Dr. Wilfred McClay
G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of
Oklahoma, and the Director of the Center for the History of Liberty
“U.S. History, Civic Literacy, and the Constitution”
Sponsored by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Center for Reflective Citizenship, the College of Health, Education, and Professional Studies, and the Jack Miller Center.
Now is the time to rethink civic education. We neglect an essential element in the formation of our citizens when we fail to supply our young people with a full, accurate, and responsible account of their own country. And that’s something we are consistently failing to do. The evidence of our failure is overwhelming and incontestable. In fact, the most recent test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes called “The Nation’s Report Card,” shows continuing decline in already low history and geography scores, and flatlining in civics scores
But there is something more that needs attending to in the work of civic education. Tracking scores on standardized tests can provide us with useful if limited data about the state of our historical knowledge. But they cannot tell us about the depth and quality of that knowledge, and the extent to which those who possess it feel a genuine and living connection to it—that is, a felt connection to their own past. That felt connection is what we most need to recover and restore. It is as much a task of the heart as it is of the head.
Citizenship is not merely about voting. It is about membership in a society of civic equals: citizens, not subjects, whose respect for one another’s equal standing under the law is a guiding moral premise of the democratic way of life. Civic education is not only about how a bill becomes a law. It is about promoting a vivid and enduring sense of our belonging to one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of our own country. Both things involve fostering that sense of felt connection to our past, and of gratitude for the good things that we have inherited, along with a feeling of responsibility for the tasks of preserving them and improving upon them.
Hence a civic education should be an initiation not only into a canon of ideas, but into a community; and not just a community of the present, but a community of memory, a long human chain linking past, present, and future in shared recognition and, one hopes, in gratitude.
About the speaker: Wilfred M. McClay is the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and the Director of the Center for the History of Liberty. Dr. McClay was SunTrust Chair of the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga from 1999 to 2013, where he co-founded the Center for Reflective Citizenship. His most recent work, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, was published in May 2019 and has received national attention as well as being selected by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute as 2020 Book of the Year. Land of Hope is a compact, inexpensive, authoritative, and compulsively readable book that offers intelligent young Americans a coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Such an account will shape and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit, and by making them understand that land’s roots, will equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in American society, and provide them with a vivid and enduring sense of membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the exciting, perilous, and immensely consequential story of their own country.