Teaching Kids What It Means To Be An American

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, where he is working on a project to strengthen American identity through public education. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy, and a Shanker Institute board member.

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, many of us shared our gratitude for the results of the recent election, setting aside partisan considerations, because the outcome provided strong evidence that large numbers of American voters care deeply about the health of our democracy.

While the pundits warned that people were focused only on economic issues (which are important, to be sure), it turned out that “preserving democracy” was a salient theme for many Americans as well.

Candidates who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election – a falsehood that was used by rioters on January 6 to try to disrupt the peaceful transition of power – lost in large numbers. The defeats by election deniers were particularly notable in high-profile elections in the Great Lakes states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

According to a sophisticated analysis of close congressional elections, the American Enterprise Institute’s Philip Wallach found that those Republicans endorsed by the perpetrator of the Big Lie about the 2020 election, Donald Trump, performed 5 points lower than the expected baseline while Republicans not endorsed by Trump performed 2 points better than the baseline. Significantly, most of the election deniers who lost in 2022 conceded defeat. Even they seemed to recognize that perpetuating lies about election results is not good politics.

While there is much to be thankful for, threats to our democracy remain worrisome. In some cases – such as Ohio – Senate candidates who falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen nevertheless prevailed in the recent election. And Trump, the most authoritarian major presidential candidate and since George Wallace, has announced that he is running again for the presidency in 2024. In the opening weeks of his candidacy, he has already dined with anti-Semites and white supremacists, and dangled the possibility of suspending the U.S. Constitution.

Even before the rise of Trump, the belief of young Americans in our democratic system of governance was in decline. Between 1995 and 2011, the proportion of young Americans who viewed democracy as a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country increased by 50% (from 16% to 24%).

Illiberalism today is mostly a problem on the right. One remarkable 2022 poll found that 57% of Republicans described the January 6 violent assault on the Capital more as “an act of patriotism” than “an insurrection.” But on left, as well, we see troubling developments, as many young people support shouting down speakers with whom they disagree and employ insidious social pressure to chill legitimate debate.

What is to be done? The late American Federation of Teachers president, Albert Shanker, reminded us that liberal democratic values cannot be taken for granted, and must be taught each and every generation in our public schools. As I noted in my book, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy, Shanker believed the fundamental purpose of public education was to “teach kids what it means to be an American,” by which he meant “a common set of values and beliefs” embodied in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.

Teaching children what it means to be an American had a dual purpose for Shanker: to instill a love and respect for liberal democratic values; and to forge social cohesion among a people who come from every corner of the planet.

So what precisely does it mean to be an American? And how does one go about teaching it? I recently joined the Progressive Policy Institute as a senior fellow to develop a program around these very questions. As part of the project, I hope to interview a series of thought leaders and educators to find out what being American means to them; and what they believe are the best strategies for teaching American identity. (If you have thoughts you want to share, please email them to me at [email protected].)

The project plans to build upon some of the valuable thinking of a number of groups who have been laying the groundwork for years. To begin with, almost twenty years ago, the Albert Shanker Institute’s Education for Democracy outlined an important strategy for teaching civics education, endorsed by an array of liberal and conservative leaders. The manifesto rejected the notion that civics education should expose children to a number of different forms of government – from autocracy to aristocracy to liberal democracy – and then let them figure out which system works best. Instead, the Shanker Institute blueprint said that children should be taught “that democracy is the worthiest form of human governance ever conceived.

The architects of the Education for Democracy plan said students should be taught about what life is like in Communist societies and right wing dictatorships. Students should be taught that there is a reason that when people risk their lives to leave their countries they invariably seek out liberal democratic societies such as the United States, rather than places that fail to properly respect rights, such as China, Russia, or Venezuela.

The Progressive Policy institute’s project will also tap into the wisdom of former D.C. Schools Superintendent Clifford Janey, whom I met serving on the Albert Shanker Institute board. In 2016, Cliff and I wrote a report, Putting Democracy Back into Public Education, that emphasized that the textbook teachings about civics and what it means to be an American must be reinforced by the “implicit curriculum” – what students observe around them every day in school.

For example, one key principle undergirding modern American democracy is that we all are deserving of an equal vote no matter our race or class. Racially and economically integrated schools underline the democratic message of equality, while segregated schools can teach the opposite: that some citizens are more deserving than others. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter for a Birmingham Jail, “segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

Another inspiration for the American Identity Project will be the thinking of the newly elected governor of Maryland, Wes Moore. Moore, who will be the first Black governor in the state’s history, is an Army veteran who wants to create a new state-wide program to offer high school graduates the chance to participate in a year of service. Wealthy students often take a “gap year” before college, Moore notes, in order to help them transition to adulthood. A state-funded service year opportunity would open up that chance for students of all economic backgrounds.

Moore said that in the Army, “we were all under a common bond, and it didn’t matter whether or not we went to college, or voted as Democrats or Republicans, we had a shared mission. We had a common purpose.”

As we search for ways to build social cohesion in a fractured society, and teach young people the fundamental values in a liberal democracy, these are the kinds of ideas that we can be thankful for – and also give a measure of hope for sustaining the world’s oldest liberal democracy in decades to come.

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