n Texas, September 16 marked the start of the statewide initiative “Celebrate Freedom Week.” Since 2001, legislators have required social studies teachers to dedicate this week’s instruction to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and its Bill of Rights. Each year, under teacher guidance, students recite that lengthy, legendary sentence about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Look at the law, and you’ll find this week also requires teaching how our unalienable rights relate to “the rich diversity of our people as a nation of immigrants.” You wouldn’t know it from the Texas Education Agency’s guidance for the week, which makes no mention of this requirement. If our state wants to get civic education right, that phrase should be front and center.
Last year, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life published an index on Texas’ civic health. Young people, aged 18-24, ranked lowest in volunteer involvement, as well as in voter registration and turnout. In its first recommendation, the institute emphasized “a collective responsibility to modernize the way we prepare the next generation.”
Part of that modernization means recognizing that our future leaders are increasingly diverse. As of 2018, more than two-thirds of young Texans are not white. Our state is part of a national demographic shift– one which experts recommend should be reflected in curricula. From major think tanks to Ivy League institutions, more researchers and practitioners are calling for culturally inclusive approaches to education. Our team believes these should extend to civic education, too.
What does this look like? Watch and learn from Harvard professor Danielle Allen. Dr. Allen – a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant – specializes in reframing civic education, particularly to address the dissonance a more diverse youth population might be experiencing. Young people may feel disillusioned with this country’s actual foundation versus the principles it espouses – as in, “wasn’t the Declaration of Independence’s author, Thomas Jefferson, a white slave-owner?”
First of all, Dr. Allen explains, the document was written by a committee, and one of its main architects, John Adams, never owned slaves. In fact, says Dr. Allen, “The very first people to make use of the Declaration of Independence for political advocacy were abolitionists.” Just five months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Prince Hall, a free Black man, submitted a petition for emancipation in Massachusetts. Within a few years, slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
Dr. Allen’s explanation validates student concerns, at the same time demonstrating how, from the very beginning, people of color have fought to be included in the values the Declaration of Independence expresses. We continue that effort today to help America live up to its promise. When we trust students to understand this complexity, we invite them to find more meaning in their roles as community members. Dr. Allen reflects: “It’s our job to bring that correction to the good ideas that the founders did put on the table – even as they made mistakes.”
If we truly want more involvement from young, diverse Texans, we must connect with them in ways that are meaningful to their lives. This means bringing the present into honest, active conversation with more than 240 years of the past. Let’s celebrate freedom this week, and the right for all students to see themselves reflected in their country’s history, and its future.
This post was researched and written by Youth Civic Education & Engagement Intern Irene Gómez.