In the 1990s, educators saw something crucial was missing from the way they prepared students for the complexities of the lives their students would live in the 21st century.

The curriculum they developed is called STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, and the goal is to give every student an understanding of these disciplines.

Today, educators and others have recognized that something just as essential is missing from our educational program – a working understanding of American history and civics.

Just as a lack of scientific literacy was seen as a threat to our ability to compete in a global, knowledge-based economy, a lack of civic knowledge and responsibility is a threat to American self-government.

This week, a group of leading educators and historians proposed to do something about it.

The report by the Educating for American Democracy initiative, endorsed by six former secretaries of education, three Democrats and three Republicans, creates a plan for school districts around the country to develop their own curricula that tell the story of America and the ways that ordinary people interact with its institutions to shape the country we have today.

The need for this kind of education is obvious. Many Americans have lost faith in democracy. Some are blinded by nostalgia for a past that never was, while others are hobbled by cynical belief that nothing they can do will make a difference.

Alienated people with no sense of civic duty can’t be full citizens in our society. People who don’t know their history are easy to manipulate.

The Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol shows what happens when teaching civics and history is left to the cable news hosts and social media meme makers. We all need a common understanding of how we got here, and how to use the opportunities offered by our Constitution to change the world.

The report identifies two causes for the civic education deficit in our system.

One is the focus on standards-based education, which judged schools by their ability to produce test scores in reading and math, ignoring almost everything else.

Another is the ongoing culture war over the content of history texts, especially with regard to slavery and the conquest of Native lands. As the country grows more polarized on politics, school systems find it easier to avoid conflict and neglect civics and history. The report’s authors warn that skipping these fights now will make us even less able to address contentious issues in the future.

The goal of civics education is not to declare winners in these conflicts, or to get everyone to agree on the meaning of various historical events.

But it should aim to convey that all Americans, no matter how divided they are on partisan politics, can value democracy and individual liberty and share a sense of civic responsibility.

Our future as a self-governing people depends on our getting this right.

 

Correction: This editorial was updated at 10:11 AM on March 4 to reflect that the EAD report was endorsed, but not signed, by six former secretaries of education.


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