Studying America’s Crisis in Civic Education

VerboisRobynAshbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) is helping teachers like Robyn Verbois revive civic education. As the final project for her MAHG degree, Verbois wrote a capstone that analyzed the neglect of civic education in America, argued that the best way to address this was through teaching the American Founding, and presented effective tools for teaching how the Founders arrived at our Constitutional design for government.

Verbois credits the MAHG program with allowing her to undertake a project that helped her clarify her goals for her current work, teaching American history and government at Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her project also allowed her “to plot, in the most careful and comprehensive way possible, lessons on the Founding I could use.” Most masters programs require “original” research—that is, study of a narrow topic not yet treated in historiography. The MAHG program encourages teachers to tackle projects they can put to classroom use.

In her analytical essay, Verbois cited studies showing the country is failing in civic education, such as a 2008 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that found that 71% of a random sample of Americans failed to pass the civics test administered to immigrants seeking naturalization. Verbois argues, “All students want to know how the history we’re studying relates to life today. But there are certain things they have to learn first. They need to have a sense of what the Founders did, as well as of the mechanism the Founders put in place to change the system.”

The MAHG coursework Verbois completed before writing her capstone supported this teaching approach.  “Ashland’s program has a core curriculum” that spans historical eras. Although not required to study these in sequence, “most MAHG students start with courses on the Founding and move forward in time,” Verbois observed. The range of the program is not limited by the narrow specialties of a fixed group of faculty. “I tell others who are interested in MAHG about the variety of instructors in the program from across the country.” Verbois herself learned about the MAHG program through her undergraduate political science professor at Louisiana State University, James Stoner, one of many who teach in the program.

Stoner, a political theorist who has authored books on American political thought, advised Verbois on her capstone, “Teaching Civic Knowledge Through the Founding Documents.” Verbois points out that the Founders had to devise a system allowing the maximum individual liberty while maintaining social order. High school students need to examine the Founders’ systems for balancing competing political forces. They also need exposure to the Founders’ view that individual rights are tempered by responsibility.

The Founders’ design grew out English constitutional theory and the political thought of enlightenment philosophers, but it also grew from “colonial experiences in practical governing.” Early Americans understood the social compact as a “covenant,” implying a sense of “community.” If Americans are losing this sense of community, Verbois says, perhaps it is  “because we have failed to pass on the uniqueness of our origins.”

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