What should citizens learn about America?

What should citizens learn about America?

Fair-minded civics curricula teach that America’s founding principles were exceptional for their time and have outlasted and extinguished slavery , racism , and other violations of our natural rights. 

That lesson is all the more important considering a 2022 poll showing a record-low level of civics education , the understanding of one’s government and civics structure, among the public.


But instead of recommitting to restoring civics in the classroom, so-called “experts” have hurried to condemn Hillsdale College’s civics curriculum as an attempt to whitewash American history for partisan purposes. The most recent attack accuses our curriculum of downplaying America’s points of shame: a “red [MAGA] hat in textbook form,” as “expert” Adam Laats puts it.

We take legitimate and thoughtful critiques seriously and have continued to revise and improve our curriculum in response to such comments. But the recent politicized accusations are baseless and entirely speculative. Laats, for instance, conflates Hillsdale with other institutions to build the accusation that Hillsdale’s K-12 efforts are aimed at selling textbooks to schoolchildren. But Hillsdale doesn’t sell textbooks — we don’t even publish a textbook — and never, under any circumstances, does it profit from the resources it provides to charter schools. You know education is in bad shape when academics such as Laats cannot distinguish between a civics curriculum and a civics textbook.

It is impossible to read our 1776 Curriculum, free and available online for any to inspect and the product of 30 years of research by Hillsdale’s faculty and K-12 educators nationwide, and take cheap shots to say it whitewashes or rewrites our historical inheritance. It does not ignore points of shame in our history — as befits the age range, grade, and scope of the curriculum. It does not claim to be the “last word” or promote a partisan understanding. It presents facts and arguments. Contrary to the empty shrieks of our critics, it does not teach that the United States is perfect or was founded by godlike men. (We don’t believe that ourselves!)

Neither does the curriculum force history through the myopic lens of race, class, or gender in the way our critics prefer because doing so distorts history and does not improve our country. Such a radical approach does no better than the histories it claims to correct. The emphasis on race, class, and gender in history and civics merely teaches children to dismantle their country along racial, economic, and sexual lines rather than improve it.

As the poll above suggests, a nation that does so will not be a nation for long.

Our curriculum merely argues that Americans should learn about America and should do so using accurate scholarship combined with tried-and-true pedagogy. Hillsdale schools uphold a high standard of civic education and consistently outperform other schools. A review of our civics program conducted by the National Association of Scholars calls it “the gold standard” and “a true and thoughtful introduction to our civic past.”

We use meticulously curated primary sources to teach students about their country because, as any good historian knows, the best way to engage with the past is to go straight to the source material. The primary source documents of our history make clear that, though America is not a perfect country, it is an exceptionally good one.

Slavery certainly was a point of deep shame in our history. We accordingly address it more than 3,300 times in our curriculum. Everything our critics condemn us for omitting, from the Great Migration to America’s relations with Native Americans, we teach in our curriculum. But we also teach that the degree of freedom, justice, and security available to Americans and those who come here is unprecedented in the annals of human history.


We aim to educate students to be good citizens who understand the facts and debates in America’s civic life. Whatever side they take in these debates, we hope they’ll do so with an eye toward the good of our nation as a whole. Our curriculum accordingly teaches that personal virtue, civic patriotism, respect for the rule of law, and free speech are necessary to securing the general welfare. It teaches that government exists to secure natural rights, and people ought to govern themselves while respecting the rights of others.

It is noteworthy, and regrettable, that our critics (and most reporters) never ask these parents and teachers why there is such a high demand for this kind of education. If they did, they would learn what is in demand today: an education that offers the facts, arguments, and capacity to honor and preserve what is good in their country while condemning and correcting its flaws for the good of their fellow Americans.

Matthew Spalding is vice president of Hillsdale College’s Washington Operations and Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government.