Americans’ lack of historical knowledge is crippling the nation, says Timothy Goeglein, a senior official with the Christian group Focus on the Family.
In his new book “Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story,” Goeglein discusses a survey conducted among public high school students that revealed that only 3% could pass a U.S. citizenship test. Those students surveyed are adults today, Goeglein explains, adding, this means many Americans today “are woefully ignorant of not only our history and culture, but our system of government.”
Goeglein, who formerly served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush, tracks the lack of knowledge of American history back to the late radical historian Howard Zinn’s influence on American history curriculums. Zinn’s “goal was not to teach facts, but opinions,” he says.
Goeglein joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss why teaching American history is so closely linked to the formation of a flourishing society, and what can be done to restore accuracy and integrity to history classrooms across the country.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: It is my pleasure today to welcome to the show Vice President of External and Government Relations for Focus on the Family and author Timothy Goeglein to discuss his latest book “Toward a More Perfect Union.” Mr. Goeglein also formerly served as a special assistant to Vice President George W. Bush. Thank you so much for being here today.
Tim Goeglein: Virginia, it’s a real pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
Allen: Now, your latest book is “Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story.” And my goodness, what an appropriate time to be talking about this. Education is a hot-button issue right now and it’s one that has to be addressed. Why did you personally decide that you wanted to enter the conversation on this subject and write a book specifically talking about our American story and the need to teach that in the classroom?
Goeglein: Well, I love that question, and here’s a very brief answer. There are two reasons. The first is, as one of the vice presidents at Focus on the Family, I travel about a third of the time. And over the course of the last two years, literally everywhere I have gone, east to west, north to south, I meet hundreds of people who say, “I have never been more concerned about my country than I am now.”
Secondly, if they have children or grandchildren, they will say, “I’m particularly concerned about the state and fate of our country and culture.” And the third thing they say is, “What can I do? What is the problem, but what can I do?”
So I decided to jump into an endless amount of research and to find out, what is the seedbed of our historic illiteracy? Where is the seedbed of the cultural problem in America?
And I shared in the book a story that I first learned from the historian David McCullough a number of years ago when I was working in the White House. And he shared with me that he had insomnia, genuine insomnia, because he was so concerned about the rising generation of young Americans who overwhelmingly were superb people but they knew nothing about our founding and our history. And he didn’t want to indict anybody, but he said, “What are we going to do?”
So, “Toward a More Perfect Union,” which is this new book, my third book, is my way of adding to the conversation and offering a tool in the toolbox for people who want to address not only our historic insomnia, but to actually do something about it. And that’s the purpose of “Toward a More Perfect Union.”
Allen: Well, I was so fascinated in the book that you do address how we got to this place and the fact that this isn’t really a new problem, that schools have been failing to teach history well for a long time. And we’ve actually been seeing revisionist history in academia for a very long time. Correct?
Goeglein: We have indeed. And in fact, Virginia, I document in “Toward a More Perfect Union” this breakdown in history and civic education. And I tie it directly to many of the ills that we face as a nation, incivility, bad leaders, cultural decay, cancel culture.
I actually quote former President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower. He said, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” And I thought, “Wow, that has never been more timely or topical or relevant.”
And so to your point, Virginia, it’s my sense, and I write about this in the book, that we have forgotten our principles while exalting our privileges. But it seems to me that without principles to serve as a foundation, that we will eventually lose our privileges. And that is what we are seeing playing out in our culture every single day and it’s why I wrote “Toward a More Perfect Union.”
It’s not a book that says, “Here are all the problems.” It’s a book, as you know from reading it, that offers many of the problems, but it addresses those with solutions or ways to actually address the challenges that we are living through and seeing.
Allen: Which we so need. I think it’s very easy to focus on the problem and just get very discouraged and stop there. But I love that you are presenting solutions, which we’re going to talk about in just a moment. But I would be curious to hear from you, from the research that you have done for the book, from your own personal experience, what is the view that most high schoolers, most college students have of America and have of our history right now?
Goeglein: Well, let me just start out by saying that if there are two overused words in our great country, it might be shocking and stunned, those two words. But the more that I got into the empirical data, I was shocked and stunned, and I could use a lot of examples. I do cite many of them in “Toward a More Perfect Union,” but just for our wonderful conversation, let me share some startling statistics.
There was a survey done of public high school students, which was drawn from the U.S. citizenship test that all immigrants must take before they become legal citizens. And remember, this is public high school students in the United States. Are you ready for this?
Allen: I’m ready.
Goeglein: OK. Only 1 in 4 could name George Washington as the first president of the United States. Barely 10% knew that there are nine justices on the United States Supreme Court. Less than 30% knew that the president heads the executive branch of our government. And only 3%, Virginia, were able to answer 6 out of the 10 questions, which is the passing score for the U.S. citizenship test.
So I think in summation, it’s fair to say that these students would now be in their early to mid-30s casting votes, rallying, running and holding political offices. And I say this even as a limitless optimist, but they are woefully ignorant of not only our history and culture, but our system of government.
And I’d like to say that there are particular large, empirical data sets where you say, “My gosh, that’s a dramatic improvement,” or, “That’s a incremental improvement,” but it’s not. And when you summarize these important national studies, you find in the main that only about half are able to earn what you and I would say is a passing grade in U.S. history and civics on the most basic questions.
Allen: So what’s the result of that, then, in society and in culture when you have individuals that are graduating that can’t pass a U.S. citizenship test?
Goeglein: I think that we have to say that cancel culture, erasure culture, wokeism has had a devastating impact on our country. And we have to agree, ultimately, with our Founders who believe very strongly that if you want to have a constitutional republic that is robust in freedom and liberty, that you have to pay a lot of attention to virtue, you have to pay a lot of attention to character, and you have to form citizens who can bear the weight of a free society.
And I think that the result of cancel culture is now measurable. And I think we have to realize that some of the most important, objectively the most important, figures in American history have been canceled. And what is the net result of a large portion of the next generation of citizens and leaders who are living in areas where George Washington has been erased, Thomas Jefferson’s been erased, Abraham Lincoln’s been erased?
And it’s not just American figures, by the way. “Toward a More Perfect Union,” which, by the way, the title of my book is taken from the preamble to the Constitution. Figures like Winston Churchill have really been frontally assaulted in this regard. So I think these are a very concerning dataset, and they have real implications for the future of our country.
Allen: We’re talking with Timothy Goeglein, author of “Toward a More Perfect Union.” And I was interested that you write in the book about Howard Zinn and how we can really look back and point back to him as some of the root of really how we’ve gotten to where we are today and why American history is being, in many ways, rewritten, this arisal of wokeism and cancel culture. Why is Howard Zinn’s influence over America so lasting?
Goeglein: Virginia, I devote in “Toward a More Perfect Union” an entire chapter to Howard Zinn. He is essentially the architect of much of this information, and he wrote and published—and it was very widely used.
His textbook on American history has gone through dozens of printings. And the malevolence of his so-called history has had a withering and terrible effect on generations of Americans, by the way, not only in public schools, but in private and parochial schools. And I thought it was very important that people became much more aware of Howard Zinn, his books, and the terrible impact that he has had.
And I document this in the book. His goal was not to teach facts but opinions. And he wanted, he said, “to transform American history.” And his goal, of course, was to denounce Western civilization and to convince students to reject it. And by the way, he said and wrote that it was marred by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy of money.
This passes as history, and it’s easy for all of us just to discount someone like this and to say, “Well, of course that’s not something or someone that we would embrace.” But in fact, Howard Zinn is the most widely embraced historian of American history being taught in our schools. And I thought it was very important, among other things, that we became much better and much more familiar with him and with his history.
He states that, “America became involved in World War II,” for instance, and by the way, I’m quoting him, “to protect the imperial interests of the United States.” Virginia, his version of history is now the dominant one being taught in our education system. And I think it’s very important that we’re manifestly aware of the malevolence of his so-called history of America.
Allen: You write in “Toward a More Perfect Union” that in order to solve this problem, it’s going to require a proactive approach rather than a reactive one. What exactly do you mean by that?
Goeglein: Well, I think, if I may say, Virginia, that this is the most important tool in our toolbox when it comes to the way forward. We must stand up to this lack of teaching and propaganda if we are going to preserve America. I actually believe the stakes are that high.
The writer Bari Weiss I quote because I think what she says is so important. She says, “Keeping the spirit of liberty alive in an age of creeping illiberalism is nothing less than our moral obligation.” And she says, “Everything depends on it.” And I couldn’t agree more.
I think we have to ask ourselves, what do we want? And I hope that “Toward a More Perfect Union,” this book, I hope that we have helped to plant a seed. I think what we want is we want an informed citizenry that is equipped with the right facts. If I had to summarize the goal of the book, I think that’s what it is.
I’m a Reaganite. I really admire and loved Ronald Reagan, and he sounded the alarm when all of this was really beginning to take place when he wrote that an informed patriotism is what we want. I think that’s right, that we’ve got to do a better job of getting across that the United States of America, this extraordinary country, is freedom. It’s freedom of speech. It’s freedom of religion. It’s freedom of enterprise.
Our great Constitution, the centerpiece of our country, has been, as we have shown in the book and as we’ve shown in this conversation, really put in the backseat. Freedom is very special, and it’s very rare. And as Reagan said, it’s fragile. It actually needs protection.
And I think the president was right, that if we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. And he was warning us of what he called an eradication of the American memory that could result in the erosion of the American spirit. And it seems to me that is precisely what the stakes are in this entire national debate and conversation that we are having.
And so, Virginia, it seems to me that we ought to do the old-fashioned thing. We ought to start with the facts. Our second president, John Adams, said, “Facts are stubborn things.” I love that. I think that that’s where we’re at.
Allen: Well, I love that you mentioned Bari Weiss because she is one of the many voices that you mentioned in the book that’s really speaking out on this issue. And we’ve seen such a wide array of individuals in very different spheres, from the academic to the journalists to authors, who are all really putting out warning signals and saying, “We need to wake up, see what is happening in our education system.” Do you think that we’re approaching a tipping point where finally Americans will wake up and we’ll see a swing, a solid swing, back to teaching American principles, the Constitution, and American founding correctly?
Goeglein: I am an inveterate optimist, and it seems to me that the best days for our great country are ahead of us. And I think that we are definitively at a hinge point of American history because the ultimate goal of cancel culture and the items such as the 1619 Project, which I write about at length in the book, their goal is to destroy America’s foundations through ignorance and disinformation and to essentially create an entirely different nation that no longer embodies the principles of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. And so I fully and totally agree that we are at a hinge point.
And great countries, great nations, have to decide. And I think we are now engaged in that decision process. Many of the institutions that served us so well and that were so reliable for so long have become as confetti. And I think that we have to admit that we need strong institutions, that the institutions matter, that the Constitution is central, foundational, that the words are fixed, have a fixed meaning. And so I think we have to go tell a new generation the great American story.
And as I say in the subtitle of this book, it’s not just a cultural question. That’s absolutely the case, but it is also a moral question. Freedom is worth defending. And so, yes, I think we are definitively at a chapter of American history that is calling upon our better selves, and we have a lot of work to do.
Allen: Briefly before we let you go, what would be your advice to teachers listening or parents listening who are thinking, “I want to be a part of the solution, I want to teach my kids—whether they’re my own children or the children that I’m teaching—American history truth, but it sounds a little overwhelming,” where do they start?
Goeglein: Thank you. And that is a perfect codicil to this wonderful conversation. Here’s what I would say. I would say that the battle for the soul of our nation begins in our homes, which will then, hopefully, transform our schools and I suppose restore the proper teaching of American history and civics.
And I believe that if we have a notion that this is going to be effectively addressed by starting in Silicon Valley or in Wall Street or in some of our most famous places of higher learning, it seems to me that we are seriously wrong in that analysis. I think it has to begin at the local level. I think it has to begin where we live. It has to begin in our homes, in our communities, in our places of worship, and then we have to build from there. And it seems to me that that’s the place where restoration and regeneration and renewal can happen.
And as I say and write in “Toward a More Perfect Union,” I’m confident that there are millions of people who are passionate and agree that these first principles are the thing, and I think it’s time to buckle up and move onward.
Allen: Timothy Goeglein, the author of “Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story.” You can pick up your copy today. You can order it on Amazon. Mr. Goeglein, thank you so much for your time today.
Goeglein: Virginia, thank you so much. Be of good cheer.
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