Immigration and America's broken civics education system

Article Highlights

  • Our schools no longer teach the American dream.

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  • It is time for Americans to insist on restoring our system of civics education.

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  • American history has always been a powerful force for inclusion, assimilation, and national unity.

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Senator Michael Bennet (D–Colorado) has written poignantly in support of the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, urging its passage as a means of reaffirming “quintessential American values” and restoring “the American dream.” But today, few of our students — foreign or native born — know much about the provenance of those values. Our schools no longer teach the American dream. It is time for Americans to insist on restoring our system of civics education.


If the United States is to open a path to citizenship for today’s undocumented immigrants and maintain a liberal policy toward new immigration, we must break our silence on the sources of the freedom and prosperity that have drawn immigrants to our shores. Our immigration system is broken — but so is our system of civic education. As Congress moves towards opening new paths for immigrants, it should find a way to restore the foundation of American citizenship — the self-confident teaching of American history in our nation’s schools. 

American history has always been a powerful force for inclusion, assimilation, and national unity. Children of immigrants from disparate parts of the globe, along with native-born children from all stations of life, discovered what it meant to be an American in our schools, where they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, celebrated Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, learned about the American Revolution and the Civil War, and came to view themselves as part of an extraordinary culture of liberty. But our schools have drifted away from this mission.

Levels of Ignorance

Countless studies confirm that young Americans have become distressingly ignorant about their national past. The latest Department of Education national history assessment (2010) shows that only 12 percent of American high school seniors have a firm grasp of U.S. history. More than half (55 percent) scored below the “Basic” achievement level. A 2012 Roper survey of college graduates found widespread ignorance about U.S. history and basic functions of government: only 17 percent of those polled, for example, could identify famous words from the Gettysburg Address or knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation. Noting a 2009 study that found that 39 percent of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment, civil libertarian Greg Lukianoff has described us as a nation in the process of “unlearning liberty.” We are perilously close to testing Thomas Jefferson’s famous admonition: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Most colleges and universities no longer require students to take a basic course in U.S. history or government (less than 20 percent, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni), and those students who happen to take U.S. history as an elective are not likely to hear much praise for the land of the free and the home of the brave. In its recent study of the history curriculum in Texas universities, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) found a preoccupation with the themes of race, class, and gender injustice. Says the NAS, “Other matters –– individual rights, entrepreneurship, industrialization, self-reliance, religion, war, science — fade into the margins along with the persons and events associated with them.” In sum: students become well-versed in the history of American bigotry, prejudice, and exclusion — but learn next to nothing about the heroic chapters of the national story.

Herein lies a paradox: supporters of the DREAM Act — which would give high-performing children of undocumented immigrants an opportunity to attend college — defend it as the highest expression of Americans traditions. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urges its passage as a means of giving “hard-working, patriotic, young people a shot at the American Dream.” But once in college, these very same students may well enroll in courses that treat the American Dream as an illusion at best and a nightmare at worst.  

I am not suggesting we return to a time when our past was whitewashed and presented in a naïve or jingoistic way. But all students need instruction that acquaints them with the key figures, events, and doctrines that make up our collective identity. And that instruction should foster understanding, pride in country, and civic attachment. Our national sins should be frankly acknowledged, but the grandeur of the American experiment must shine through. This is simply not happening today.

Many in the education establishment recoil at the idea of reviving a patriotic curriculum and do all they can to thwart it. Should members of the House or Senate try to address the blight of civic illiteracy, they will meet ferocious opposition. But they should know that there is at least equal strength on the other, less vocal, side. Dozens of established, mainstream civic education groups could provide leadership and concrete guidance on how to restore the nation’s history and civics curriculum. These include Common Core, Inc., the Center for Civic Education, ICivics, and the Bill of Rights Institute. (Note: Common Core, Inc. refers to the non-profit entity that focuses on designing curriculum materials, not to be confused with the Common Core State Standards Initiative.) A magnificent new e-learning project from AEI,, directed by Amy Kass and Leon Kass, takes a literary approach to making informed citizens. It includes a ten-part online course, “The Meaning of America,” and a new series of e-books for celebrating national holidays. There is also the UNO Charter School Network of Chicago, which serves more than 6,500 mostly-Hispanic children in twelve K-8 schools and one high school. The UNO Network has developed an exemplary “American Civics Curriculum” that fosters pride, gratitude, and identification with American political and civic traditions. The schools’ mission is not simply to create educated and engaged citizens, “but educated and engaged American citizens” (emphasis in original). Assimilation and Americanization were once the raison d’être of our schools, and we should strive to make them so again.

Oppressive Legislation?

Giovanni Capriglione is a first-term member of the Texas House. Both his parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s — his mother from Venezuela, his father from Italy. Once in the United States, these two outsiders learned American history, came to see themselves as part of our national story, and were transformed into something new — American citizens. Alarmed by the NAS findings on the Texas curriculum, and sensing a threat to the assimilation process that had served his parents so well, Capriglione took action. He recently introduced a bill in the Texas legislature that clarified a 1955 state law establishing a US history requirement for Texas college students. Capriglione’s bill specified that all students must take at least one comprehensive survey course in American history, but this clarification meant that many specialized courses such as “Women in Postwar America,” “The Black Power Movement,” or “Popular Music in the U.S.” could be taken only as electives and would no longer fulfill the history graduation requirement.

Writers, professors, students, and school board members banded together to protest what they considered to be “oppressive” legislation. The NAACP and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund saw it as a direct assault on ethnic studies. Anne Martinez, a history professor at the University of Texas whose “History of Mexican Women” course would no longer fill the American history requirement, told reporters: “It says that Mexican-American history somehow isn’t as valuable as another history.” To its opponents’ satisfaction, the bill languished in committee.

Just think of it: we have reached the point where a law that simply stipulates that our history be taught creates passionate, organized, and successful resistance. Even in Texas.

In his moving defense of the Gang of Eight immigration bill, Senator Bennet explains the importance of American ideals in his own life. His mother and grandparents escaped Nazi persecution and found refuge in the United States. To this day, he relishes the words his grandparents inscribed in a card on the occasion of his first birthday: 

The Ancient Greeks gave the world the high ideals of Democracy in search of which your dear mother and we came to the hospitable shores of beautiful America in 1950. We have been happy here ever since, beyond our greatest dreams and expectations, with democracy, freedom and love, and humanity's greatest treasures. We hope that when you grow up you will help to develop in other parts of the world a greater understanding of these American values.

The Texas professors who opposed the Capriglione legislation would no doubt be disdainful of such naïve love of country. We know that not all was beautiful in 1950s America. Still, there is plain truth in that birthday card message, and it is a truth we are failing to impart to the next generation. Senator Bennet worries that our broken immigration system threatens the American dream realized by his grandparents. He is right — but our broken system of civics education is every bit as threatening.

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Christina Hoff

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