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Hamilton Is A Hit On Broadway, But Not In The Classroom (Forbes.com) January 29, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Op/Eds, Politics.
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One of the reported crises of the recent East Coast blizzard was the cancellation of two showings of the hip hop musical “Hamilton,” which is the hottest ticket on Broadway.  People who had paid well over face value for tickets had to deal with the probability they would not receive a full refund or find seats again any time soon.

Sadly, however, Americans have a better chance of getting a hot ticket to the musical than leaving high school or college with any knowledge about Alexander Hamilton or his role in American history.  The sad state of civic and history education in our country has reached crisis proportions and is a growing threat to the health of the republic.

The latest NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test results from spring, 2015 showed that only 18% of 8th grade students were “proficient” or better in history and only 23% in civics or government.  Perhaps even more shocking, only 1% were “advanced” in history and 2% in civics.  Last year, a poll of 18-34 year olds found that 77% could not name one of their home state U.S. Senators.  A 2012 survey by Xavier University concluded that only one-third of Americans could pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test, while the immigrant pass rate is 97.5%.

Earlier this month, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reminded us that our colleges are doing no better at this than K-12 education.  Their report, “A Crisis in Civic Education,” is full of college student ignorance about civics:  nearly 60% did not know how to amend the Constitution, almost half did not know the length of terms in Congress, and 40% were unaware that Congress is the branch with the power to declare war.

If the aphorism sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln is true—“the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next”—then America’s future looks grim, indeed.  As Carly Fiorina, the only presidential candidate talking about this, said, “We are no longer educating our citizens.”

How did we arrive at such a sad state?  In broad strokes, as Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Meira Levinson put it, civics “is not a priority” in America’s schools.  And it’s been getting worse.  In 2011, federal funding for civics education was completely eliminated, zeroing out $35 million of support.  In 2013, the 4th and 12th grade national testing in civics was eliminated, leaving only the 8th grade test.  All that makes quite a statement, especially in an era when schools are strapped for money and teaching to the test.

Meanwhile, other “crises” in education are winning the race for time and money, especially literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.  For example, the U.S. Department of Education has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in STEM and, at the White House Science Fair last March, President Obama announced over $240 million in private grants to STEM.  Alas, we will have students who can count, but who don’t know what counts.

Another contributor to the problem is that teachers are graduating without a good grasp of U.S. history and civics themselves.  Roger Beckett, Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center, correctly points out that “teachers spend too much time learning the mechanics of teaching and not enough time learning what to teach.”  Indeed, most colleges (82% according to the recent ACTA survey) do not require a single course in American history or government.

When he was President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel famously said “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.”  Some states are awakening to the problem and requiring civics courses and testing.  The recent Every Student Succeeds Act will add back some federal funding in 2017.  It’s a start, but we need much more.  Otherwise, just as Alexander Hamilton is being pushed out of the center of the $10 bill, our national memory is being pushed out of the curriculum.


To view the column at Forbes.com:







When College Radicals Obliterate History (Defining Ideas) January 28, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Newspaper Columns/Essays.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Will the new semester on college campuses be as crazy as the one that just ended? It’s only January and already the president of Ithaca College has announced his resignation in the face of student protests. The largest college in Oregon, Portland Community College, has recently declared April “Whiteness History Month,” not to celebrate white people, of course, but to study whiteness as a social construct. Some have called it “white shaming.”

But of all the protests that have swept across campuses in recent months, the ones that are especially troubling are those that seek to plant a kind of ‘malware’ that distorts and even erases history. It appeared most visibly at Princeton University, with calls to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of International and Public Affairs, as well as a mural of Wilson from the campus over his “racist legacy.” No matter that Wilson was an important president in Princeton’s development, or a widely acknowledged progressive president of the United States. His legacy should no longer be remembered or celebrated at Princeton because of his efforts to re-segregate the civil service.

Similar malware has been introduced at Harvard Law School where, following student protests, Dean Martha Minow has formed a committee to deliberate whether the school should do away with or revise its seal that includes a family crest of Isaac Royall, Jr., the 18th century slave-owning benefactor of the school. Protestors at Yale say that Calhoun College must be renamed and the term “master,” long used to designate the head of its residential colleges, be eliminated. At Amherst, responding to student protests, the faculty voted to eliminate mascot Lord Jeff for his misdeeds to Native Americans 200-plus years ago.

Ironically, this chapter of student protests contrasts with the 1960s free speech movement, in that this is a kind of non-free-speech movement. Like George Carlin’s popular “seven dirty words” you couldn’t say on television of the early 1970s, students and faculty are busy deciding which vulgar historical figures can no longer be represented on campus.

Watch out, because George Washington owned slaves and liberal hero Franklin D. Roosevelt did put over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. And who urged Roosevelt to pursue the internment? Earl Warren, who as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court later wrote Brown v. the Board of Education. Must we erase all that too? Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as we read in Romans 3:23, there will be few historical figures who are safe to celebrate on campus once the malware spreads. Indeed, comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock will not play campuses now because of all the sensitivity and political correctness.

This malware—which seeks to attack, discredit and/or erase history—is best described as “presentism,” the idea that we should apply the modern world’s avowedly superior moral sensibilities to judge people and practices of the past. After all, we are the first people to be able to perceive the truth about things, are we not, and we cannot tolerate error. Imperfections from the past are not to be understood or learned from, but deleted. People with lives of accomplishment are to be judged and dismissed on the basis of the things they got wrong. Historical context is no defense when we are judging and hanging people by the superior moral standards of modernity.

Presentism seems especially pernicious in halls of learning where the goal should be to learn from history, not judge it. Ours is not the first generation to cultivate this virus. In an earlier time, British historian Herbert Butterfield called out a similar problem inThe Whig Interpretation of History (1951). This interpretation, according to Butterfield, “studies the past with reference to the present,” thereby creating a major obstruction to understanding and learning. It is a form of “abridgement”—don’t you love those polite English terms?—in which history is distilled to focus only on what is still relevant today. And this abridgement is based on “selection,” choosing what to take in and what to ignore.

Worse, Butterfield says, the Whig interpretation is eager to make judgments on history, to act as judge and jury, not as learner or expert witness. So apparently we have a bunch of nouveau-Whigs on our campuses, busy abridging, distilling, selecting and judging history rather than learning from it.

But we could roll the calendar back even further to the French Revolution in search of an analog to the presentism virus. That revolution sought to obliterate the past, not simply by removing names but by wiping out the past and starting over. This was accomplished not as an academic exercise but by violent revolution. What was conceived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a romantic utopian project, ended up in violence on the streets. Unfortunately, this might also be a precedent for this vociferous generation of college students.

A further irony is that the objects of student presentism are frequently their own liberal intellectual ancestors, if only they were sufficiently open-minded and educated to see that. The Princeton attacks are on Woodrow Wilson, an intellectual leader of the progressive movement. He advocated the war to end all wars, led a ban on child labor, received the Nobel Peace Prize and was an advocate for the League of Nations. But all of this is trumped by his firing of a dozen black supervisors in the federal government. Or Thomas Jefferson, who inherited and owned slaves, but also led Virginia to the first American policy against importing slaves and favored policies of gradual emancipation.

But in the abridged and selective history of today’s protestors, there is no room for nuance, or imperfection, or evolution of views over time. There is only right or wrong, based on the standards of modernity, not of the earlier time in which these people lived.

What are we to do about presentism? Having detected the malware, how does one remove it? For starters, one does not welcome it. Barely raising concerns about presentism and history, faculty have voted to give in and administrators have resigned. As a consequence, there is little dialogue or learning taking place in this teachable moment; instead, there is a caving in, and a doubling down on the funding for politically correct programs.

More fruitful would be attempts to synthesize and learn from the questions presentism raises. One promising example might be the response of University of Texas president Gregory Fenves, who chose to relocate the offending statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the center of campus to a museum, where it could be placed in historic context, rather than removed entirely. Indeed, college campuses should not be places of intolerance, but rather of openness and learning. Students must be prepared to hear lectures and have experiences that stretch them, even making them uncomfortable. It’s part of the free and open environment of learning.

Another constructive approach would be to engage the students in dialogue about how we deal with public figures who are fallible and have warts. Many leaders with great capacity for good also demonstrated large downsides. Among 20th century presidents, ask Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton or, yes, Woodrow Wilson about this. Does this mean we are unable to recognize or even commemorate their accomplishments? Is perfection the new and intolerant standard we seek? This cannot be the way to prepare students to go into the cold, cruel world.

Is it really moving America in the right direction for our campuses to teach that there are no heroes left, only villains waiting to be unmasked? This would be an unfortunate “Zinnification” of American history, from the historian Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States is a textbook used widely in high schools and colleges. Zinn teaches that our traditional American heroes are myths or, worse, frauds. Starting with Columbus, who was not a discoverer but, according to Zinn, an “executioner,” right on through the founders who sought to protect wealth and property, and the many presidents who started wars for economic reasons, our history is an ugly one, full of heels, not heroes.

In the computer world, malware is a virus that ultimately, seeks to damage and take control over the system itself. That is precisely what we are dealing with here: a virus on campus that seeks to undermine and erase American history and lead it leftward—and not just a progressive left but a revolutionary one. The sad outcome of presentism is turning American history into an ugly tableau, making America unlovable for future generations.


To see the essay at the Defining Ideas website:


Why Rubio’s and Abbott’s Constitutional Convention Is A ‘No Good Very Bad’ Idea January 13, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio and, more recently, Texas Governor Greg Abbott have each proposed calling an Article 5 constitutional convention (a convention of the states).  If I may borrow from children’s book author Judith Viorst’s description of Alexander’s bad day:  This idea is “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.”  But we are likely to be spared the worst of it because it is also a non-starter which even its proponents surely recognize is pure political rhetoric and not a serious policy proposal.

Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution tells how the document may be changed over time through the amendment process.   Congress is in charge of the process, which can occur in one of two ways:  (1) Two-thirds of both houses of Congress may propose an amendment which, in turn, must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures; or (2) Congress may, upon the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states, call a convention for proposing amendments which, again, would only be adopted if approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

It is the second route, a convention—which has never been tried before—that Rubio and Abbott propose be taken.  Rubio, who actually opposed this earlier, has provided a broad endorsement on the campaign trail to seek a balanced budget amendment and term limits for members of Congress.  Abbott, by contrast, has developed a lengthy shopping list of 9 amendments (nearly equaling the original Bill of Rights in the first ten amendments) that would do all kinds of things to limit federal power:  empower two-thirds of states to override a Supreme Court decision, prohibit agencies from “creating federal law,” allow a two-thirds majority of the states to override a federal law and so on.  It is not unlike a similar proposal from radio host Mark Levin when his book, The Liberty Amendments (2013), advanced 10 amendments that would be adopted by a convention to save the republic.

This is the right’s idea of an instant solution to decades of growth in federal power.  Let’s just add a bunch of amendments to the Constitution that will tie the hands of Gulliver in Washington.  Oh that it could be that easy.  But there’s a reason this has never been done:  34 states will not agree to call such a convention and 38 states will not approve such amendments.  It is so wildly improbable that I think it’s fair to say that Rubio and Abbott must be advancing it as political posturing.  There is “no there there.”

Further, if such a convention ever got traction, under the law of unintended consequences, it would be as likely to do mischief as good.  Article 5 is entirely vague about the details of such a convention.  Proponents assert that it could be limited to the purposes and amendments that brought it into being, but there is nothing in Article 5 to support that and nothing in the law to prevent other issues coming to the fore.  Liberals have said they would like to overturn the Citizen’s United Supreme Court case, for example—no reason that couldn’t be inserted into the proceedings, along with everyone else’s pet ideas.  Justice Scalia put it succinctly:  “I certainly would not want a constitutional convention.  Whoa!  Who knows what would come out of it.”  Former Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that such a convention “would be a free-for-all for special interest groups.”

Article 5 makes it difficult to amend the Constitution for good reason:  it should be exceptional to change the rules of the road.  The history of the liberal left has been to find work-arounds to avoid the high bar of the amendment process.  All of Franklin Roosevelt’s sweeping New Deal revolution was carried out with no constitutional amendments, for example, only liberal interpretations of the law by judges.  The National Popular Vote Bill, which seeks to circumvent the Electoral College by requiring all electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, is another work-around of the Constitution.

It’s disappointing, however, when conservatives, who should be respectful of the Constitution and willing to do the hard, long political work of protecting it, instead offer the false hope of instant gratification by foolishly proposing a modern constitutional convention.


To read the column at Forbes.com:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2016/01/13/why-rubio-and-abbotts-constitutional-convention-is-a-no-good-very-bad-idea/#2715e4857a0b1cf9b1c74f1d