Kids in school

We have barely survived the most serious crisis to face American democracy since the Civil War. This nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” was faced with a coup attempt that would have plunged us into autocracy. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” could very well have perished from the earth, and the question as to whether “that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure” would have been answered in the negative.

Republican politicians took advantage of the ignorance of American voters as to how elections work in American democracy. They duped millions of citizens into believing the big lie that the presidential election was stolen by Joe Biden. The sanctity of the electoral process lies at the heart of American democracy. It is sacrosanct. It must be held inviolate. To attempt to overthrow an election through fraud, is therefore, an unforgivable sin and a crime against the people.

Democracy depends on the active involvement of a knowledgeable, informed, and rational citizenry prepared to participate responsibly in self-government. If all people do participate, demographic realities favor the Democratic Party. We are fast becoming an ethnic minority-majority country. The Republican Party has become increasingly reactionary in response to this social change. Over the years, they have developed strategies for maintaining their political power at federal, state, and local levels. Cultural hegemony, gerrymandering voting districts, packing the courts with right-wing judges, voter suppression, and now, perpetrating the big lie have all been used to combat the rise of multiculturalism. The palpable fear of loss of privilege has plunged a good part of the Republican Party into a panic. Appeals to white supremacy and autocracy devolving into an attempted overthrow of the government bespeaks their desperation.

Under present conditions, a vote for a member of the Republican Party must be considered tantamount to a vote for white supremacy and autocracy. Our nation must use every means possible to combat this degradation of American democracy. All of our country’s institutions must be involved in the battle to save American democracy. This beautiful experiment in self-government should not be let to perish in the 21st century. In part, the people’s ignorance of the values and principles upon which our country’s founders established this nation, and their unfamiliarity with the system of government which has allowed it to flourish, have placed our democracy in jeopardy.

A 2017 survey, conducted by The University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that only 26% of the respondents could name all three branches of government. Thirty-three percent could not name any branch of government. In general, the public’s performance on the remainder of the survey indicated that Americans are poorly informed about basic Constitutional provisions.

Among the nation’s institutions, the public school has a critical role to play in the amelioration of this ongoing threat to American democracy. Indeed, the chief function of public schools in the United States should be to prepare its citizens for full and responsible participation in American democracy. If 74,000,000 voters are willing to give up on democracy, either knowingly or unknowingly, the public school has failed in this mission. It has failed to make education for citizenship its highest priority. According to the Annenberg Center, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of United States government or civics. Thirty-one states require a half year of civics, and ten states have no civics requirement.

To fulfill its primary mission, each public school in the United States should mandate a thirteen-year (K-12) curriculum designed to help students develop the knowledge base and set of cognitive skills needed for effective citizenship in a multicultural democracy. This curriculum should be instituted immediately for we are a society in crisis.

At a minimum, in thirteen years of schooling, students should become intimately familiar with our country’s founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. Applying the standards and practices emerging from these documents should be an ongoing skill-building exercise throughout the school years. The Federalist Papers and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America should also be included in the curriculum. Age-appropriate educational materials which explain how our government is structured and how it works are available from the National Constitution Center, the National Archives, the Center for Civics Education, and many other sources.

Cognitive skills development should become increasingly more sophisticated as students progress through the grades. A democratic citizen should be able to collaborate in evidence-based method of science approaches to problem-solving and decision-making; to utilize logic and reason in the critical evaluation of issues; to develop the capacity for rational thought in discerning the fallacies in argument and the recognition of propaganda; to develop the capacity for criticism, rational argument, and decision making; to consider the relevant alternatives before coming to conclusions; to think critically; to be deliberative; and, to be tolerant of differences.

Education for American democracy should also develop in the student a set of commitments: to the process of democracy; to democratic method; to the Constitutional guarantees of thought, belief, speech, and the press; to equal opportunity for all to participate in the decision-making process; and to liberty and equal justice for all.

If our country survives the present challenges facing democracy in the United States, we are going to have to produce a more informed and engaged citizenry for the future. We must revamp public school education to save American democracy.

Our nations’ founders have bequeathed to us an elegant system of ideas for self-governance. It is up to our public schools to produce an American citizenry worthy of the inheritance.

David E. Washburn, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of the Social Foundations of Education. He is the author of Democracy and the Education of the Disadvantaged and Multicultural Education in the United Statesamong other works.