Tom Campbell: Can we teach civics without partisan politics?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 25, 2024

By Tom Campbell

“It is difficult to look at the state of American civic life right now and conclude higher education is doing all we can to prepare our graduates for our democratic republic,” UNC President Peter Hans said at a January meeting of the UNC Board of Governors. His remarks were likely prompted, in part, by proposed legislation from last year’s General Assembly.

The House passed the REACH Act (“Reclaiming College Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage.”) The Republican caucus’ belief was that college instructors were teaching history/civics by putting their personal political/philosophical (woke) slant on subject matter. The irony was their bill did exactly the same thing — ensuring that their slant was taught. It immediately drew criticism by many faculty members who saw it as a genuine threat to academic freedom and was never considered by the Senate.

A committee, consisting of UNC system leaders and faculty, was formed to put forth a more acceptable version. Wade Maki, a professor at UNC-G led the effort. “What’s really important for the public to know is that, you know, faculty did not object to learning civics. We love the idea of students having a college-level civics experience, right? There’s no disagreement on that. There is, sort of, a lot of concern about the process we use.”

Their new proposal, considered by the board of governors, is to create a requirement for graduation from UNC colleges that includes coursework on the following documents: The U.S. Constitution; The Declaration of Independence; a representative selection of writings by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison’s Federalist Papers; President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

But the issue prompts a larger discussion over public education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or “nation’s report card,” reported that just 13 percent of our eighth graders were proficient in U.S. history and only 22 percent were considered proficient in civics, declining 5-points since 2018. Knowledge about the American political system, principles of democracy and our participation in government declined by 2 points, the first decline ever recorded. 

“These are two critically important subject areas, not just for the success of students individually in the future, but for our success collectively as a society,” stated Patrick Kelly, a 12th grade government teacher who led the NAEP governing board. 

The Fordham Institute gave North Carolina a D- for its civics standards and an F for its U.S. history standards. The conservative think tank said current standards were inadequate and should be re-written, which opened discussions over Critical Race Theory and how racism should be taught. 

I remember the debate how North Carolina could do better. One big stumbling block was that there were already so many subjects or credits required for high school graduation that it was difficult to add more to the traditional four years of high school. Choices needed to be made. Sadly, social studies were sacrificed.

Our state board of education developed new standards for how high school students would be instructed on social studies. It eliminated the requirement for a separate course in civics and some traditional history courses, inserting new criteria for graduation. 

To graduate from high school a student is required to have four credits in social studies. Students can choose from among a cafeteria-like list of options, including:

 1. A founding principles course which shall be either:

• American History: Founding Principles, Civics and Economics 

• Founding Principles of the United States of America and North Carolina: Civic Literacy

2. An American history course which shall be either:

• American History I

• American History II

• American History

• World History

• Economics and Personal Finance  

(Option 5 was added because of evidence that high school graduates didn’t know how to responsibly manage money or credit.)

The bottom line is that North Carolina high schools are graduating young people who arguably can read and do math, but don’t have basic understandings of our state and country’s systems for government or their role as citizens in them. 

Consistent evidence shows our state ranks lower in test scores than many other states and well below other countries in providing the education our young people need to lead productive lives in the 21st century. 

But instead of sacrificing instruction, perhaps it is time we begin asking more basic questions. 

Maybe we can’t cram any more into a student’s day/year as currently structured. Why not expand the number of hours in the school day? Or perhaps we should examine the possibility of lengthening the school year beyond the traditional 180 days. There’s nothing magic about 180. Originally, the school year was something like four months; young people were needed to harvest the crops. That’s no longer true.

Can we at least have an honest conversation these ideas?

Then, we can discuss whether or not history and civics can be taught without partisan politics.

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.  Contact him at