If the past five years in American politics have taught us one thing, it is that we can all use a refresher course in civics. The events of Jan. 6 were only the latest and most extreme illustration of America’s confusion over the meaning of words like freedom, truth and democracy.
One of us is a long-time White House correspondent. One of us is a former United States education secretary. Amidst feelings of fear and hope, we’re speaking with one voice today to call on our fellow Americans to relearn the lessons of American history so as to prevent the kind of madness we have experienced since Donald Trump descended that escalator more than five years ago.
Our children and young people are watching, and they rightfully wonder if this experiment we call democracy actually works.
They saw what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and they heard what the president said. They have seen armed terrorists invade newsrooms, classrooms, synagogues, mosques and churches and murder journalists, educators, children and worshippers of every faith.
They have seen politicians evade responsibility for lax gun laws. Instead of open, honest debate in our politics, they see the opposite — lies, blaming, fear-mongering and racist dog whistles. And they saw what happened on Jan. 6 and read the president’s tweets telling the people storming the U.S. Capitol that the election was “stolen” and “We love you. You’re very special.”
Civics education would help all of us understand that, for all our noble aspirations, America remains a nation of contradictions, inconsistencies and hard truths. It would remind us that while America’s first immigrants came here seeking religious freedom, other people came here in chains.
It would remind us that our historic commitment to equality, expressed in our founding documents, was directly contradicted by slavery. Many of the Founding Fathers we revere were also slave owners.
It would show us that the same pioneers who tamed the American wilderness and created the breadbasket of the world also slaughtered millions of Native Americans with the approval and the assistance of our government.
A national commitment to civics would teach us that the Founding Fathers enshrined our freedoms in law in order to bolster a democracy, not to tear it down. They need to understand how fascist and totalitarian states control information to mislead people so that, when they hear the president describe the media as “enemies of the people,” they know he is doing it to avoid answering the kind of tough questions that journalists are paid to ask. That’s why free speech and freedom of the press are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
People need to understand that the founders created three independent branches of government to “check and balance” each other. They need to know how those checks and balances failed to hold Trump accountable when he tried to convince a foreign country to launch an investigation into his political opponent.
We were shocked that 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — enough to give him an Electoral College victory — despite his ignorant, inflammatory words. It’s even more alarming that 74 million voted to reelect him in 2020, knowing so much more about his deceitful and destructive character and his gross incompetence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thankfully, a record 81 million voters put Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over the top and a new administration starts on Jan. 20.
But the sickness that brought us Donald Trump has not gone away. Just as Sputnik prompted America to get serious about science education in the 1950s, the continuing support for an anti-democratic president should prompt us to get more serious about teaching civics.
According to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require a year of civics to graduate from high school. And while about half of the states offer credit for community service, only Maryland and D.C. require it.
The worst thing that can happen is that Americans draw the wrong lessons from the Trump presidency and perpetuate the use of lies, hate and division toward political ends. Even as we write, Trump supporters are plotting their next expression of rage, hate and frustration and craven elected officials from the president’s party continue to court his voters.
The best thing that can happen is that we all gain a greater appreciation of our own role in preserving and strengthening democracy. Ultimately, the rule of law prevailed, democracy worked and a peaceful transition is now underway. We can never, ever take it for granted.
Arne Duncan was U.S. secretary of education in the Obama administration. April Ryan is a long-time journalist and White House correspondent for theGrio.