American constitutional democracy cannot run on auto-pilot.
What Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor once called a “quiet crisis” has become a deafening one.
O’Connor was referring to conspicuous deficiencies in U.S. civics and history education, deficiencies which were depriving entire generations of Americans of the prerequisites for constitutional self-government.
In my recent experiences (last couple of years) in interviewing juniors in high schools in Flagler County for certain programs that my organization offers, the vast majority of the junior students could not name our elected officials — neither local, state, or federal.
American constitutional democracy cannot run on auto-pilot. By putting civic education on cruise control and falling asleep at the wheel, the American ship of state has run off course. If we are to avoid running aground, we need to open the eyes of all Americans, beginning in K-12 classrooms, to the essential knowledge and civic virtues necessary to maintain our constitutional democracy for future generations.
American civic education should mirror the kind of American identity we would like to cultivate. This identity, at its best, has always consisted in a common commitment to certain ideals — certain “inalienable rights,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence — rather than the mere fact of living in the same place. A common commitment to ideals can, in turn, inspire common assent to a shared narrative of American history. Until this is achieved, the United States will continue to fall short of being the “city upon a hill” that its best moments have called it.