Today’s fights against critical race theory, which argues that America is systemically racist, may seem new, but they’re not. CRT certainly has received a lot of attention lately. But past surveys of parents show that current concerns about teaching America’s heritage were deeply shared in the previous generation.
More than 20 years ago, the nonpartisan organization Public Agenda surveyed 801 parents for their views on civic education. The results were published in 1998 as A Lot to Be Thankful For: What Parents Want Children to Learn about America. Parents then, as now, said they were ready to take action to give their kids a solid civic education.
The survey asked parents how they would react to a teacher who made various controversial statements. If a teacher “taught that America was and still is a fundamentally racist country,” 84 percent said they would be upset or somewhat concerned, and 65 percent of that group said they would be concerned enough to complain to the school.
Similarly, if a teacher “spent all of class time teaching the history and experience of different ethnic groups instead of common American history” (known today as Ethnic Studies), 74 percent said they would be upset or somewhat concerned, and two thirds (68 percent) would be concerned enough to complain.
Additionally, 81 percent of parents “would be at least somewhat concerned if a youngster became very critical of the United States and believed ‘its system of government was unfair and should be replaced.’” Only 18 percent said that it was more important to focus on each student’s ethnic identity than to teach them “to be proud of being a part of this country and to understand their rights and responsibilities.”
These topics are core elements of CRT today.
Compare the Public Agenda survey with a 2021 Heritage Foundation one that asked 1,000 parents, “Some schools are choosing to teach that in America, systems of authority structurally prevent minority students from achieving the American Dream. Do you believe this should be taught?” Times have changed. Just 37 percent said no, and 43 percent said yes.
Nevertheless, today’s parents are similarly active in protecting their kids’ access to civic education. When the parents of 1998 were asked whether learning what it means to be an American happen “naturally as kids grow up,” or “is it something society has to actively teach kids,” 79 percent chose actively teaching kids, with just 17 percent thinking it happens naturally.
Similarly, in the 2021 Heritage survey, more than 79 percent said they were open to spending more time with their children to ensure they receive a civic education, and 61 percent were open to advocating strongly and publicly for civic education.
The surveys also show possible differences in parents’ perception of responsibility for civic education. When asked, “Who should take most of the responsibility for teaching young people what America stands for?” the 1998 respondents chose families over schools by 52 to 42 percent.
The 2021 survey also asked, “Who should primarily be responsible for the content of a civics curriculum”—parents, teachers, schools, civil society, or state or federal government? With this broader set of options and a somewhat different focus, 31 percent chose parents, and 9 percent chose civil society (40 percent total), while 33 percent chose schools and another 12 percent chose teachers (45 percent total).
The questions between 1998 and 2021 were not identical, but it appears that higher proportions of parents today lay more responsibility on schools and teachers than on themselves and their neighbors.
Fortunately, large numbers of parents this year rose to the challenge of advocating for high-quality civic education.
Many of them, particularly those who put the primary burden on parents, have chosen to homeschool their kids or have taken advantage of school choice. Many others, particularly those who focus on schools and teachers, have actively challenged schools and school boards to ensure the civics curriculum unites their community instead of dividing it.
The problem of how to educate well-formed adults and citizens is perennial in the American republic. President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Lyceum address in 1838 focused on how to perpetuate America’s political institutions, especially at times when “mob law” was common.
“This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general,” he said, “all imperatively require us faithfully to perform. How then shall we perform it?”
Mr. Lincoln’s answer was that reverence for the rule of law “be breathed by every American mother … let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges,” as a unifying state of feeling. Parents today tend to share that feeling. They are still disgusted by divisive mobs and ready to fight for the best elements of a free society.
Their task today is much tougher, unfortunately. But for the sake of their children and our nation’s future, let’s hope they never stop fighting.
• Angela Sailor is Vice President of the Feulner Institute at The Heritage Foundation. Adam Kissel is a Senior Fellow at the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.