A new survey suggests that younger parents don't share the same values or priorities for civics education as their older peers. According to the survey, conducted by RealClear Opinion Research and funded by the Jack Miller Center, nearly nine out of ten Americans agree that teaching children about our nation’s founding principles is “very important.” But seven out of ten don’t think schools are doing a good job of it.
The survey was conducted in November and included responses from more than one thousand likely voters on topics related to education, civics instruction, and the American founding. As first reported by my colleague, RealClearPolitics reporter Phil Wegmann, their answers revealed that both Republicans and Democrats value civics education. Contrary to how it’s often portrayed in the news cycle, civics education is not merely a concern on the right.
Still, there were some partisan differences. Democrats demonstrated more confidence in the public school system to deliver what kids need to know about the American founding, while Republicans were more likely to see private schooling or homeschooling as the best way to do the job. Republicans were also more likely to say that they believe schools are promoting a biased political agenda, and that their children were not free to express their ideas at school.
But the most striking differences weren’t partisan. Instead, they emerged when comparing the responses of young parents to those of older parents.
To the question, “What emotion do you believe your children feel when they see the American flag?” most parents responded positively. “Pride” and “gratitude” together made up more than 63% of the responses, compared to 5.8% who said their children felt “shame” or “disgust” when they see the flag.
About 30% overall said their children felt “indifference” when they saw the flag. But when you consider younger parents as a group that number was much higher. 52.6% of parents aged 18-24 said their children felt indifference to the flag. For parents aged 25-34, that number is 41.6%.
Let’s call it the civics education age gap. And while the survey asks parents specifically what their kids think about the flag, data from additional questions on the survey suggest that younger parents may share some of that indifference about America in general.
On the question of how to portray the flawed figures of America’s founding, overall, 92.5% of respondents said public schools should “portray historical figures honestly with the understanding that we can teach a person’s achievements even if their views do not alight with values of today.” Only 7.5% of all respondents believe that “if the views of historical figures do not align with the values of today, we should minimize or avoid teaching about their historical achievements.” On this question, the responses of young parents aged 18-24 differed only slightly from the average parent—9.8% of them believe we should minimize the achievements of problematic historical figures, or even avoid teaching about them altogether. For parents aged 35-34, that number was 8%.
The context for this survey is, of course, our culture’s ongoing debate over how to teach kids about the impact of racism and slavery on our country, and what those things mean about our national identity. The disagreement could be boiled down to the question, “Is America Good?” Thomas Jefferson is a prime example. He was a racist slave owner who nevertheless expressed ideas that gave birth to a new kind of political freedom, and whose words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” would one day be uttered by Martin Luther King in defense of civil rights for those slaves’ descendants.
At a recent event in Washington, D.C. where the results of the survey were discussed, education and civil rights activist Bob Woodsen spoke of the importance of allowing for “redemption” when we consider our flawed founding fathers and our national identity. Hans Zeiger, president of the Jack Miller Center, put it this way, “We can be honest about our history without being romantic about it.”
When asked which aspects of civics education should have priority, over 70% of parents said the focus should be “teaching students the principles underlying American politics, such as the history and ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.” On the other hand, nearly 23% said the priority should be “teaching students how to actively promote change in government.” Among parents aged 18-24, that number was nearly 55%.
The vast majority of Americans today agree that civics education is important, and that civics education should include an honest assessment of our nation’s flaws and our flawed founding fathers. But younger parents seem to embrace a more pessimistic view of our nation and a more activist vision of the civics classroom. If these differences were to endure as younger parents age, one wonders what the civics age gap portends. One wonders what it will mean for our nation if younger parents, and their children, allow no place for redemption.