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April 2016 Brief: Volume 23, Number 11

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Abraham Lincoln’s Prophetic Warning


by John Hendrickson



In 1838 a young Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, and in his speech he argued that Americans should have “a reverence for the Constitution.”[1] In addition, Lincoln argued that the founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and their principles needed to be not only respected, but also understood in order to have a moral and civil society. Lincoln referred to this as the “political religion” of our nation, and, as he argued, these values and principles should be proclaimed throughout the nation.[2] Lincoln also offered a warning by stating that “if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”[3]


In his Farewell Address to the Nation, President Ronald Reagan offered a similar caution to the nation when he warned “of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in the erosion of the American spirit.”[4] Unfortunately, Lincoln’s and Reagan’s warnings are all too realistic with the current decline in civic education across the board. This has been a long-term trend that our nation’s students, as well as the general population, are becoming increasingly ignorant about understanding basic American history and government.


The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has issued a new report bringing further attention to the crisis in civic education. In A Crisis in Civic Education, ACTA reveals that our educational system is failing to teach American history and government:


There is a crisis in American civic education. Survey after survey shows that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage…A recent survey by ACTA of over 1,100 liberal arts colleges and universities found that only a handful — 18 percent — require students to take even one survey course in American history or government before they graduate.[5]


The ACTA report, along with other studies from reputable organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, provides numerous examples from exams which demonstrate this crisis in civic education. Many colleges and universities will argue that they are instilling civic-minded values in their students through requiring students to volunteer for community service, or what is commonly called “service learning.” As the ACTA report states:


Instead of demanding content-based coursework, our institutions have, in too many places, supplanted the rigorous study of history and government — the building blocks of civic engagement — with community-service activities. These programs may be wholesome, but they give students little insight into how our system of government works and what roles they must fill as citizens of a democratic republic.[6]


ACTA also addresses some of the recent efforts to address and reverse the decline in civic education, but “the grim reality is that college graduates continue to show a level of ignorance of America’s system of government just as high school students do.”[7]


Even with all the money spent on K-12 and higher education, there is a continuing crisis not only in civic education, but in education across the board. The ACTA report argues that “our vast national expenditure on higher education has had little or no measurable effect on giving students the skills and knowledge they need for effective citizenship.”[8] In addition, the forces of political correctness, relativism, and extreme left-wing ideologies dominate college and university campuses. History departments at many higher educational institutions also neglect political, constitutional, and military history because it is seen as out-of-date. Professor Gordon Wood, a leading historian of the American Founding, was quoted by ACTA when he stated that “academic historians are not much interested in constitutional history these days.”[9]


The ACTA report provides some solid ideas for reform and to restore both American history and government back to the curriculum and to ensure that we have an educated citizenry. The late conservative philosopher Russell Kirk argued that “ignorance is a dangerous luxury” and that “many Americans are badly prepared for their task of defending their own convictions and interests and institutions against the grim threat of ideology.”[10] And as Patrick J. Buchanan wrote:


How does one sever a people’s roots? Answer: Destroy its memory. Deny a people the knowledge of who they are and where they came from…Destroy the record of a people’s past, leave it in ignorance of who its ancestors were and what they did, and one can fill the empty vessels of their souls with a new history…[11]


Our country is not only fighting a lackluster economy, but also a serious crisis in civic education, which threatens the very foundations of our republic.



[1] Abraham Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838,” in Abraham Lincoln: Great Speeches, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1991, p. 8.
[2] Ibid., p. 5.
[3] Ibid., p. 2.
[4] Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” January 11, 1989, in Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1989, p. 417.
[5] American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “A Crisis in Civic Education,” American Council of Trustees and Alumni, January 2016, Washington, D.C., p. 1., <> accessed on March 17, 2016.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 4.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., p. 8.
[10] Russell Kirk, The American Cause, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2002, p. 1.
[11] Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002, p. 147.


John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.Contact him at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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