On March 17, Governor Ron DeSantis announced the Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative that, among other things, includes a $106 million proposal to make Florida a national leader in civics education. As a history professor, I have long professed the importance of civic literacy and incorporate debates around civil liberties and civil rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and Supreme Court cases into my courses. While students often far exceed my expectations in numerous ways, civic literacy is often one of those areas where students struggle. As such, I support this effort in the abstract.
Yet, the motivating factor seemingly undergirding DeSantis’s effort is that a robust civic literacy curriculum will be a bulwark to “unsanctioned narratives like critical race theory.” He continued, “Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” It is here that I disagree. A strong civics literacy program must grapple with racism in America’s past. Engagement with the ways in which race and racism shaped American history are not meant to instill hate toward the United States but, instead, encourage the kind of robust engagement with America’s past and present that true civics literacy and engaged, informed citizens must have. You can still appreciate the greatness that is the aspiration of the United States while still understanding and recognizing the shortcomings of this country historically.
Any worthwhile civics literacy program should, as DeSantis argues, be based on the “foundational concepts” of the United States “with the best materials.” An understanding of the aspirational goals laid out in the Declaration of Independence that, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” seems essential to civic literacy in the United States. Yet, one can see here where issues surrounding race and inequality come into play. An engaged student would have to ask questions about how founding fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, interpreted the idea of “all men” being equal. Did that apply to only white men? Only white men with property? White women? Black men and women? Native Americans? It is impossible to engage with the Declaration without grappling with questions of racial inequality and racism.
Sustained engagement with the Constitution should also be the bedrock of any civics literacy program. Even here, it is impossible to avoid issues related to race and inequality. In order to get support for ratification, the Constitution is loaded with compromises. The 3/5s compromise is one of the more important examples. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution states, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” Once again, engaged students would have to grapple with the issue of free people, Native Americans, and those “other persons” mentioned. Why were non-free people, aka enslaved people, only counted as 3/5s of a person? What were the implications of this compromise? Who benefitted from this compromise and what does suggest about who the Founding Fathers intended to be included in the United States more broadly? Much like the Declaration, the Constitution is intimately bound up in questions related to racial inequalities.
Moving beyond the initial founding moments and documents and into a broader discussion of the way the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution throughout history, similar kinds of questions arise. How does one explain the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that declared Black people could never be citizens, the Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896) that infamously gave legal sanction to Jim Crow segregation, or the Korematsu case in 1944 that upheld the constitutionality of Japanese internment during WWII without engaging with issues related to racism in American society?
The larger point is that civic literacy is essential to the success and survival of our nation. At the same time, a good civics literacy program cannot simply ignore issues related to racism and sugar-coat the narrative. It is impossible. Racism is too bound up in American history to extricate it from civics education. A good civic literacy program must engage with the greatness that is the American experiment as well as the flaws. It is in the effort to realize America’s promise that students become more civically minded.
Brandon T. Jett is a Professor of Hstory at Florida SouthWestern State College and a member of the Naples Daily News and The News-Press Southwest Florida Community Advisory Board.