed citizens.

Although STEM and technical education is valuable, education is more than just preparing an individual with the necessary skills to succeed in an occupation. Education must also be about character, citizenship, and liberty. “History isn’t just something that ought to be taught, read, or encouraged only because it will make us better citizens. It will make us a better citizen and it will make us more thoughtful and understanding human beings,” stated historian David McCullough.

Many schools are using radical curriculums that reflect a socialist interpretation of our nation’s history. Increasingly, students are displaying significant support for dangerous ideologies such as socialism. This politicization of civic education also includes critical race theory, political correctness, and multiculturalism, among other themes. Students are taught that they are global citizens rather than citizens of the United States. Many students are being exposed to “action civics,” which encourages activism and “hands on democracy.”

During the past few years many Americans were shocked at the reckless behavior of young people destroying and defacing historical statues and memorials. This, combined with an organized effort to destroy and replace American history with a new history such as the 1619 Project, is a dangerous development. A comprehensive review is needed to ensure that all students are learning American history, but also American government, and Western civilization.

The American Birthright social studies standards can serve as a model to improve Iowa’s social studies standards. The goal of American Birthright is to educate students “so they can know what freedom is, where America’s ideas of freedom come from in the long history of Western civilization, how our ancestors achieved their freedom, how our laws, republican institutions, and limitation of the scope of government preserve our freedom, and what they need to do to preserve their country’s liberty.”

Further, this standard serves to teach social studies so students “can learn why their country deserves to be loved, and to learn what we owe to our ancestors—the heroes of the American past who deserve our gratitude because they created a free and prosperous country and bequeathed it to us, their posterity.” This also includes learning about “America’s common language of liberty, patriotism, and national memory.”

The objective of education should not just be about obtaining skills for an occupation, but also to be a responsible and informed citizen. Therefore, we need to renew and strengthen civic education in Iowa. We have a responsibility to our ancestors and for future generations to preserve our great Republic and heritage.

Citizens and state policymakers should get in touch with Iowa’s Department of Education to urge them to adopt American Birthright as the model for Iowa’s state social studies standards. Parents should get in touch with their school district, to urge it to adopt American Birthright as a guide for their social studies curriculum.

The decline of civic education is a moral crisis that we must resolve. In The Death of the West, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote: “How does one sever a people’s roots? Answer: Destroy its memory. Deny a people the knowledge of who they are and where they came from . . . Destroy the record of a people’s past, leave it in ignorance of who its ancestors were and what they did, and one can fill the empty vessels of their souls with a new history . . .”

David Randall, Ph.D. serves as Research Director at the National Association of Scholars and John Hendrickson serves as Policy Director at Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation.

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