Can a return to teaching history and civics in schools help reinforce American democracy? Could it help restore trust in government, the law, and the media?

A new report, the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative, answers both questions with an emphatic yes.

The EAD, and an accompanying “road map” was prepared by a diverse group of academics, academics, historians, teachers, school administrators and state education leaders — more than 300 in all — who advocate more and better teaching of social studies, history and civics in grades K-12.

“The partnership’s diagnosis is urgent and unsparing,” reports the Washington Post.

“Civics and history education has eroded in the U.S. over the past fifty years, and opportunities to learn these subjects are inequitably distributed,” the EAD report says:

Dangerously low proportions of the public understand and trust our democratic institutions. Majorities are functionally illiterate on our constitutional principles and forms.

“The relative neglect of civic education in the past half-century—a period of wrenching change—is one important cause of our civic and political dysfunction.” 

A commentary/opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Monday declares that the United States — “the world’s oldest constitutional democracy” — “is in grave danger.”

Signed by six former U.S. education secretaries, the WSJ article says:

“Right now, we collectively spend about 1,000 times more per student on science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM] education than we do on history and civics. Where civics education is taught, it is often hampered by a lack of consensus about what to teach and how.”

Providing such a consensus is the avowed purpose of the EAD and its road map.

“The report calls for an inquiry-based approach that would focus less on memorizing dates of wars and names of presidents and more on exploring in depth the questions and developments, good and bad, that have created the America we live in today,” the Post says.

In a PBS interview, Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor and principal investigator for the EAD project, said:

“To give you an example, if you look at state standards now, very often, what you will see is a list of names and dates, so the Boston Tea Party and Shays’ Rebellion, three branches of power, for example, or three branches of government.

“And we’re suggesting, instead, we want to ask questions,” Allen said. “So, when you’re thinking about the American Revolution, what were the perspectives that the colonists, that indigenous Americans, that free African Americans and enslaved African Americans had on the British government?”

To succeed, the EAD needs a “buy-in from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, territories and tribal nations,” the Post says, but getting that “won’t be simple” — because of the nature of the topics to be taught.

“Unlike with math and science, there is no nationally agreed upon set of standards for teaching social studies. Each state issues social studies guidelines for school districts to follow, and these requirements vary widely.”

“The road map has a good possibility of moving us in the right direction,” Stefanie Wager, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, told the Post. “But if every state does something very different with it in terms of implementation, then it loses its magic. The devil, I think, is in the details of how it is implemented.”

The report was being released Tuesday afternoon at a National Forum sponsored by EAD.