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Kids Don’t Know Enough About Civics–But This Could Save Them (Washington Examiner) September 22, 2018

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Op/Eds.
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An important life was cut short this week in Ashland, Ohio, when 44-year-old Roger Beckett passed away. As executive director of the Ashbrook Center, Roger’s noble goal was nothing less than saving the republic by strengthening America’s anemic approach to civic education. The tool he chose to do this was both surprising and powerful: training and retraining teachers of history and civics to teach using primary documents.

Roger had followed the normal course to prepare himself to be a teacher, completing a master’s degree in one of our nation’s notable schools of education. But he finished the program dispirited and discouraged about teacher preparation. He felt he had been taught the wrong things — techniques of teaching, but not the subject matter he was to impart. Did you know that high school teachers of history or civics (or math or science for that matter) may have studied very little of those topics themselves? That was lesson one for Roger’s campaign to reinvent civic education: Teachers need to know and be excited about their subject.

Roger was also disheartened by the boring and biased textbooks used to teach American history. Textbooks manage to take spirited debates about turning points in our history and turn them into a few paragraphs of dry summary material. Some textbooks (such as the widely used People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn) are so skewed politically as to lose all objectivity and undercut students’ appreciation for their country. As one of the Ashbrook Center’s teachers, Gordon Lloyd, has said, “It’s hard to love an ugly founding,” which is what textbooks such as Zinn’s portray. Augmenting or even replacing these textbooks with more exciting and straightforward historical material became plank two in Roger’s civic education platform.

By the time we realized there was a civic education problem, Roger and his colleagues were hard at work. They began training hundreds of teachers on the campus of Ashland University in Ohio to teach using primary documents, and then thousands of teachers around the country in weekend seminars called “Rediscovering America.” Teachers read documents of the period they are studying. Not only traditional documents such as the Constitution, but also speeches, debates, and articles written by participants in the history, and the documents bring to life important issues of that time. Participants are then encouraged to draw their own conclusions, not that of some textbook author or editor, about history. Then, teachers are prepared to take that approach to teaching back to their own students, multiplying the effect of the training many times over.

Think how much more interesting history would be if students understood and entered into the debates of the time. It reminds me of books I used to devour as a kid myself, the We Were There series, taking a child like me into the life and times of historic events. Imagine how relevant it could be to debate the causes and solutions to the Great Depression in times of modern economic difficulty, to finally understand how valuable it could be in our time of political polarization, as we topple statues and erase names from history without truly knowing their life and times, to enter into the study of American history without our 21st century glasses.

We live in a day when only 23 percent of our students test at the level of basic proficiency in American history and only 18 percent in government. A mere 1-2 percent reach the advanced level on tests. Students cannot name one of their home state senators, and many believe Judy Sheindlin (Judge Judy) is on the Supreme Court. Polls show young people increasingly discouraged about and disengaged from our democracy.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner ‘s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:



Civic Education to Save the Republic (Forbes.com) November 13, 2017

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Op/Eds.
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If the American republic is in trouble, better civic education is the answer.  That is the conclusion reached by a number of papers and studies in recent years, including “The Republic is (Still) at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution” presented to the Democracy at a Crossroads National Summit a few weeks ago.

Consider a few compelling data points:

  • In the last National Assessment of Educational Progress testing, only 18% of 8th graders were “proficient” or above in history, and only 23% in government.  A mere 1-2% were “advanced.”  By the way, if you believe students learn what is tested, those exams are no longer given in the 4th and 12th grades, only in the 8th


  • Xavier University found that one-third of Americans could not pass the civics portion of the American citizenship test, whereas immigrants pass at a 97.5% rate.


  • A poll of 18-34 year-olds found that 77% could not name a senator from their home state. And don’t remind me about those who think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.

While civic ignorance is itself a major problem, its effect is compounded when it is applied to particular issues of the day.  For example, a You.gov poll found that those under 30 preferred socialism over capitalism 43%-30%.  Similarly, a Reason-Rupe poll of 18-24 year olds showed that 58% supported socialism.  But when Reason-Rupe asked a follow-up question whether governments or markets should manage the economy, young people said markets by a 2-1 margin.  Essentially, they do not understand what socialism is.

The same ignorance is manifest in a recent study about free speech and the First Amendment by Hoover Institution and Brookings Institution fellow John Villasenor.   Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment, say 44% of college students, with 51% saying it’s ok to disrupt an offensive speech with which you disagree, and 19% saying it’s fine to use violence for that purpose.  Another 62% of college students mistakenly believe the First Amendment requires a controversial speaker on one side to be balanced by a speaker on the other side.  Wow.

Part of the problem is that civics and history are not required by most of our colleges and universities, so those going into the teaching profession are not well prepared themselves.  Moreover, these days the emphasis in colleges and schools is on “civic engagement”—getting involved—rather than civic education or knowledge.  One would think the latter should precede the former.  The recent and heavy emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has been important, but it has also crowded out courses and investments in civics and history.

A few states are awakening to the problem and beginning to address it.  Florida now requires a middle school course in civics with follow-on testing with good results.  Illinois mandates a high school civics course with teacher development to support it.  The Ashbrook Center in Ohio has gone national with its programs to retrain history and civics teachers to teach using primary documents, rather than relying exclusively on typically boring and frequently biased textbooks.  There are several points of light, but not nearly enough.

A statement attributed to Abraham Lincoln delivers a frightening prospect:  “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”  If you are concerned about the direction of America, it is time to do something about the study of civics, which is the real long-term solution.

To view the column at Forbes.com:


America’s Drift Toward ‘Socialism’ Is Generational, But Also Educational (Forbes.com) February 26, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Op/Eds, Politics.
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As a surprising number of Americans “feel the Bern” for a self-described “democratic socialist” candidate for president, even more shocking polls show Americans drifting toward socialism itself.  In a YouGov survey last month, 42% of Democrats said they had a favorable view of socialism.  In November, a New York Times/CBS News poll concluded that 56% of Democratic primary voters and 69% of Bernie Sanders supporters viewed socialism favorably, and in a January Bloomberg/Des Moines Register Iowa poll, 43% of likely Democratic caucus-goers used the word “socialist” to describe themselves.

What’s going on here?  How can we reach a point, virtually overnight, when a term that was recently considered anti-American is now embraced by members of one of America’s two major political parties?

For starters, this shift is heavily generational, created largely by young people jumping on the Bernie Sanders bandwagon.   The same YouGov survey found those under 30 were the only age group that rated socialism ahead of capitalism, 43%-32%.  In fact with every other age group preferring capitalism, one would rightly conclude that it’s those millennials once again turning things inside out.  That does not make me feel any better about it, but it at least helps identify and isolate the trend.

But of even deeper concern is the fact that those increasingly favoring socialism do not even know what that means.   The November NYT/CBS poll found that only 16% of those under 30 could accurately define socialism, compared with 30% for respondents over 30.  Even more to the point, when a Reason-Rupe survey in 2014, which again confirmed young people’s support for socialism at 58% for those ages 18-24, turned around and asked whether they favored government running businesses, the clear answer was “no.”  When asked whether they want government or private markets leading the economy, they chose markets 2 to 1 (64% versus 32%).

I don’t know which is more discouraging: that young people are becoming comfortable with socialism, or that they have no idea what it is.  Any definition of socialism involves government ownership of the means of production and distribution.  It’s most assuredly not private ownership of business or a market economy.  So for starters, young people have embraced some kind soft collectivism and mislabeled it as socialism.  That’s bad enough.

But part of the problem is that Bernie Sanders himself does not seem to know what socialism is, or worse, he does know and is intentionally misleading and exploiting young people.  Sanders is careful to use the term “democratic socialism” but socialism is still the noun and democratic the adjective, socialism is the economic system and democracy is the political scheme.  So just looking at the terms, Sanders wants the people to choose—rather than leaders to impose—a system in which government collectively owns the means of production and distribution.

But Sanders apparently doesn’t really mean that either.  He says, I don’t mean Cuba or Venezuela, I mean Denmark.  But amid all the talk in the Democratic primaries about Denmark, its own prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, felt compelled to say that his country is not a planned socialist economy but rather a market economy with “an expanded welfare state.”  When Bernie is asked to be specific about his goal, he says he is speaking of Social Security and Medicare, apparently not a planned economy.  He invokes Franklin Roosevelt, not Karl Marx.

In the end, Sanders is not, by definition, a socialist.  He is just using the label to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton and other Democrats whom he perceives to be too close to the market excesses of capitalism and Wall Street.  And young people are not really socialist either—they’re just soft in the head and don’t know what they are saying.  The threat is that we are raising a generation of young people who are so unaware of history, civics and political systems that they can be stirred up and manipulated by politicians throwing around inaccurate labels.

To read the column at Forbes.com:


A Dangerous Malware on Campus (National Radio Commentary, Salem/Townhall) February 25, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Op/Eds, Radio Commentaries.
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This is David Davenport of the Hoover Institution for Townhall.com.

 It looks like another crazy semester on American college campuses.  One president has already resigned in the face of protests.  Oregon’s largest college has announced a “whiteness history month” which some have called “white shaming.”

 The most dangerous protests are those that seek to erase history.  Princeton is considering protestor demands to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from one of its schools; Harvard Law School has a committee studying whether to delete its founding benefactor’s crest from their seal.  Yale has removed portraits of Vice President John Calhoun and may rename Calhoun College.

 All of this is a kind of malware that radical students are planting on campus.  Once in the system, it seeks to erase the memory and history of anyone who, in their judgment, did not live by today’s superior moral standards.  Their sin was living under the moral standards of their own time.  Institutional founders, along with American founders, are now unmasked as villains, and not heroes.

 Students should be learning from history, not judging it.

 I’m David Davenport.

(Suggested Air Date: 2-24-2016)

The Civic Education Crisis (National radio commentary, Salem/Townhall) February 12, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Education, Radio Commentaries.
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“Hamilton” is the hottest show on Broadway but its star character, Alexander Hamilton, barely gets a hearing in today’s student classrooms.

Civic education is the crisis you don’t hear about.  In the last testing, only 18 percent of 8th graders were “proficient” or better in history and only 23 percent in civics or government.  A poll last year showed that 77 percent of millennials could not name one of their U.S. senators.  A 2012 survey 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 percent.

Other crises are getting all the attention and money.  And teachers themselves do not know history—a report in January said that 82 percent of colleges do not require even one course in civics or history.

As Carly Fiorina, the only presidential candidate talking about this put it:  “We are no longer educating our citizens.”  We must do better.


To listen to the commentary at Townhall.com:

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: