In the wake of the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Education earlier this week, civic illiteracy and even hostility to the principles that made America great continue to plague our nation.
For decades, Washington has continued to centralize more education authority and ramp up spending. Yet student achievement has essentially flatlined.
A recent Heritage Foundation report on the Department of Education (DoE) analyzed, among other things, discouraging results on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores. The report noted, “The tests have served as a steady reminder that no matter the increase in federal investment in K–12 schools or the size of the Cabinet-level agency, Washington has not improved student achievement over time.”
Initiatives like No Child Left Behind, America Competes Act, Race to the Top, and Every Student Succeeds are just some of the ambitious DoE projects that show meager results — disproving the persistent theory that if government just marshals the right resources this time, success will follow.
Ninety percent of immigrants pass the citizenship test, while only a third of native-born Americans can pass the exam.
Civic knowledge is not improving, either. Specific scores on civics assessed over two decades show “no significant change.” This despite multiple civic-minded federal initiatives meant to rally the nation, albeit with banal titles like “Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy.”
Billions of dollars have been appropriated to improve civics, yet a 2016 report titled “A Crisis in Civic Education” highlights an appalling lack of knowledge even for college graduates. At least we can take some comfort in the fact that only about 10 percent of the graduates surveyed think reality TV court figure Judge Judy serves on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite efforts to guide American principles through civic instruction, the rise of socialism is one of the most talked-about topics in American politics. It’s an alarming trend that should prompt citizens to ask more questions about whether or not an increasingly top-down managed education system is helping to fuel the rise of socialism and centralized power.
Criticism of what is often called a “factory model of education” has only increased in the 21st century. It has led to a surge in homeschooling and school choice, while private school remains an appealing option for many families that can afford it.
Tim Hall, director of academics at the eight-campus Thales Academy in North Carolina, said a lack of character development and moral formation are related to socialism’s appeal. That’s a problem centralized bureaucracies aren’t equipped to address in their pursuit of uniform standards and improved test scores. While giving credit to public schools for their vast monetary advantages, Hall expressed concern over the impact of “emotive reasoning” in many learning environments today.
When students skew too far towards emotive reasoning, the consequences become stark. “Woke” college campuses filled with social justice warriors waxing over microaggressions and an unhealthy obsession with identity politics are the most prominent examples. But beyond that, the diminishment of critical thinking skills in education and thus the broader culture is inhibiting the ability to even reason economically or offer much nuance when it comes to public policy proposals. What someone feels, or what merely sounds good to them, is the superior and more moral argument.
Polling shows that it’s not just the young: Democrats overall are more attracted to socialism in the Trump era. On Super Tuesday in March, NBC exit polling following the voting showed that a plurality or majority of Democrat primary voters in states where they conducted polling had a favorable view of socialism. A majority of Democrat primary voters had a favorable view in Texas and California, the two most populous states in the union.
Those kinds of responses would have been unthinkable in past America, particularly during the Cold War era. Even the oft-maligned labor unions by the political Right were once some of the fiercest denouncers of socialist states that wreaked havoc across the globe.
Reforms need to be made to public education. Teaching needs to better reflect the spirit of America’s framers instead of being oriented towards more centralized mandates or politicized initiatives meant to tear down the American experiment.
Some states are trying to solve the civics crisis by passing laws requiring more credit requirements on the subject before high school graduation, but the damage is already immense.
Ninety percent of immigrants pass the citizenship test, while only a third of native-born Americans can pass the exam. U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) sounded the alarm on the need for a cultural catechesis to restore and sustain our republic in a book titled The Vanishing American Adult. “If the people who rule America in 20 to 30 years don’t understand America, America will slip away,” Sasse warns.
Another solution for the crisis in civics and education is a desperate need for more educational options. Recapturing a richer meaning for the purpose of education is critical, and it would better reflect the diversity of thought and beliefs across America. For many families, education is a personal and moral endeavor, instead of a one-size-fits-all top-down system embodied so well by the Department of Education.
As the conservative philosopher Russell Kirk noted so well: “True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than serve the state.” If we don’t reorient education to higher things, we are left with a much lower common denominator everywhere. That leads to a drearier vision of the world and one in which a materialist vision like socialism inevitably thrives.
Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina.