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The American Historical Association and Civics Education

The American Historical Association is propagandizing to save the Teaching American History (TAH) Grant Program and Civic Education funding from the 2011 axe of the House of Representatives. As their e-mail to members puts it:

To help our nation’s schools meet their civic mission to help students understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens, Congress should retain the Teaching American History Grants program and maintain federal funding support for civic education, while making the civics grants competitive. The civic education grants should go to non-profits with a demonstrated ability to deliver civic education programs, emphasis should be on programs serving currently under-served student populations.

That mention of “under-served student populations” is a nice, pandering touch. One might think that a program like TAH, which funds training for elementary and secondary school teachers, might not be of much interest to the AHA, which focuses almost exclusively on history at the college and university level. But since TAH requires grantees to work in partnership with colleges and universities and — mirabile dictu – “nonprofit history or humanities organizations” like the AHA itself, it does have some skin in the game.

But what does the AHA say about civics education when it’s not thinking about the money? Well, last month, Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA, addressed just this subject in a short essay on “Citizenship, History, and Public Culture.” According to him:

humanists in general have been too inclined to let appealing theoretical arguments overshadow the voices of the men and women whose lives we study. In this age of global culture and transnational historical analysis, our scholarship has perhaps been too quick to dismiss the meaning of citizenship to the millions of Americans who over the years have valued not only its material benefits, but its meaning.

Furthermore:

As of September 2010, approximately one-half million people had been naturalized as American citizens in this calendar year. It is not unreasonable to guess that most of these individuals prepared for the test by reading the materials provided by [the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.] Even those of us who have written textbooks, popular biographies, or reference books that look good on a coffee table, have not seen these kinds of numbers. Here is a set of historical publications that reaches 500,000 people in a single year. And few of us have ever even heard of it.

No one supports civics education and learning about American history more than I do. But it is one thing to support these things, and – as my colleague Matt Spalding has pointed out — quite another to advocate federal funding as the best way to advance them.

As Matt puts it, “It is interesting to note that the civic knowledge of young Americans has decreased as federal involvement in education has markedly increased. In fact, one might almost say that civic knowledge appears to have declined in direct proportion to the increase in federal dollars spent on it.”

Perhaps that is because the money flows at least partly at the behest of organizations like the AHA, whose leading officers openly admit that the scholars it represents have dismissed the value of citizenship and have no interest in the processes by which this country awards it. One might therefore conclude that they are not fit recipients of public funds intended to promote the knowledge of civics.



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