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The Unraveling: The Demise of Civics Education in America

June 5, 2017 1 Comment


Traditional civics education has always emphasized the idea of “right conduct” in the affairs of secular society.

Civics, traditionally taught, therefore, is an education in what it means to be a good citizen, and is comprised of three components:

  1. A knowledge of the history of your nation and the philosophical foundation upon which it is based.  That is why Western Civilization courses taught in the United States most often start with an examination of ancient Greek history and culture.
  2. A knowledge of how laws are passed and one’s role as a citizen in American representative democracy.
  3. The creation of an inner moral virtue, by which you can govern your emotional passions in such a way as to voice of your views, but refrain from actually harming others who disagree with you.

Regarding this last point, consider the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote (Philippians 1:27 and 2:4):

Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ … do not merely look out for your own interests, but also for the interests of others.

In the above passage, the phrase “conduct yourselves” is derived from the Greek word “politeuesthe”. It’s from that Greek word we get the English word, “politics.” In the context as Paul uses it, it means “to live as a good citizen.”

However, every week we read about this or that college campus where protesters demonstrate and destroy property because of this or that speaker, and a host of other perceived offenses.  Clearly, our students are NOT learning how to “live as good citizens” because we no longer teach these things, or at least, not well. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed in 2008, “At least half of the states no longer make the teaching of civics and government a requirement for high school graduation.  This leaves a huge gap, and we can’t forget that the primary purpose of public schools in America has always been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge and the skills and the values to sustain our republic as a nation.”

What Happened to Civics Education in America?

As we’ve discussed, most American students during the 1800s were taught using the McGuffey Reader.  In the 1853 5th Reader, readings such as Daniel Webster’s “Duties of American Citizens” and “Importance of the Union,” Patrick Henry’s “Speech Before the Virginia Convention,” and Lord Chatham’s “On the Removal of the British Troops from Boston” were required readings.   But in the late 1800s, this began to change, as American educators began to adopt a more European approach to education.  This model desired a more “professional,” regimented form of education along the Prussian model (a model that was responsible for educating a generation of Germans to blindly follow Adolf Hitler).

According to David Randall, chief author of the report Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics (p. 55):

From the 1880s onward, a generation of historians sought to reorient American civics education around the new professional history: students would now learn civics not only to inculcate patriotism and improve character but also to practice memory, acquire facts, and make sense of these facts by applying imagination, judgment, and disciplined, methodical thinking. In other words, the intellectual formation of a history professor of Wilhemine Germany was to be superimposed on the education of American schoolchildren—not least to justify the employment of specialized, professionalized history teachers in America’s schools.” (emphasis added)

No doubt, the desire of the reformers was to inspire imagination and application of the scientific method to governing.  However, the result consisted all too often of memorizing of dry lists of dates and facts.  This, in turn, led to a series of reforms between the 1890s and the 1910s to broaden the curriculum to include social, economic and political history.  This wave of reform, led by John Dewey and the Progressive Movement, culminated in the 1916 Report on Social Studies, subdividing traditional civics education into th compartmentalized subjects of history, economics, political science, psychology.  In effect, the Progressives transformed the all-around civics education of the one-room schoolhouse into the departmentalized education of the modern high school.

The following year, in 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in Russia, and Communism was born.  Following the end of WWI, much of Europe began to turn to this form of state controlled economic planning.  Such a system required the “professionally educated” plutocrats of what some called the “New Civics.”  In 1934, liberal education leaders with ties to the Communist Party, like George Counts, worked to redefine how the focus of social studies in order to transform the American way of life.

A Professor of Education at the Teachers College at Columbia University, Counts served as the Director of Research for what came to be called the Report of the Commission on the Social Studies and its report, Conclusions and Recommendations of the Commission.  The long term goal of the writers of the report was to develop a system of teacher education and realignment of social studies instruction that would support:[1]

“A larger measure of compulsory, as well as voluntary co-operation of citizens in the conduct of the complex national economy, a corresponding enlargement of the functions of government, and an increasing state intervention in fundamental branches of economy previously left to individual discretion and initiative – a state intervention that in some instances may be direct and mandatory and in others indirect and facilitative.”

With the intervention of WWII and the Eisenhower Administration, the Progressive Movement had to put on hold its expansion of this new civics approach to American education.  But with the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius” and the Nineteen Sixties, the civics revolution resumed.

The March Towards Socialism Resumes

Riding on the back of the civil rights movement, the Progressive movement once again began to beat the drum against all forms of inequality.  The disciples of Counts, Dewey and other Progressive educationalists, having wormed their way into America’s schools of education, had sown the seeds of belief in their Marxist teachings.  Put simply, Marxism taught:

… given the right social setting, humans could become selfless and collectivist, making it possible for Marx’s goal – from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs – to become a reality in communist society.[2]

Where such efforts to move American culture toward socialism had failed in the past, what had changed such that by the 1960s, some might believe they could succeed?  After all, Alexis de Tocqueville had observed that the concept of equality in American democracy was fueled by individualism, not state sponsored restrictions of such individualism:

Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude. (Emphasis added).

While individual freedom is what had allowed democracy “American style” to flourish, the industrial revolution, the dustbowl of the 1930s, and the onset of FDR’s  New Deal had served to whittle away the vast middle class and increasingly segregate them into rich and poor neighborhoods.  Where once they lived next door to one another, by the 1960s, they increasingly lived on opposite sides of the rail road tracks.  In Coming Apart, Charles Murray argues that “a new kind of segregation” has occurred in America.  He argues the case that “the cultural divide between the new upper class and the rest of America is being reinforced by residential segregation that enables large portions of the new upper class to live their lives isolated from everyone else.”[3]

With the unraveling of what Murray calls The Four Founding Virtues (industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion), those desiring to introduce socialism had the answer:  If the premise of a truly Marxian utopia of selfless collectivism was possible, then:

(The) operational implication of this premise was that properly designed government interventions could correct problems of human behavior.[4]

marxciancommunityservice            One example of such government run programs is something called the “service learning/civic engagement” movement which sprang up in the 1960s.  Its goal has been to remake America in the image of a European social democracy, advocating equality of condition rather than the traditional American model of equality of opportunity.

Referring again to the report the report Making Citizens, the National Association of Scholars presented nine national findings.  Here are findings 3 and 5:

  1. The New Civics movement is national, and it extends far beyond the universities . Each individual college and university now slots its “civic” efforts into a framework that includes federal and state bureaucracies, national nonprofit organizations, and national professional organizations.
  2. The New Civics redefines “civic activity” as channeling government funds toward progressive nonprofits. The New Civics has worked to divert government funds to progressive causes since its foundation fifty years ago.

These are bold statements.  Is it really possible that groups are employing some form of Orwellian “double speak” to radically alter civics education in America?  If so, how might these organizations be doing this without our even noticing?  To investigate these questions, let’s spend a few moments reviewing some key observations by Foundation Watch in their report Foundation Watch: The Sundra Foundation Meets Saul Alinsky – Community Organizing in the era of Obama.

How Funds are Funneled to Progressive Causes

In its 2014 report, Jonathan Hanen describes how the Sundra Foundation has directed grant money to various liberal activist groups, just as the NAS study reported.  With the election of President Obama, the Sundra Foundation reoriented its mission to support community organizing.  Groups engaged in this effort operate from the premise that society must be organized by outside activists for the common good of all.  Regarding the goal of those participating in “community organizing,” Hanen writes:[5]

Thus community organizing aspires to supplant the American political system of ordered liberty under constitutional limits with more powerful government.  Animating this extreme progressive vision of human community is an ideologically-driven desire to generate not mere equality of opportunity through increased social spending and educational programs, but a radically egalitarian equality of results through legislation, and whenever possible, regulatory fiat.

civicseducationHanen goes on to explain that Sundra views the use of community organizing as the primary tool for effecting “social justice.”  He describes the practical result of pursing social justice this way:[6]

This thing called social justice is a loaded term. Implementing it requires a powerful entitlement state that is strong enough to micromanage every aspect of civil society and to pick winners and losers in the private sector.  In the political arena, social justice implies subordinating the modern republican ideal of equality before the law in favor of a radically egalitarian equality of outcome.

Thus, Jonathan Hanen of the Capital Research Center (CRC) and David Randall of the NAS use similar language to communicate the goals of those who want to bring about the “New Civics.”  The CRC goes on to identify various groups to which the Sundra Foundation has contributed money, most notably  the Tides Foundation and the Gamaliel Foundation.

Department of Education Funding for Service Learning

The NAS in its Making Citizens report provides a roadmap that we can follow to see how various foundations have partnered with the federal government.  They trace the web of connections and grants that the Federal Department of Education has been a party to in promoting the New Civics as follows (p. 119):

In 2012 a White-House-commissioned task force led by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) published A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.  It called on “the higher education community—its constituents and stakeholders—to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority for all of higher education, public and private, two-year and four-year.”

The NAS report then goes on to provide a “big picture” overview of the ways in which liberal change agents in the Department of Education work with grant organizations like the Sundra Foundation to advance their agenda.  They write (p. 129):

The very creation of A Crucible Moment demonstrates how nonprofit organizations, federal bureaucrats, and New Civics advocates among the professoriate work together to expand the New Civics nationwide. New Civics advocates in the Department of Education requested an “assessment” of civic learning. They called upon other New Civics advocates who had already received funding from nonprofit organizations to formulate their plans for a further extension of the New Civics, and then received a ready-made report. The Department of Education’s imprimatur rendered these suggestions a strong hint to the nation’s colleges and universities that they advance the New Civics.


For those dwindling few of us now in the twilight years of our lives who were educated under the “traditional civics” model and taught to revere the Constitution and its principles, an essay such as this one appears nearly impossible to digest.  How can it be that there are people who use the same words and speak the same language, and yet mean something totally different than what we might understand them to be saying?  It seems serial.

This is a battle over what we mean by “truth.”  The battle is being fought on many fronts. Those engaged in these battles may not even realize they are fighting the same war.  To provide an example, let me share this quote by noted Christian evangelist Josh McDowell from his book, The Last Christian Generation:

I have ministered to my kids every week for a year now, and I’ve come to this conclusion:  We use the same words as our young people, but they mean totally different things.  Words like truth, tolerance, respect, acceptance, moral judgments, sin, the Holy Spirit, the devil and redemption have a completely different meaning to my kids than they do to me.  We are working from two different premises, and I didn’t even know it.

In the thirteenth and final article in my series of posts on The Unraveling, I will explore how conservative Christian policy advocates can take a page from the Progressive playbook and re-invent how we provide cultural, economic, political and social education in the meaning of The American Way of Life.  I’ll also review some of the proposals put forward by the NAS. If you have a desire to review the previous posts in this series, click to read the previous posts in this series.

This series is based on an essay that I have written which you can find at  In that essay I lay out my thoughts as concisely as I can, with a full series of references endnotes (27 for those with a scholarly bent).  In this series of posts, I wish to expand on the original essay, and make it easier to digest via social media.

I also wish to invite a discussion on this topic.  To do so, please see my posts at DISQUS.

It’s time that all of us work together to reverse course, and restore the American spirit of self-reliance and pride in self-accomplishment exemplified the American spirit.



[1] August C. Krey, George S. Counts, et. al. (1934)  Report of the Commission on the Social Studies:  Conclusions and Recommendations, p. 17. Charles Scribner’s Sons, Chicago. Accessed at 

[2] Murray, Charles (2012).  Coming Apart:  The State of White America, 1960-2000 (New York, NY: Crown Forum), p.297.

[3] Murray, Charles (2012). Coming Apart:  The State of White America, 1960-2000.  Op. Cit., p. 69.

[4] Ibid, p. 297.

[5] Hanen, Jonathan. Foundation Watch: The Sundra Foundation Meets Saul Alinsky – Community Organizing in the era of Obama, Capital Research Center, January 6, 2014, p. 14.

[6] Ibid, p. 9.

Filed in: The Unraveling

About the Author:

David Lantz is a self-published author, adjunct college professor and leadership consultant. Visit my online courses at and like my facebook page at and

Comments (1)

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  1. Geoffrey Wladecki says:

    David, Your name was sent to me by two people I know from the TEA party movement in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. I am coordinating a U.S. History Symposium slated to take place on Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the Grand Wayne Convention Center. I have a room from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and am attempting to get presenters to speak for an hour on the subject mainly of their choice. My aim is to push back against Revisionist history and get a more U.S. patriotic view of American history into our private and home schools. (Taking on public schools at this time is quite daunting!) I am a Constitutional Conservative Christian who longs to teach millennials (my own daughters!!!) and current elementary and high school students about American Exceptionalism. I think your article on teaching Civics would be a great talk at our symposium. If you cannot be in Fort Wayne on April 7, I am working on webcasting the event so we could stream you in live or show a video. Let me know your thoughts and costs for coming to Fort Wayne. THANKS.

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