Despite everything that the United States has gone through in 2020, former U.S. Senator Orrin G. Hatch says that he is “intensely optimistic about what’s ahead.” What gives him hope about America’s future? It’s that “every challenge we’ve faced—from Valley Forge to Covid-19—has only made us stronger and more resilient as a nation.”
He founded the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation to rebuild America’s civic infrastructure by elevating “the smartest voices and most innovative policy ideas.” The foundation looks for bipartisan solutions to seemingly intractable issues of national importance—a project that defined Hatch’s 42 years in the Senate, a tenure that made him the longest-serving senator in Utah history.
Having sponsored or co-sponsored more than 750 bills that became law, Hatch regularly worked across the aisle to pass legislation, which he calls his greatest success in the Senate.
Based on the twin pillars of civility and solutions, the Hatch Foundation offers op-eds, policy reports, and events that, as Hatch explains, are “working to bridge the partisan divide, restore public discourse, and empower the next generation of civic leaders.”
The Hatch Center, a national think tank with offices in both Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City, has hosted Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for public lectures. It will also hold Senator Hatch’s public papers and provide scholarships and internship opportunities to those interested in public service.
Hatch argues that recovering civic education is central to the foundation’s mission because it’s “the means by which we form responsible democratic citizens capable of self-government and civic virtue”—without which “we weaken our own democracy and risk losing the American experiment itself.”
The foundation recently published a report, “Commonsense Solutions to Our Civics Crisis.” Authored by visiting scholar David Davenport, it examines the causes of Americans’ well-documented lack of civic knowledge and proposes solutions to set the nation on a better course. Davenport maintains that “you cannot have a free people without virtue, and public virtue comes, in part, through the study and application of civic education.”
From the Sputnik launch to the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report, Americans are regularly reminded, Davenport says, that “American education is falling behind its international peers.” He notes that the “federal government now spends $54 annually per student on STEM education and 5 cents on civics.”
Davenport blames our civic malaise on diminished federal funding for civic education, an overemphasis on STEM education, a poor foundation in basic historical knowledge among students, unprepared teachers, and ideologically slanted textbooks.
Unfortunately, attempts to correct this imbalance, such as “action civics,” which tries to skirt the problems of “boring textbooks” and “ill-prepared teachers” by “engaging students in civic participation,” have not improved the situation.
“We should not put the cart before the horse—we need knowledge before going out in the field to protest or see how a bill is passed can be a good learning experience,” Davenport argues. “The two should work together, but knowledge needs to come before action.”
Though he understands the urge to counter curriculums influenced by the 1619 Project, Davenport worries that President Trump’s 1776 Commission forgoes “nuts and bolts” issues for political arguments, which will only make it harder to improve civic education in today’s polarized climate.
At the federal level, Davenport proposes that funding for civic education be increased to $500 million annually and that students take NAEP civics tests in grades 4, 8, and 12. At the state level, students should take a year-long civics course in high school. Teacher development in civics should be encouraged, including special certification for those teaching civics.
Davenport advises parents to talk to their children about civics and encourage them to read the life stories of great Americans. We should all demand more civic education in our schools, he says. “Unless we reclaim the priority of civic education and make it a central part of our young people’s education,” Davenport states, “we will continue to see erosion in our political and institutional life.”
For his part, Hatch believes that recovering civic education, which he calls “the means by which we form responsible democratic citizens,” is the key to restoring Americans’ trust in their institutions—and in America itself.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.