Trent England | November 2, 2022
Florida is revamping civics education—and OCPA is playing a role
I love those old Schoolhouse Rock cartoons that teach American civics. Would it not be splendid if the Constitution actually could stand up and speak? The Constitution could defend itself! Breaking free of the National Archives, it could run down Constitution Avenue, charge into Congress, and repeat like a mantra the most important phrase in Article I: “All legislative Powers herein granted …”
Of course, it doesn’t work that way. The Constitution remains under thick glass in the National Archives Museum. Whether it has any effect on our national life is up to the American people.
Civic Education or National Suicide
Wise American statesmen have always understood this. George Washington’s Farewell Address was written to shape public opinion in support of the union and constitutional government. John Adams declared the Constitution fit only for “a moral and religious people.”
In one of his earliest speeches, Abraham Lincoln noted the remarkable success and growing strength of our young nation but warned: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
How to avoid national suicide? Lincoln called on parents, teachers, professors, curriculum writers (yes, he mentioned them specifically), pastors, legislators, and judges to teach—in word and deed—reverence and fidelity to the Constitution and the rule of law. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken this to heart.
Of course, many conservatives oppose toxic teachings, like racist “Critical Race Theory” and the debunked “1619 Project.” Yet similar past efforts, like the fight against Common Core, remind me of Jesus’ warning in the Gospel of Matthew, where an unclean spirit leaves a person only to return and find “my house from which I came … empty, swept, and put in order.” So what happens? The unclean spirit finds “seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”
Whatever one thinks of Common Core, it didn’t include drag queen story hour.
My Florida Experience
Gov. DeSantis and Sunshine State legislators understand that the real way to defeat bad ideas is to supplant them with good ideas. After taking office, Gov. DeSantis launched a multi-pronged effort to revamp civics education in Florida. This included creating new civics standards, new curricula, and a program to teach teachers more about American history and government.
I played a small part in Florida’s teacher training program, providing content for a module about the constitutional amendment process. Working with the state’s Department of Education, I discovered how important the project is to the governor. Department staff were apologetically in a rush. Why? Because Gov. DeSantis had set a demanding timetable and his staff were regularly checking in.
In other words, the governor was running the bureaucracy. That, in itself, might pass for a constitutional revelation in the 21st century. While Gov. DeSantis gives impressive speeches and interviews, he also runs state government. Creating and funding his civics initiative required working with state legislators, who passed the civics bill and have joined the governor in making the case for its importance.
At the bill signing ceremony, state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez explained why it matters to her. “As a daughter and granddaughter of Cuban refugees, my family knows firsthand the dangers of Communism and the fatal consequences of totalitarian regimes.” Her hope is that Florida’s improved civics education will help “to assure history doesn’t repeat itself in our great nation.”
Media Ignorance on Full Display
All this has put some people into a tizzy. MSNBC has repeatedly bashed Florida’s civics program as “Christian nationalism” (or simply “Christian,” which passes for an epithet on the modern Left) and indoctrination. Other mainstream media outlets have joined in. The two topics that draw the most fire are religion and, predictably, slavery.
A CBS report led with content from Florida’s curriculum noting that the American Founders “expected religion to be promoted” and were not uniformly in favor of a “strict separation of church and state.” CBS focused on teachers union claims that this constituted “revisionist history.” Yet the Florida curriculum is simply history, like it or not.
George Washington’s Farewell Address, written with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison with input from John Jay (the triumvirate who together are Publius, author of The Federalist Papers), sums up the commonly held view of the Founders:
Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. … Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
The origin of American public schools in the nineteenth century was premised on the importance of inculcating some form of Protestant Christianity. When Oklahoma City’s Emerson High School was renovated, blackboards from 1917 were discovered with classroom instructions still chalked on them. One read: “I give my head, my heart, and my life to my God and One nation indivisible with justice for all.”
On slavery, the media criticism is even more absurd. MSNBC and others object to content that puts American slavery in the context of worldwide slavery. It is revealing that leftists in teachers unions and the media see a threat in teaching students the facts: that slavery was once endemic in the world, that many early Americans saw the evil in it even as they were unsure what to do, and that the British and Americans eventually stood against slavery and spilled blood to abolish it.
Florida Aims to Create ‘Great Citizens’
Until recently, the purpose of education—particularly when funded by taxpayers and run by government—was understood to encompass the formation of good citizens. This includes not merely understanding the American form of government, but understanding why it is good. Florida’s program explicitly aims to create patriotic American citizens, people invested in their communities, state, and nation. “We have a responsibility,” says Gov. DeSantis, “to ensure our students are prepared to be great citizens.”
Of course, none of this precludes admitting America’s failures. Quite the contrary, it means recognizing them and the duty they create for all Americans to work to bring our nation more into accord with our fundamental principles. Most Americans understand that just as with an individual human being, so too with a nation made up of them, imperfection is inevitable. Only a utopian—that most dangerous of all political fanatics—believes that discrete failures are sufficient evidence to condemn an entire nation.
Part of Florida’s civics initiative is “Portraits in Patriotism,” which will record oral histories that “highlight patriotism based on the personal stories of diverse individuals who demonstrate civic-minded qualities.” To broaden students’ horizons and, dare I say it, inoculate them against leftist anti-Americanism, these will include “first person accounts of victims of other nations’ governing philosophies.”
Oklahoma Could Follow Florida
The current campaign for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Oklahoma features a similar debate. Legacy media has deemed it “controversial” for Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, one of the candidates, to call for teacher training in Oklahoma that emphasizes what is good about America.
What a concept: public schools teaching the truth about American history and government, with an emphasis on what is good about our nation. This is not merely a way for conservatives to win political or policy battles, this is how America survives. No wonder MSNBC is mad.
David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow
Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.