Florida civics initiative tells the truth

November 21, 2022

Trent England

I wrote recently about Florida’s new emphasis on civic education in public schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis has led the Sunshine State to put real money behind educating both teachers and students about American government and history. This includes funding earmarked for teacher training and for teachers themselves. Still, some people don’t like it.

MSNBC, Vanity Fair, and the Miami Times all ran stories focused on a handful of teachers who say Florida’s changes will interfere with their ability to teach students that the American Founders believed slavery was good and wanted a strict separation of church and state. In other words, a group of teachers who want to lie to students in order to alienate them from their country.

Ironically, the slavery argument here is similar to one made by Sen. Stephen Douglas after he defeated Abraham Lincoln in Illinois’ U.S. Senate election in 1858 and before Lincoln beat out Douglas for the presidency two years later. Douglas, in support of allowing slavery to continue and expand, argued that the American Founders were just fine with slavery. Lincoln took that argument apart, showing that the Founders intended for slavery to be limited and eventually abolished. (Read Lincoln’s full speech as an example of good historical research and great political rhetoric.)

The claim about separation of church and state is on even flimsier ground. In fact, there is no scholar I am aware of who has ever claimed that the American Founders, as a group, were opposed to religion in public life or believed in anything like a “strict separation” between religion and government or politics. Thomas Jefferson’s famous Act for Establishing Religious Freedom begins by stating “that Almighty God hath created the mind of man free,” and goes on to reference “the Holy Author of our religion, who [is] Lord of body and mind.” (A new book on this question, Religious Liberty and the American Founding, is excellent.)

Were there Americans in the eighteenth century who believed slavery was good and religion bad? Sure. Is it important to teach about the diversity of thought, and even the hypocrisy, of those who came before us? Yes, after laying a foundation of knowledge that allows older students to make sense of it all. History as either hagiography or demonization is dishonest, not to mention boring. The only real heroes are flawed heroes—human beings who rise above their failures to achieve great things for their posterity.

Florida is on the right track. Americans, like all people, have a desire to belong, to have purpose, and to have a future. Knowing our history, and seeing the good in it, gives all of us a sense of belonging, of being a part of something larger than ourselves. It allows us to recognize the bad not as fatal flaws but as failures to be overcome—that we ourselves can overcome. This is what Florida is doing with its new civics initiative. States like Arizona and Tennessee, and hopefully others, are working to do the same. Students, and our entire nation, will benefit.