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Joe Biden and Tim Scott Encapsulate the Classical Right-Left Divide (Washington Examiner) May 3, 2021

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In their dueling speeches last week, President Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Tim Scott agreed on a few things while disagreeing on many. The headlines after Biden spoke to Congress, and Scott responded for Republicans, were mostly about expensive new government programs and racism.

Still, if you listened carefully, one of the most important debates between Biden and Scott, indeed between liberals and conservatives more broadly, is the question of how to create opportunity for people. Whether government creates opportunity, as Biden argues, or gets in the way of individual opportunity, as Scott maintains, is perhaps the fundamental political question of the day.

Biden said upfront that he was talking about “crisis and opportunity,” proposing all manner of government programs for families, jobs, infrastructure, healthcare, and education. All this will, Biden admitted, cost money. To pay the bill, he will raise taxes on the wealthy. After Ronald Reagan sought to reduce big government in the 1980s and Bill Clinton acknowledged, “the era of big government is over” in the 1990s, Biden has pronounced that big government is back. Using the crisis of the COVID pandemic to increase government power, he said we are turning “crisis into opportunity.”

It’s the classic debate between liberals and conservatives.

If you don’t know your American history — and polls and test results show you probably do not — this is the very debate that Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover had in the 1930s. Hoover, a mining engineer, had lived and worked abroad for much of his early career and, when he returned to America, he constantly preached “rugged individualism” accompanied by “equality of opportunity.” That, Hoover said, was the American system, and we ought not to give in to the various isms — socialism, fascism, communism — plaguing Europe.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by contrast, said in a 1932 campaign speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, “Equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists.” With the closing of the American frontier and the rise of industrialization, Roosevelt called for more government regulation: “The day of enlightened administration has come.”

Lyndon Johnson and Reagan encapsulated the further struggle of these competing ideologies.

Now, the debate continues. Does the federal government really know how to create more opportunity in the lives of individuals? Is that even its role? Do the Declaration of Independence and its announcement of the right to pursue happiness mean government defines happiness or individuals? Is equality of opportunity an aspiration, as Reagan and Scott have believed, or is it reducible to a set of government programs as Johnson and, apparently, Biden believe?

Beyond the partisan bickering in Washington, the question of how best to create opportunity is well worth debating.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


A Federal Judge Has Appointed Himself Czar of the Los Angeles Homelessness Crisis (Washington Examiner) April 28, 2021

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By all accounts, federal judge David O. Carter is a great guy with a passion for helping the homeless in Los Angeles. It would help if he were Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, able to fund the major philanthropic effort needed for the L.A. homeless. If he were mayor of L.A., or even an L.A. County supervisor, he could use the mantle of political leadership to tackle the problem.

But Carter is not any of those things. He is, rather, a federal judge. In a recent order, Carter commanded that $1 billion be set aside by the city of Los Angeles to house every homeless person on skid row by October 18 of this year. The city has 60 days to give the judge a plan on how this is to be done. Ironically, Mayor Eric Garcetti had announced what seemed like a staggering $1 billion budget for L.A.’s larger homeless crisis (not just skid row) the day before, and those plans are now cast into uncertainty by the sweeping order of a single federal judge.

When you hear the expression judicial activism or judicial overreach, you should now think of Judge Carter. Especially following the pandemic, homelessness has grown into a major national problem, with California leading the way. All kinds of policy players, the federal government, the state, the county, the city, regional nonprofit organizations, and foundations, have taken up the cause. And now an unelected judge enters the fray.

Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think you are, the old song rightly asks.

Courts were intended to be brakes, not engines of change. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 78 that the Judiciary, having neither the power of the purse nor the sword, would be the “least dangerous branch.” Courts are meant to resolve legal problems, not become the policymakers to oversee social change. They are to find the synthesis, not to stake out a thesis or antithesis. Carter finds authority to act because he believes the city has created the problem. Los Angeles, he says, has driven homeless people out of other parts of the city to skid row through its land use policies. Homelessness is far more complicated than land use, however. When you start with fabulous Southern California weather, add in immigration issues, and all the problems of urban areas, then quadruple it all with a pandemic, this is not simply a land use problem.

Beyond the question of who decides homelessness policy, the problems with Carter’s approach are legion. Although it is obvious in his 110-page decision that he has lost patience with Los Angeles, his timeline for action is way too short. If followed, it will necessarily incentivize short-term solutions over longer-term policies. The area of impact is also way too small. Los Angeles has some 66,000 homeless overall, with 15,000 chronically homeless. One study suggests that may grow by 86% over the next 4 years. Although skid row has serious problems, it is home to only 5000 or so people. As social service agencies have experienced, not all homeless people even want or will accept shelter offered to them.

So here we are with a major, complex social problem, with every manner of government, social, and philanthropic agency seeking to address it, and one judge says he has the answer. Not only that, but he plans to force his answer into action within mere months. Carter’s decision should be and will be appealed. If it is not turned back, you can only imagine the problems that government has arguably created, from climate change to racial injustice and beyond, that will now be subject to judicial czars. What then of democracy?

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Big Government Doesn’t Want Us to Return to ‘Normal’ (Washington Examiner) April 21, 2021

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A century ago, as the United States recovered from a worldwide pandemic and a major war, a presidential candidate wisely and successfully called for “a return to normalcy.” Warren G. Harding, in a campaign speech in 1920, could well have been speaking to people today when he said the “need was not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy.”

With airplanes and hotels filling up, fans returning to ballgames, and even highly regulated California planning to open up in June, daily life is slowly returning to normal. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has said, “We all want normalcy in America, and the highway to that normalcy is vaccination.” More than half of adults in the U.S. have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and all adults are now eligible.

Even our politics seem to be settling down. Joe Biden, who famously conducted much of his presidential campaign from his basement at home, has been low-key on social media, and even with traditional media has conducted only one press conference in his first two months in office.

All that is well and good, very good, actually, but the hardest part of returning to normalcy is yet to come: taming the bulked up federal government with its emergency declarations, executive orders, and massive spending. Against that, there is no vaccine. As Ronald Reagan put it in his famous “A Time for Choosing” speech in 1964: “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size.

Although Biden’s speech may be softer in tone, his actions are nevertheless those of an emergency president. In February, he extended the COVID-19 declaration of a national emergency for an additional year. That may be well and good, but it bears watching because government finds it difficult to give up emergency powers. You and I currently live under some 30 states of national emergency, at least one dating back to the Jimmy Carter administration. Emergencies may come and go, but the declarations and powers tend to stay.

Biden has also been signing executive orders at a record pace. No president since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s has signed more than Biden’s 40 orders in his first couple of months in office. And these are not just about COVID-19, either. You want gun control? Biden has an executive order for that. Immigration and LGBT rights? Why bother Congress? We can just order it up. Rejoin the Paris climate accords — who needs the Senate for that when you have signin’ Joe and his pen ready to go?

The big test of government normalcy, however, is federal spending, and that is going nowhere but up. First, another COVID relief bill to the tune of $1.9 trillion. Then more infrastructure at $2-plus trillion. A new 2022 budget proposal with billions of new spending on education, the environment, you name it.

President Calvin Coolidge met weekly with his budget director to get federal spending down following World War I. Cutting the federal budget down to size was one of Ronald Reagan’s top priorities, and even he could only reduce the rate of increase. It is a tough business. But so far, Biden is not even trying to cut; he is still happily spending through the more relaxed oversight of the COVID-19 era.

There will be a day of reckoning for emergency government, executive orders, and reckless federal spending. It may come in the form of Republicans finally getting enough spine to push big government back. There may be a debt bubble that finally bursts, with markets losing confidence in massive deficit spending. Or it may come from voters in the 2022 midterm elections. You can ask Bill Clinton (1994) or Barack Obama (2010) about those times when voters sent them strong electoral messages after feeling they had overreached on healthcare.

Return to normalcy, people say. Unfortunately, the federal government will almost certainly be late to that party.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


We Must Learn From History, Not Cancel It (Washington Examiner) April 9, 2021

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Championship basketball coach Roy Williams of the University of North Carolina recently announced his retirement, saying he was “no longer the right man for the job.” People speculated on what he meant because he won a national championship only four years ago, but ESPN commentator and former coach Seth Greenberg doubtless got it right when he said it was the “business of college basketball” that drove him out. Greenberg said Williams got into the game not to make money but because he loved the game and wanted to mentor young men in basketball and life. Now, that is no longer the primary job of a college coach where millions of dollars are at stake.

This is a parable of life today in which everything is political.

You can’t have the baseball All-Star Game in Atlanta because Georgia passed a controversial voting rights bill. The game has been moved to Colorado, but has the MLB read its voting-rights policies? What state is pure enough in the politics of the day to host anything without a protest?

The goal of vaccinating as many people as quickly as possible against COVID-19 is now being reconsidered because of equity politics. School reopenings, United Airlines pilot training, and the teaching of American history are all now political questions. The writer Thomas Mann was right when he said, “Everything is politics.”

It is even more difficult today because everything is not just politics, but hyperpartisan politics. In this kind of world, people are saints or sinners; there is no in-between. There are no grays or complexities to work through. You are right or wrong; you win or lose. If we don’t like something you say or do, we simply cancel you.

It will be difficult to pull back from this moment, with all its fire and fury, but an important place to start is with our young people and their educational system. Young people must be taught to see the complexities and difficulties in history. We must see the mistakes in order to learn from them. If we topple every statue of a sinner and cancel everyone we disagree with, what will be left to learn? We are left then with only indoctrination, not learning.

An important place to start in educating young people is to cancel “presentism.” Presentism is the notion that we should look at everything, including history, through the lens of our present time and values. If leaders believed or practiced something that was widely done in their time, but violates our present sensibilities, they must be canceled. If they owned slaves in a time of slavery, we can no longer respect or even learn from them, presentism tells us. History is not to be learned from but to be judged and judged by today’s standards.

Instead, those who would study history need to travel back in time only after first checking their 21st-century glasses at TSA before they depart. They need to read history in the context and values of their time in order to understand the real debates. The Ashbrook Center in Ohio does a marvelous job at this, training and retraining teachers to teach history using primary documents. Students are challenged to read debates and speeches of the day to understand what was really going on. Besides resisting presentism, this kind of study engages students far more than boring textbooks and prompts them to learn more.

We must learn from history, not cancel it. Only when we understand the grays and complexities of life, both then and now, will we be able to improve it.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Biden’s Crisis Response Lays the Groundwork for a Liberal Push (Washington Examiner) March 17, 2021

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President Biden is apparently a graduate of the Rahm Emanuel school of public policy. As former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. … It is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” With his flurry of executive actions and the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Biden has shown he learned that lesson well as his immediate COVID-19 relief plans lay the groundwork for a longer-term liberal push.

Actually, President Franklin Roosevelt was an early adapter of the Emanuel crisis model. Roosevelt used the emergency of the Great Depression in the 1930s to revolutionize the size and role of the federal government and of the presidency in particular. If you think excessive use of executive orders is a recent response to partisan gridlock, think again. Roosevelt holds the record for most executive orders signed by a president at 3,721. He created countless new “alphabet soup” federal agencies and had the federal government take over farming, regulate private markets, create social security, provide direct welfare payments, and create make-work government jobs.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was not just about providing emergency relief. It was about changing the role of government in ways that persist today.

A closer look at Biden’s early COVID-19 emergency efforts foreshadows a similar story, a new New Deal in the making. For example, we are only now discovering that the relief bill includes $60 billion in new taxes, as well as other tax law changes. These taxes apply to corporations and the wealthy primarily, giving Democrats an early start toward the liberal goal of greater income equality. Biden is now planning even larger tax increases, the first in nearly 30 years, again focused mainly on the wealthy.

Biden has also used the COVID-19 relief bill to restore and increase traditional welfare policies that had been turned back in recent years. The bill includes increased unemployment benefits, healthcare subsidies and expansions, and notably a major expansion of the one-year child tax credit. Democrats have already said they would like to make the child tax credit permanent, which would significantly increase the total cost of the bill. It is always easier to continue an existing policy than to start a new one, so this is a classic Washington toehold expansion.

Of course, few people, even members of Congress, read 5,000-page bills such as this one. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said of the lengthy Obamacare bill, we had to pass it in order to know what is in it. However, one would do well at least to listen to the strong signals being given by liberals who are pleased with the bill. White House press spokesperson Jen Psaki called it “the most progressive bill in American history.” The 93-member Congressional Progressive Caucus described it as “a truly progressive and bold package.” Read their lips: It’s not just about short-term relief.

Even though the national debt chugs along toward a stunning $30 trillion, COVID-19 relief also removes the normal hand-wringing about increasing the debt. We are in a crisis, after all, so we can’t worry about the debt now. But will we worry about it when the next liberal bill comes along? We’re already told that it’s time for a big infrastructure bill. With COVID-19 relief breaking through debt ceilings, a large infrastructure bill will be far easier to pass.

Through COVID-19 relief, infrastructure spending, raising taxes on businesses and the wealthy, and restoring major welfare programs, Biden will be well on his way to a liberal administration following in the footsteps of Roosevelt and President Lyndon Johnson. Like the New Deal following the Great Depression, we will remember COVID-19 not only for its devastating effects on our health and economy, but also for the transformation of government it ushered in.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Do We Need More or a Different Kind of Civic Education? (Washington Examiner) March 4, 2021

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Civic education in America could use help from almost any quarter.

That bears note because, with major funding from the federal government and deep engagement by 300 scholars, practitioners, and other experts, a new civic education road map was released this week. “Educating for American Democracy” seeks to help states, school districts, and schools “build a new foundation” for civic education by guiding the development of new civic education curriculum across the land.

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores tell us that only 24% of eighth graders are proficient or better in civics, with a pitiful 15% proficient in U.S. history. Only one-third could pass the basic citizenship test given to immigrants. But is a new curricular road map what we most need to right the ship?

Moreover, are academics the best ones to design the map? A road map could be anything from a one-page foldout to a 300-page book. Likewise, there are significant disagreements about civic education. Some, myself included, believe civic education is itself in reasonably good health but needs much greater emphasis and priority. Others believe that approach is old-fashioned, that we need to move away from civic knowledge to civic action as a way to engage and teach the young.

There are also those who think almost everything about the history and civics we teach is wrong. The founding of our country must be changed, they say, from 1776 to the coming of slaves and to the formation of the colonies in 1619. Ethnic studies, including condemnations of capitalism, should be the order of the day. Statues, murals, and names of flawed historical figures should be removed in this new Left version of civic education.

In order to be effective, then, a road map has to be something one could reasonably expect to follow. Unfortunately, this new road map is more like the several-hundred-pager than it is a one-page foldout. It incorporates seven themes, followed by five design challenges, and includes countless key concepts, questions, and recommendations. Your average teacher or state legislator is more likely to be overwhelmed than guided. Scholars have their own agendas when they design a road map. Not content just to do more civic education, they seek to improve democracy using civic education as a tool. Our democracy is in “grave danger,” the report says, plagued by inequities, civic dysfunction, polarization, and even violence. It calls on us to “build a new foundation.”

We misdiagnose the problem. It’s not that we don’t know what works; it’s that we aren’t doing enough of it.

Consider that we spend only 5 cents per student per year on civic education and $54 on science, technology, engineering, and math education. Fewer than 10 states require as much as a year of civic education in high school, and some do not require any. Civics has all but been pushed out of elementary and middle school curricula altogether.

Here’s a thought: Rather than doing something completely different, we need to do more civics education, period.

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He is the author of a recent report: “Commonsense Solutions To Our Civics Crisis.”

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Recalling a Governor Shouldn’t Be This Easy (Washington Examiner) February 27, 2021

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As if leading the largest state in the union through the pandemic and guiding the world’s fifth-largest economy through troubled waters weren’t enough, California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a distracting and expensive recall campaign.

Although Newsom has less than two years remaining in his term, it only requires signatures from 12% of those who voted in the last election, in this case 1.5 million out of more than 22 million registered voters, to put the recall question on a special ballot. Whether you like the job the governor is doing or not (and voters are split: 46% saying they approve, 48% disapprove according to a recent poll), do we need yet another election?

The answer is no. Recalls should be extraordinary remedies, not merely do-overs of the last election for those who cannot wait for the next one. But if you have enough money to gather signatures, you can probably force a recall election. In California, that means just a small handful of billionaires and other Silicon Valley moguls. The Republican Party (like all politicians these days, more interested in winning than in good governance) has also chipped in. With over 1.1 million signatures so far, and a deadline of March 17, the odds are good that there will be a special election this fall.

California is 1 of 20 states that allow a governor to be recalled. History teaches us, however, that Gov. Hiram Johnson and the Progressives who enacted the recall provision were concerned about checking powerful special interests, especially the railroads, that might corrupt the political process. Presumably, a recall was to be used when the representative system became corrupt and tyrannical, not simply disagreeable.

Beyond Newsom’s decision to dine at the swanky French Laundry restaurant during a lockdown, there is no allegation of misconduct against him. People have simply become frustrated by the lockdowns and vaccine rollouts.

The costs, however, are real. Quite literally.

Besides the money to collect signatures, estimates suggest that the special election will cost $80 million to $100 million. There’s also the political distraction concern. California faces huge problems, but this will be a major distraction for months. Then, there is the second question on the ballot. After asking whether Newsom should be recalled, the ballot asks, if he is recalled, who should replace him? The last time California went through this drill, a veritable circus of 135 people, including a pornographic actress, made it to the ballot.

The familiar lesson: There is little constituency left for good governance. Prudence and moderation, words that filled the Federalist Papers, are never heard in politics these days. Now the mantra comes from the late Al Davis, owner of the Raiders football team: “Just win, baby.” If we have another shot at damaging a member of the opposite party and perhaps removing him from office, then we will take it, regardless of the cause or the consequences.

Voters, how about exercising a little judgment and moderation? Parties, how about developing a little patience and waiting for the next election? Political leaders, how about raising the bar for extraordinary tools such as recall, requiring as many as 25% of voters to call for it?

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


The International Criminal Court Plays Politics In Palestine (Washington Times) February 17, 2021

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The International Criminal Court will celebrate its 20th birthday next year. It was touted at its founding as a permanent judicial solution to mass cases of injustice such as the genocide in Rwanda and war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990s. This aspect of the new court’s work has certainly been disappointing as it approaches 20 years and $2 billion of expenses with a handful of convictions of African warlords to show for it.

Beyond its legal agenda, from its inception the ICC has had a political one as well. The political designs of the ICC took a big step forward recently when it decided it had jurisdiction over alleged war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, potentially bringing Israeli soldiers before the court. This controversial decision flies in the face of international law, but drives right up the middle of the political agenda of the court to bring military powers such as Israel and the United States under its jurisdiction.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly called out the court as a “political body and not a judicial institution.” U.S. State Department representative Ned Price correctly pointed out that Palestine is not a sovereign state and therefore it was not qualified to call for an ICC investigation. Not everyone agrees, of course. Human Rights Watch called the decision “pivotal,” as it finally offers victims of serious crimes some legal recourse. It’s pivotal alright, but pivots in the wrong direction.

When the court was formed, the plan had been for cases to be taken up when they involved state parties to the treaty creating the court. This is one of the limitations of international law, requiring agreement from sovereign nations to be acted upon. There was also a way for cases to be referred to the court by the U.N. Security Council.

But late in the negotiations, a group of small and medium-sized nations joined with aggressive human rights groups to take the court in a much more expansive direction. In the end, cases could be brought for crimes on the territory of nations that were members of the court, regardless of the nationality of those committing them. And an independent prosecutor would have the power to bring cases.   

These aggressive changes to the structure of the court caused the U.S., an early proponent of the court, to drop out and even today, some 70 nations have not joined the court, including the U.S., Israel and other world powers. This must not surprise the founders of the court because they intentionally pursued an aggressive and independent direction, saying they wanted “a court worth having.” A court worth having meant one that could come after the U.S., Israel and other nations that had significant military deployments.   

The court has rattled its sword over alleged American war crimes in Afghanistan, but it has not taken the bold step of bringing cases against Americans there. Israel, however, sometimes finds itself a proxy for the U.S., a younger brother easier to pick on. The recent 2-1 decision of a three-judge panel of the ICC does just that, advising the prosecutor of the court that the ICC does have jurisdiction over alleged war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, so now the fuller political agenda of the ICC is in play.

There is more politics here, too, namely the politics of the Middle East peace process. Palestine has long angled to be accepted as a state, but its statehood has been wrapped up in the larger peace negotiations. As a consequence, Palestine has tried to join any number of international organizations to bolster its case, signing on to the treaty of the ICC in 2015. That, too, was objectionable, since only states may join the court.

To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, the International Criminal Court’s larger agenda is politics by other means. Its decision to allow cases against Israelis, whose nation is intentionally not a member of the court, violates international law and is politics by other means. It must be opposed.     

To read the column at the Washington Times:


Banning the Teaching of the 1619 Project is the Wrong Solution to a Real Problem (Washington Examiner) February 15, 2021

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Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) may have referred to the ancient practice of bloodletting when he famously said, “Sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease.”

We need not go that far here, but new laws proposed in five states to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project are the wrong solution to a very real problem. The New York Times introduced the 1619 Project in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in the American colonies. Its goals were not modest. The project seeks to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery … at the very center of our national narrative.” The project sought to redefine the founding of America to 1619, with its economic system of slavery, rather than in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence or the 1787 signing of the Constitution.

The project has had a surprising impact on the teaching of history. The Pulitzer Center, which has collaborated with the project to offer lesson plans to teachers, reports that more than 4,000 teachers from all 50 states are teaching their materials. It is reminiscent of Howard Zinn’s infamous textbook, A People’s History of the United States, which was introduced in 1980 as an alternative telling of the American story, one that emphasized the sins and errors of the founders and leaders, and has become a widely used, even mainstream, text.

The political nature of the 1619 Project was recognized immediately, with President Donald Trump appointing a “1776 Commission” to reassert the primacy of the Declaration in America’s founding. Sen. Tom Cotton introduced the “Saving American History Act” to remove federal monies used to teach 1619 materials and ideas. Cotton called the 1619 Project a “racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded.” Now five states, Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota, have seen bills introduced to block state funding also.

The problems with the 1619 Project and these proposed state laws are legion, but let’s start by acknowledging that we do a terrible job of teaching civics and history in schools.

In the most recent “Nation’s Report Card” testing, only 24% of eighth-graders tested “proficient” or better in U.S. history, a mere 15% in civics and government. So, before states put energy into the politics of history, they need to prioritize teaching the basics of history and civics. Standardized testing in reading, science, technology, engineering, and math education have all but pushed civics out of the curriculum. As I outlined in a recent report, states need to mandate the teaching of history and civics, not only in high school but in the elementary and middle school as well. The federal government should be embarrassed that it spends $54 per student annually on STEM education and only 5 cents on civics!

A further problem with politicizing the teaching of history is that we basically have adults working out their politics on the backs of children. As professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University has observed, kids don’t get the interpretive game. We hardly need to subsidize more “presentism” (seeing history through 21st-century glasses) in education. People should also bristle at state governments censoring particular books or ideas. Education is still the responsibility of local government, and such matters should be worked out there. Let states address the larger questions of curriculum and funding without engaging in dueling bills over the particulars.

What we need is what Ronald Reagan called “an informed patriotism.” Neither the 1619 Project nor state bills banning it will get us there.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Elites Battle Over History While Students Fail Basic Civics (Washington Examiner) January 21, 2021

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It’s bad enough that civic education is in the tank. In the most recent national testing, only 24% of 8th graders were “proficient” or better in U.S. history, while a pitiful 15% were proficient in government and civics. Only one-third of Americans can pass the basic citizenship test. Funding for civic education is a pittance, as the federal government spends five cents per student per year on it, while investing $54 per student on STEM (science, technology, education and math) education.

But don’t worry, supposedly the experts have our backs. Their answer is to launch a series of wars over the content of history and civics to be sure that what little students might learn or retain is politically correct.

Nationally, the New York Times weighed in during 2019 with its 1619 Project, aimed at changing the understanding of our founding from the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the signing of the Constitution (1787) to the arrival of the first slaves in 1619. Nevermind that there was no country then being founded because the project sought, above all, to redefine the essence of America as its unjust and discriminatory economic system, not its proclamations of freedom and equality or the primacy of laws.

This week, then, the political football was returned by then-President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which released “The 1776 Report.” This was a product of a hurry-up offense, to be sure, because the commission, composed of conservative academics and activists, was appointed a month ago, whereas most projects of this nature take months or years to complete. Perhaps further time was not really needed to, as the commission put it, “restore” the events of 1776 and the Declaration of Independence as America’s true founding.

The sad truth is that instead of debating how to improve civic education, experts are turning it into a political football. The writer Thomas Mann was evidently describing our day when he said, “Everything is politics.” So what we have increasingly in the teaching of U.S. history and civics is adults fighting their political wars on the battlefield of their children’s education — children who, by the way, need Civics 101, not The Politics of Civics.

The California Legislature is doing its part to improve civic education, debating over the terms of teaching ethnic history. California educators are on their third draft to try to create an ethnic studies curriculum that, instead of celebrating and teaching ethnic heritage, seems to prefer attacking white nationalism, colonialism, and the like. The attempt to incorporate critical ethnic studies has had even proponents of ethnic studies divided and unable to agree on a proper curriculum.

Or consider the California schoolteacher who required third graders to deconstruct their racial profile and identify their “power and privilege” ranking. The teacher, in math no less (everything is politics), explained that they live in a “dominant culture” made up of “white, middle class, cisgender, educated, able-bodied, Christian, English speakers,” all of which is a problem in critical race theory. The parents were aghast, and the battle lines were drawn. This was not high school or college, mind you, but third grade.

The point is that battles over political correctness are not what students need in order to improve their civic education. Our lack of national civic knowledge speaks clearly of the need to learn the basics first. As Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University has said, younger students “do not get the interpretive game [and] are just learning that claims must be judged not for alignment with current issues of social justice but for the data they present.” It is in college where students are best prepared to read multiple accounts from different perspectives and make comparisons and judgments.

Cancel culture, covering up art, taking down statues, redefining the founding, critical race theory — these are all efforts by highly political adults to rewrite the script of history. Fine, let academics publish their articles and have their debates. Just not on the backs of young students who desperately need to learn the basics.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner: