Robert Gates: How civic education became a national security issue

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Gates spoke to POLITICO following an introductory discussion at the CivXNow Policy Summit, a virtual conference convened last week by a coalition of 170 members committed to advancing federal and state legislation to strengthen classroom teaching of self-government.

He believes that today’s hyperpolarized political environment has drowned out the role of collaboration within civic institutions. If students learn more about how our system of government is designed to work, he said, they might realize that one side doesn’t have all the answers.

The federal government does not control what is taught in local schools. But it can exert a rich influence on the curriculum, and there have been bipartisan, albeit hesitant, efforts in Congress to scale up support for learning from this country’s institutions and standards.

This year, Reps Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.) And Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) Joined the Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) And John Cornyn (R-Texas) to introduce the Democracy Act for Citizenship. The bill would allow the administration of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to create new grants that states, nonprofits, colleges and civic education researchers can use to expand access to education. civic and historical education. Whether he lands on President Joe Biden’s desk is far from certain.

Federal lawmakers and the Republican and Democratic parties can still play an important role in advancing the problem from the pulpit of bullies, Gates said. “We didn’t get here overnight, we’re not going to fix it overnight,” he said. “There are a number of avenues that you have to take to try to bring the problem back to the forefront. “

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Ordinary Americans might not see the connection between national security and the state of civic education in this country. Could you explain why you think there is a link there?

Several of the Founding Fathers were very explicit that an educated and informed citizenship was the only way for the American republic to survive. An informed and educated public has not only to do with home affairs, but also America’s place in the world. It seems to me that if people don’t understand how our system of government works – and the role of Congress, and the role of the President – we can get lost.

Is there a link to be drawn from the events of January 6, the refusal to accept the 2020 election results in some quarters and the cleavage over Covid-19 precautions with what our children are learning in school about the government ?

I don’t think so, necessarily. These are terrible and terrible events. But I hope they are unique. I am more concerned about the longer term implications for our democracy of civic education. One of the things you would learn in civic education is that the Constitution is the product of compromise and some very important compromises. You will learn in civics education that our system of government is designed to work only by compromise. This is what the checks and balances are for. Therefore, if you’re willing to vote for members of Congress who have no intention of compromising, you don’t understand how the U.S. government is supposed to work – and that the only way to accomplish great things as a that country is when members of Congress are ready to cross party lines or think about the interests of the country as a whole and compromise. No one gets what they want all the time. This fundamental understanding of the criticality of compromise for making the American experience work, I think, is an essential part of civic education.

Where did we go wrong with civic education at the high school level, in your opinion?

As educators have considered the demands of colleges and businesses for programs and funding, I think civics education has been increasingly taken out of the curriculum in more and more schools over a period of time. long period to be replaced by other materials. I think this is due to a lack of understanding among school boards and others of the importance of civic education for the whole country. I don’t think there was any sort of conscious program or conspiracy to get rid of civic education. It’s just sort of eroded.

So much emphasis has been placed on advancing American technological prowess and preparing the workforce of the future for STEM fields. Are you worried that the emphasis has distracted us from classic fundamentals of education?

There has been a general trend away from one of the main goals of education: to train good citizens and develop skills that people can bring to the workplace. These are not mutually exclusive. I think education has to do both. But if we are essentially saying that it is no longer the responsibility of public educators to help develop good citizens, then it is easy to take civics education off the curriculum and replace it with more practical courses, including including STEM. In fact, you have to have both.

Based on the set of your experience, and at the moment this country is right now, what’s at stake if we fail?

I am often asked what is the greatest threat to American national security today. My response is that the threat is within the 2 square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol. We have always been polarized as a country. We have always had a polarization in our politics. There were things that were said in the Adams-Jefferson presidential race that would fit in perfectly with some of today’s most slanderous campaigns. But what’s relatively new in American history, perhaps for the first time since just before the Civil War, is paralysis. To be able to move forward in solving big problems. If we fail to find a way to overcome this paralysis to tackle some of the big problems facing the country, then we will have very serious problems. The source of this paralysis, in my opinion, is the reluctance of people to understand the importance of compromise, and how the Constitution works, and how the Constitution establishes a country and a government that can only function if there is a compromise.

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