Bill Bennett’s Advice to Parents: Teach Children, Run for School Board
We set aside Independence Day on July 4th to honor our great nation’s history and founding. But we also find ourselves living in a time when ignorance of American history is a national emergency. Earlier this year, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett provided some reflections on the current state of American history education in our public schools and offered a productive path forward.
Role of Parents: Monitor Schools and Run for School Board
Bennett advised that parents need to be involved in the classroom and at the school board level. “You need to pay attention to what goes on in that classroom, and you need to pay attention to what your local school board is up to. The Loudoun County people demonstrated that in spades. When I was Secretary of Education in the 1980s, touring the country and giving speeches, and people asked, ‘Well, what can I do to improve my kids’ education? I want to get involved.’ I said, ‘Run for the school board.’ And people would laugh. They’d kind of dismiss it. Well, I think now a lot of Americans see how interesting that is.”
He also emphasized transparency in school systems and allowing parents to see what their children are being taught. “Parents, as I wrote years ago in a book called “The Educated Child,” need to talk to teachers and ask teachers, ‘What are you doing in this class? What are the objectives, what materials are you using? Can we look at them? Can you give us an idea of what the materials are?’ A good test: If they won’t give them to you, that’s probably a problem. If they do give them to you, look them over. Be involved.”
“And choice is very, very important,” Bennett emphasized. “When I was secretary, we had the three Cs — content, character, choice. I believe parents should make the best, most informed choice they can. It’s amazing what happened with COVID when people got to see what was going on in their kids’ classrooms and got to see the head of one of the teachers unions talk about how those schools were going to remain closed against all the evidence. And so we saw this incredible increase in interest in homeschooling and charter schools and private schools, Catholic schools. ... But remember that 70 to 90% of American people are going to be educated in the public school — so we need to pay attention to it, run for the school board, even if your kids have graduated.”
Back to Basics
One consistent finding in studies is that only about a third of American adults can name all three branches of government. For those of us reading an article like this one, it seems impossible to believe that such a simple concept could be missed by so many. Bennett suggests that the problem is a poor education foundation in basic instruction. “There are very few people relatively, who want to teach the basics, who want to teach the three branches of government. And so students may never get to that.”
As Christians, we believe the Bible is a basic requirement for the proper education and moral formation of children. The former secretary found evidence that many other people agree. “When I was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I did a survey of 400 very successful people — Left, Right and center. We asked, ‘What are the most important books students should be familiar with by the time they finish high school?’ We got suggestions all over the map, but the interesting thing was there was consensus on the first four or five books. Number one was the Bible (emphasis added). Number two were the founding documents of the American Republic: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. And then people would suggest things like the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
For younger children he advised, “Take it down to another level. … Read historical materials, tell stories about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. … Make it interesting, because this is the most interesting set of characters that have ever walked across the stage of history, of our life.” Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues” is a great resource for these stories.
Resources for Families and Schools
Secretary Bennett is working on a curriculum for middle and high school students called “The Story of America,” based on his books “America: The Last Best Hope” and “The Book of Virtues.” Other resources for your family on July 4th include The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, American Birthright, the Hillsdale 1776 curriculum, 1776 Unites project, Wall Builders, and many others.
The United States of America is the greatest nation on earth. Our exceptionalism is a hope and standard for the world. Read our founding documents with your family regularly so understanding of our religious and moral foundations can be passed on to the next generation. And of course, pray for our nation, families, children, and those who will teach them. Happy Independence Day!
Meg Kilgannon is Senior Fellow for Education Studies at Family Research Council.