Grantmaking options to support history and civics education

Jan 7, 2020

Exploring how to better bolster our shared allegiance to America and its principles.

“Civic education is central to the perpetual renewal of American self-understanding,” according to E Pluribus Unum, the report of The Bradley Project on America’s National Identity, in 2008. “It promotes national identity and national unity by describing American democratic institutions, enumerating the obligations of citizenship, analyzing our founding documents, and reminding Americans not only of their rights but also of their responsibilities—to be informed, to vote, to serve on juries, to participate in voluntary associations.” As The Bradley Project noted, “our shared allegiance to America and its principles is the foundation of civic education.”

“Civics education has been a problem forever, or so it seems,” however, respected education-reform expert and activist Checker Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Fordham Institute correctly writes in a December post. “[I]f that problem feels more urgent today, it’s because so many are dismayed by the erosion of civility and good citizenship in today’s America, as well as mounting evidence that younger generations are both woefully ignorant in this realm … and losing faith in democracy itself.”

Later in December, U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., focused on civics education in his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, similarly saying “we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside.”

“We’ve seen one initiative after another to try to solve the problem,” Finn laments. “Yet for umpteen reasons, the problem remains unsolved.” (Link in original).

Finn nicely lauds the “heroic effort” of The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation’s new president, Rajiv Vinnakota, to comprehensively “survey this sprawling field and try to make sense both of what’s underway today and how it might be done better tomorrow” in December’s From a Civic Education to a Civic Learning System: A Landscape Analysis and the Case for Collaboration.

The ongoing project, of which the report is a part, is supported by the William & Flora Hewlett and Charles Koch Foundations. It offers general and specific advice, calls for increased collaboration among funders, and issues “an invitation to understand the problem and to bring people together.”

For those in philanthropy interested in promoting and pursuing history and civics education, the Woodrow Wilson report is well worth the read—perhaps in conjunction with or in addition to this from the Education Week’s Research Center and this from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center in 2018, maybe along with this from Fordham Institute vice president Robert Pondiscio and this Encounter Book from historian and Bradley Project contributor Wilfred McClay last year, among other things.

For those givers willing and able to also explore actual new or continued history- and civics-education support, “there’s no ringmaster for the civics circus and the zillion organizations active in the field have their own projects, strategies, and interests to sustain and defend,” Finn realistically notes in his sober assessment.

Some of those groups and activities are briefly overviewed in this one-page Giving Review document, “Selected K-12 History- and Civics-Education Organizations and Projects.” It is partial, we fully realize, and will be revised periodically. We think the grantmaking options on it are worth considering.


Update: This article and the document were updated on April 13, 2020.