Next month the State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on standards for the teaching of civics. The usual partisan parties have been weighing in. Do we teach “American exceptionalism” that cherry picks America’s back story and its manifest-destiny ascension into the planet’s premier economic and military power? Do we reprise the zero-sum Cold War days with a 21st-century “Americanism vs. Socialism” version? Or do we give an honest, analytical rendering on America’s daring, idealistic, blatantly imperfect experiment?
How we educate—not indoctrinate—succeeding generations has everything to do with whether we can maintain a viable democratic republic or devolve into an autocratic state. Truth, ultimately, is what sets us free.
We need only look at the last few years to acknowledge that America is hardly immune to authoritarian populism. We’re not THAT exceptional. The best preventative is better preparation for the upcoming generations. If they know who Beyonce is but not Kamala Harris, it will only get worse.
An honest chronicling of the good and the bad—from a Bill of Rights to a saga of wrongs—lends itself to serious self-criticism. Inconvenient truths should be convenient, accessible and kept in context. We are a work in progress; how do we keep on progressing for the greater good? Candor and honesty have to be curricular staples. Absent truth, democratic ideals will not evolve. Preaching and preening do not promote meaningful learning—and do not help the cause unless the goal is a cherry-picked, feel-good version of America.
America’s students need to be prepared for the challenges that are inherent in a contemporary democracy. They need to know 1492, 1619 and 1776 as well as D Day, scientific breakthroughs and the Moon Landing. They need to know government’s role as well as the responsibilities that go with a participatory democracy that covets a range of freedoms. But they can’t participate effectively if they’ve been schooled by propaganda that prioritizes patriotic memes.
America’s students also need to learn the realities and dangers of modern media—and how easily they can be misled and duped by misinformation. Historical ignorance and high-tech manipulation is a worst-case, perfect societal storm for American democracy. Donald Trump must be a cautionary tale.