Making Americans

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[Editor's note: This evening, the Manhattan Institute and the Gilder Lehrman Institute will sponsor a conference titled "Making Americans: Civic Education and the Common Core." Readers can watch the conference via livestream from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at this link.]

Next week marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most eloquent speech in American history and a key document for understanding the nation's founding republican and democratic principles.

Sadly, a new study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows that 83 percent of recent college graduates cannot identify the Gettysburg Address as the source of the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Another recent survey, conducted by the organization Common Core, found that 57 percent of the nation's 17-year-olds weren't able to place the Civil War within the correct 50-year time period.

These are tragic statistics. The nation's founders understood that schools must instill the civic virtues and knowledge that were necessary to continue our experiment in democracy. As Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush declared at the time, the schools must create "republican machines." We believe that the current woeful state of civic education and students' knowledge of U.S. history not only undermines national unity, but also the proper functioning of the democratic process.

Fortunately, there are several efforts afoot to reverse the national decline in civic knowledge. One hopeful development is the new Common Core State Standards that are being voluntarily adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. To be clear, the standards focus solely on math and English. However, the English standards call for students to analyze and understand the arguments in "seminal U.S. texts" including the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. We need to make sure that American schools begin taking this admonition seriously.

Tonight, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History are cosponsoring a forum that will examine how the Common Core can be implemented in a way that celebrates the country's foundational documents and enables students to better understand and appreciate their heritage. For 20 years, the Gilder Lehrman Institute has been working toward these goals. Recently, the institute developed an excellent Common Core-aligned curriculum, "Teaching Literacy Through History," that is now helping to improve students' knowledge of U.S. history in classrooms across America.

The forum will also discuss work being done by other organizations, including the Democracy Prep and UNO charter-school networks, which both promote citizenship and civic engagement; and the non-profits Common Core and the College Board, which are working to make sure the new standards are implemented in a way that begins to reverse the dismal statistics cited above. By helping us to recover our national past, these organizations are ensuring that America's spirit and ideals will live on well into the future -- and that our nation will remain, as Lincoln said, the "last best hope" for all mankind.

This event will fittingly and purposefully take place on Veterans Day. The Manhattan Institute and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History hope you can join us for a discussion of how to improve students' knowledge of American history -- and the sacrifices that have been made on the nation's behalf.

Sol Stern is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and contributing editor to City Journal. Charles Sahm is the deputy director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership.

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