The Heritage Foundation: “Civic Education, Rightly Understood”
By Wilfred M. McClay
JMC faculty partner and board member Wilfred McClay recently wrote an article for the Heritage Foundation on the importance of civic education:
“We live in anxious times. But there have been many times in our past that were far more anxious, and in which the reasons for anxiety were far more compelling. We must remember that.
Consider, for example, the situation facing the world in the early months of 1941, when Hitler’s triumphant armies controlled continental Europe, when only the British Isles managed to hold out, and when the future of liberty looked very dim—indeed, when civilization itself seemed imperiled. Yet at that moment, the novelist John Dos Passos chose to pen these words:
In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present…¹
It must have been tempting for him to declare, as journalists like to do, that the present situation was utterly without precedent, and the past had nothing to teach the present. After all, had the world ever before seen a more fearsome and pitiless fighting machine than the one Adolph Hitler had assembled? But Dos Passos chose to convey an exactly opposite message. He urged that we look backward, reaching back to a past that could be a source of sanity and direction, a lifeline of sustenance and instruction.
An Education for Democratic Citizenship
Such training of the mind ought to be at the very core of an education for democratic citizenship. We neglect an essential element in the formation of our citizens when we fail to supply our young people with a full, accurate, and responsible account of their own country. That is what the formal study of American history should provide. Our knowledge of such things does not come to us automatically, by birth or cultural osmosis. The knowledge must be acquired, and, once taken in, needs to be made our own, a part of our shared consciousness and our common memory…”
Wilfred McClay is the author of a best-selling American history textbook that provides an alternative to the standard AP-level texts. In McClay’s words:
“We have a glut of text and trade books on American history. But what we don’t have is a compact, inexpensive, authoritative, and compulsively readable book that will offer to intelligent young Americans a coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Such an account will shape and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit, and by making them understand that land’s roots, will equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in American society, and provide them with a vivid and enduring sense of membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the exciting, perilous, and immensely consequential story of their own country.”
Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. His research interests focus on the intellectual and cultural history of the United States, with particular attention to the social and political thought of the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of American religious thought and institutions, and the theory and practice of biographical writing. A recipient of many teaching awards and honors, he has been the recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Academy of Education. Professor McClay previously served on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His most recent book is Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. He is also the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history, and The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past and Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Public Life in Modern America.
Professor McClay is a JMC board member.
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