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18 April 2022

A Republic Takes Work — The Education Threat to National Security

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Original blog post can be found here: https://www.adamkaraoguz.com/thoughts/a-republic-takes-workthe-education-threat-to-national-security

“A marriage takes work.”  – Unknown 

Cliches have varying levels of fidelity to reality. For anyone married for any length of time, the underlying truth of the above claim is clear. Marriage does indeed take work—it takes active engagement and attention from both individuals in the relationship to keep from growing apart as time progresses. A Republic is no different. It is composed of citizens, institutions, and laws. And just like a marriage, it requires work to keep the relationship vibrant and healthy—work sorely needed to repair some of the damage of the recent domestic political past in the United States. As the founding fathers noted, a healthy republic requires an educated populace, able to think critically about the questions of the day, and to exercise the institution of voting. [1]

What is frayed today in our nation are three critical strands of our educational “rope”—specifically civics, history, and media literacy. A grounding in civics fosters engagement in national issues, a rigorous, reflective back and forth regarding when and where American blood and treasure should and should not be spent. A nuanced understanding of history provides a template by which to understand the present and possible futures. Finally, media literacy is an integral sense-making skill for the networked information age we live in. Taken together, their combination represents a pressing problem with broad downstream impacts on many facets of national life. Throughout human history, internal societal decline has led to the failure of more human groupings than external force. With our favorable geo-political position, powerful economy, and creative, entrepreneurial populace, we stand at a dominant position relative to our adversaries. To continue and reinvigorate our national experiment, we must improve these damaged strands of our rope, or we risk decaying from within.

In this article, I will discuss the history of the decline in civics and history education in our schools, the need for improved media literacy to improve our sense-making capabilities, the dangers of inaction, and offer four recommendations for repairing the rope.

“There is but one method of rendering a republican form of government durable, and that is by disseminating the seeds of virtue and knowledge through every part of the state, by means of proper places and modes of education, and this can be done effectively only by the aid of the legislature.” [2]—Benjamin Rush.

Background/History

Others have written about the dangers posed by lack of civics and media literacy education as a national security issue. Last year in this journal, Ryan Kolb highlighted the dangers of poor civic and media literacy education, recommending an update to our national security strategy to include improvements to our education system. [3] Jack Weinstein makes the case that our societal polarization, driven by social media narratives, is the greatest national security threat of the day. [4]

In the last decade, support for civics education has attracted high-profile, bipartisan support. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently spoke to Politico magazine about the need to reinvigorate civics, making the case that civics is, in fact, a threat to our national security. [5] After Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired from the bench, she founded iCivics, an organization devoted to teaching civics at the K-12 level through games and other modalities. [6] And no less than Justice Sotomayor and Gorsuch recently collaborated on a “Civics as a National Security Imperative” forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. [7] If those two Justices find common cause in an issue, it’s time to take note.

We can define civics as “a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens.” [8] Civic knowledge and skills teaches an understanding of how government works, common ideologies, history, and rights. Civic values and dispositions highlight the importance of respectful discourse, free speech, and engaging differing perspectives on an issue. Finally, civic behavior promotes the exercise of voting, volunteering, attending public meetings, and community engagement. [9]. The reasons for the development of this weakness are complex. Much like a medical condition, several factors have combined in a nonlinear fashion to create the present situation—the politicization of history, budgetary constraints, lack of incentives or policy consensus have all played a part. At present, only nine states mandate a full year of civics education at the high school level. Ten states don’t require it at all. Only eight states have a stand-alone assessment in civics. In a recent survey, 75% of those questioned on a national survey could not name all three branches of government. [10] Civic disengagement itself has been noted since at least 1995, when Robert Putnam wrote his seminal article and later book on “Bowling Alone.” [11] While spending on STEM education curriculum has received a new interest in recent years, civics has been notably absent from additional funding. [12]

History has been a flashpoint for cultural warfare for decades. Today, the 1619 and 1776 project vie to create the predominant narrative framework by which to perceive our past and inform our outlook for the future. The answer should be “yes, and”—every child should understand the tragic history involving the enslavement and exploitation of humans from Africa, the role it played in forming the constitution, and that some authors of the constitution owned slaves. In addition, every child should also learn and celebrate the great things the framers did—the innovation of the system they created, and the many achievements the country and its citizens have accomplished on the long road to perfect our union. When lawmakers revamped the “Common Core” curriculum in 2012, they left civics and history out. This was a purposeful move, as history and civics are traditional avenues for passionate, partisan warfare. [13] But in the push for competitive STEM and English/Language Arts programs, civics and history have been neglected.

With the rise of social media and the loss of traditional editorial oversight, news literacy has assumed greater importance. Memes fly across Facebook and Twitter like artillery rounds in search of a willing host for their information content. In fact, the term “Fifth Generation Warfare” refers to the idea that combatants can be at war without even consciously knowing it. [14] In this war, the individual mind is the battlefield, shaped by the virality of narratives—snippets of pictures, videos, and words. Regarding truth, both state and substate actors seek to promote, distort, discredit, and sow falsehoods within what has become a toxic information space. [15] The business model of both social media and prime-time cable shows are optimized for outrage, as negative emotions spread farther in a networked ecosystem. [16] Attention spans truncate and splinter in a race to the bottom style competition using metrics such as “time on site”, “likes”, and “engagement.” [17]

Media literacy is defined by the National Association for Medial Literacy Education (NAMLE) as the “ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” [18] It is an interdisciplinary field of study and a method of teaching that focuses on the social, political, economic, and cultural aspects of media. Misinformation (Spreading incorrect content unknowingly) and Disinformation (Purposeful poisoning of the information space with false information for a targeted effect) flourishes when we lose the time to reflect and think critically about what we are consuming online—our “Attention Diet.” [19] Both left and right leaning citizens have fallen prey to these twin scourges in the last several years — lack of media illiteracy respects no partisan boundaries regarding conspiracy thinking. [20]

Consequences of Inaction

A Government Accountability Office survey of Department of Defense, State, Homeland Security, and the Intelligence establishment identified 26 pressing national security threats to the homeland. [21] Education reform was not among the threats listed. The closest threat was the danger posed by Information Operations by the big four adversaries—Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Nonetheless, the threat posed by failing to address our inadequate education takes several forms and is directly contributing to the decline of the United States as a global power. Poor civics, history, and media literacy skills lead to a misunderstanding of the processes and structure of government, disengagement from the electoral process itself and falling prey to misinformation or disinformation. Research shows poor schooling in civics leads to poor participation in civic-minded community organizations.

As Ray Dalio writes in The Changing World Order, a strong “Educational Foundation”, “Internal Conflict”, and “Character/Civility/Determination” are 3 of the 19 components he identifies as critical to the success of a nation state. [22] He charts the path of multiple global hegemons over time—when education degrades, so too does a nation’s preeminence on the world stage. Civics, history, and media literacy are integral to properly educating our youth for the complexities of the 21st century, an era of “durable disorder.” [23]

Misunderstanding the law-making process and the organization of government—Design choices such as the separation of constitutional powers, lead to confusion from parts of the electorate. It can manifest in a distorted view of how both elections and the law-making process occur. This, in turn, can create confusion, frustration, and anger in citizens when a given governmental process plays out unexpectedly. A lack of proper groundings in the fundamentals of civics can cause voter disengagement. The United States has some of the lowest voter participation rates in the industrialized world. When citizens don’t learn about the fundamental components of democracy, about not just the rights, but the obligations of good citizens, apathy grows in the electorate. Recent declines in the appreciation for governance by democracy seem to bear this out. [24]

“Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and many dispositions are forever forming associations… at the head of any new undertaking. Where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find as an association.” [25] — Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835.

In the past, civic organizations served as connective tissue in communities—places to gather in common cause to improve a location or problem. As Dr. Putnam noted in Bowling Alone, these informal and formal networks of community organization have withered over the last several decades. Social media and the rise of digital technology have facilitated greater connection in some respects. However, most times, the changed way in which we live has fractured the human to human, neighbor to neighbor associations at the local level. Improving civics education can lead to increased participation in civic organizations and restore some of this lost art of association.

Four Recommendations to Improve Our Position 

“It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.” [26]—Horace Mann

1. Follow the Roadmap. A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by a bipartisan group of former secretaries of education lays out the need to revitalize the topic. [27] They recommend the adoption of the Roadmap for Educating for American Democracy (EAD), a framework for improving both history and civics instructions in K-12 schools. [28] The examples of Florida and Illinois are instructive in this respect. Both states enacted civics legislation years ago, and recent test scores confirm the upward trajectory of civics knowledge and engagement. States and localities should have the flexibility to tailor their curriculum around regional issues, rather than a centralized mandate at the federal level. The roadmap includes the “six proven practices” to help build a better civil society: [29]

1.     Offer courses on civics, government, law, and related topics.

2.     Deliberations of discuss current, controversial issues.

3.     Service-learning.

4.     Student-led voluntary organizations

5.     Student voice in schools

6.     Simulations of adult civic roles.

The writers of the document stress it is not a national standard, but a template for improving civics across the nation. Improved media literacy and social and emotional learning (SEL) at built into the plan as well. Its goals are ambitious—by 2030, the roadmap aims to provide access to civics education to 60 million children, ensure 100,000 schools are “civic ready”, and train one million teachers on the EAD civics plan.

2. Pass the Legislation. The “Civics Secures Democracy Act” is a congressional bill introduced into the senate and house in early 2021 and currently working its way through the legislative process. [30] It is a bipartisan effort, sponsored by Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Chris Coons of Delaware. [31] The bill is not without its detractors and faces intense partisan headwinds in both the house and senate. [32] However, it is a step in the right direction to allocate funding for civics at the state and local levels and improve civics education overall.

3. Work Towards a National Service. Retired US Army General Stanley McChrystal has been leading the effort towards national service for close to a decade. [33] A period of compulsory service for all young Americans would do much to create a common sense of ownership in our republic. Shared experiences across diverse sections of the population for Americans who might never ordinarily meet in such a setting will facilitate the growth of the connective tissue of citizenship in ways currently absent. [34] National Service is civics in action. For adults past whatever future cutoff for national service is, engage at the local level. Go to school board and city council meetings and engage in respectful commentary when needed. Braver Angels is a 501C3 organization dedicated to addressing the political polarization in America, and our inability to speak to one another in a respectful dialogue. As a member, you can host informal local gatherings to bring together members of different political parties to turn down the collective heat of our partisan passion.

4. Continued Adult Learning and Political Participation. The above recommendations deal with educating the next generation of citizens. For the current ones, the new hyper-connected environment we live in requires unique skills than past eras. It is no longer possible to contain education to something done at a university or academy. It must be a lifelong endeavor to keep pace with a dynamically changing world. For adults, the prescription is simple—keep learning. Being a citizen in a Republic takes work—work to understand our collective responsibilities, to think critically about the issues of the day, and to sift the wheat from the proverbial chaff in our toxic media ecosystem. Organizations such as First Draft are working to educate on the dangers of the present media landscape, and the various forms that misinformation and disinformation can take. [35] Learning how our attention has been harvested for both political and commercial gain is the first step in reclaiming it, and the reflective mindfulness we need to be responsible stewards of the nation. [36]

To protect against threats to the nation, it is imperative that we improve education in our shared history. We must educate young Americans with clear eyes about past successes, and where our actions failed to live up to our ideals. History and civics are contentious issues, but that doesn’t mean they warrant continued neglect. Media literacy is an essential human skill for a 21st century citizen. Nothing less than the health and future success of our republic is at stake.

Adam Karaoguz is a Naval Special Warfare Officer. He has led special operations elements at the squad, platoon, and troop level on numerous overseas deployments. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Notes:

[1] James Madison et al., The Federalist Papers (New York: Signet Classics, 1961), 27.

[2] Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, The Republic is (Still) at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution, (Medford, MA: Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, 2017), 19.

[3] Ryan Kort, “The Next National Security Strategy and National Resilience Through Education”, Strategy Bridge, April 15, 2021, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2021/4/15/national-resilience-thru-civics-education.

[4] Jack Weinstein, “POV: America’s Greatest National Security Threat”, Boston University Today, June 3rd, 2021, https://www.bu.edu/articles/2021/pov-americas-greatest-national-security-threat/.

[5] Robert Gates, “How Civics Education Became a National Security Issue”, Politico, September 29, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/29/robert-gates-civics-education-national-security-514730.

[6] Sandra Day O’Connor, ICivics, accessed February 20th, 2022, https://www.icivics.org/our-team/nojs/674361.

[7] “Civics as a National Security Imperative: A Conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil M. Gorsuch”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, accessed February 19th, 2022, https://www.csis.org/events/civics-national-security-imperative-conversation-us-supreme-court-justices-sonia-sotomayor.

[8] “Civics Definition”, accessed February 24th, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/civics.

[9] Rebecca Winthrop, “The need for civic education in 21st-century schools”, Brookings Policy, June 2020, 4.

[10] CivXNow Policy Menu Brief, iCivics, https://civxnow.org/, 2019, accessed February 26th, 2022.

[11] Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (1995), 65-78.

[12] Educating for American Democracy (EAD). 2021. “Educating for American Democracy: Excellence in History and Civics for All Learners.” iCivics, March 2, 2021, www.educatingforamericandemocracy.org, 7.

[13] George, Packer, “Can Civics Save America?” The Atlantic Magazine, May 15th, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/05/civics-education-1619-crt/618894/.

[14] Daniel Abbott, ed., The Handbook of 5GW, (Ann Arbor, MI: Nimble Books, 2010), 10.

[15] P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media, (New York: Mariner Books, 2019), 12-16.

[16] The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, (Malibu, CA: Argent Pictures, 2020. 1 hr., 34 min. Netflix, https://www.thesocialdilemma.com/; Matt Taibbi, Hate, Inc, (New York: OR Books, 2019).

[17] Tristan Harris, Aza Raskin, Yaёl Eisenstat, “With Great Power Comes No Responsibility”, Your Undivided Attention, June 25th, 2019, Podcast https://www.humanetech.com/podcast/3-with-great-power-comes-no-responsibility.

[18] The definition of Media Literacy comes from two sources: “Snapshot 2019: The State of Media Literacy Education in the U.S.”, National Association for Media Literacy Education, https://namle.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/SOML_FINAL.pdf, 2; Singer and Brooking, Likewar, 269-271.

[19] Mark Manson, “The Attention Diet”, accessed March 3rd, 2022, https://markmanson.net/attention-diet

[20] Alfred Moore et al., “Conspiracy Theories aren’t just for conservatives”, Washington Post, August 21, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/21/conspiracy-theories-arent-just-for-conservatives/.

[21] National Security: Long-Range Emerging Threats Facing the United States As Identified by Federal Agencies, December 13th, 2018, accessed February 15th, 2022, https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-19-204sp

[22] Ray Dalio, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021), 506-511.

[23] Sean McFate, The New Rules of War: How America Can Win—Against Russia, China, and Other Threats (New York: William Morrow, 2020), 8-10.

[24] Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect”, Journal of Democracy, Volume 27, Number 3 (2016): 6-8.

[25] Alexis de Tocqueville quote on Americans, https://www.civiced.org/quotations-about-democracy.

[26] Horace Mann, “Report No. 12 of the Massachusetts School Board”, 1848, https://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/democrac/16.htm.

[27] Lamar Alexander et al., “America Needs History and Civics Education to Promote Unity”, Wall Street Journal, March 1st, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/america-needs-history-and-civics-education-to-promote-unity-11614641530.

[28] Educating for American Democracy (EAD). 2021. “Educating for American Democracy: Excellence in History and Civics for All Learners.” iCivics, March 2, 2021. www.educatingforamericandemocracy.org.

[29] Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, The Republic is (Still) at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution, (Medford, MA: Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, 2017), 4.

[30] Coons, “S.879 – 117th Congress (2021-2022). https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/4928.

[31] Steve Inskeep, “Civics Secures Democracy Act Proposes Grants To Support Civics Education”, NPR, April 14th, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/14/987099824/civics-secures-democracy-act-proposes-grants-to-support-civics-education.

[32] Frederick M Hess, “Civics Ed. Is on the Precipice of Becoming Common Core 2.0”, American Enterprise Institute, May 4th, 2021, https://www.aei.org/op-eds/civics-ed-is-on-the-precipice-of-becoming-common-core-2-0/,

and Stanley Kurtz, “The Greatest Education Battle of our Lifetime”, National Review, March 15th, 2021, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/the-greatest-education-battle-of-our-lifetimes/.

[33] Stanley McChrystal and Michael O’Hanlon, “How a Focus on National Service Can Unify Our Divided Country”, Brookings Institute, March 5th, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/03/05/how-a-focus-on-national-service-can-unify-our-divided-country/.

[34] “Reimagining National Service: A Roadmap to a Service Presidency,” Service Year Alliance, April 2021, https://www.serviceyearalliance.org/reimagining_national_service; “Inspired to Serve: The Final Report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service”, National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, March 2020, https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1724233/m2/1/high_res_d/Final_Report.pdf, 4-6.

[35] “First Draft News”, accessed March 5th, 2022, https://firstdraftnews.org/.

[36] Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, (New York: Vintage, 2017), 348-353.

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