Enlist Veterans in the War on U.S. Civics Ignorance

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Today, the nation celebrates Purple Heart Day, commemorating the date, Aug. 7, 1782, when George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit, the forerunner to the current award. Today, the nation pauses to remember the sacrifices of those who were wounded or killed in combat with America’s enemies. There is no higher demonstration of love for one’s country than to voluntarily take on the risk of shedding blood in its service. In this sense, service and love of country are integral to the veteran identity. So, it is not surprising that many veterans desire to continue serving their country and communities after they return from military service. 

American veterans’ organizations have recognized from the very beginning that a crucial part of preserving the legacy of veterans and their sacrifices is the education of their fellow citizens in the principles they served to defend. For example, The American Legion — the largest veterans organization in the United States — was established as a “patriotic veterans organization” in 1919 by veterans of World War I. From its earliest days, it committed to the advancement of four pillars: veterans affairs and rehabilitation, national security, children and youth, and Americanism. 

In 1921, only two years after its founding, The American Legion partnered with the National Education Association to “address widespread illiteracy and to improve public school instruction in civics, history, U.S. government, and physical education.” The legion was also at the forefront of producing the now-universally recognized flag code, which prescribes proper care of the American flag. Since 1935, the Legion and the Legion Auxiliary have sponsored Boys State and Girls State, programs that give high school students the opportunity to participate in mock government with the aim of teaching them “the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of franchised citizens.”   

Likewise, the Legion’s Oratorical Contest, founded in 1938, is a speech competition aimed at developing “deeper knowledge and appreciation for the U.S. Constitution among high school students.” Similar examples can also be found in the programming of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Veterans, and other veteran service organizations as well.

Recent years have seen an increased interest in the improvement and expansion of civic education in the U.S., as leaders from many sectors and spanning the political spectrum have identified a general lack of civic knowledge and participation as contributing to the social ills plaguing our country. Millions of philanthropic dollars have been given or pledged to address the problem. Several initiatives have been developed to improve civic education, both in formal educational settings and through community activities.

Yet, despite their long history of providing critical support to civic education initiatives, veterans and veterans organizations have generally been overlooked as a resource in these recent efforts. But few citizens have more at stake in the preservation and inculcation of American values and civic knowledge than the men and women who have put their lives on the line in their defense. The recovery of this role for veterans and veterans organizations is crucial both to the well-being of veterans and to the revival of civic education. Those who seek to help veterans thrive should consider exploring ways to once again engage them in the crucial work of civic education, while those who seek to bolster civic education should look to veterans as assets in their work.

The Joe Foss Institute at Arizona State University’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership — named for World War II Medal of Honor winner Joe Foss and supported by Arizona philanthropists Randy Kendrick and Jim Chamberlain, among others — engages veterans in civic education through their Veterans Inspiring Patriotism program. This program brings trained veteran volunteers into K-12 classrooms to share their personal stories as well as to deliver educational content on American institutions and founding documents, symbols such as the U.S. flag, and the responsibilities of citizenship.

In addition, the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, supported by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, among others advances knowledge of American rights and responsibilities, civic virtue, and self-sacrifice through teacher seminars, tours for K-12 students, and a youth leadership program. Co-founded in 1949 by General and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower out of a desire to educate Americans about the principles that so many Americans had sacrificed defending in World War II, its programming promotes military veterans as exemplars of patriotism,  and through its Medal of Honor Grove it showcases the heroic acts of valor that have been recognized by America’s highest military award. 

Highlighting veterans as exemplars of civic virtue and utilizing them as assets in educating young Americans about American history and institutions brings together two of the things most needed in our country: giving veterans a sense of purpose after their service and educating citizens for the task of citizenship. As veterans struggle with an ongoing epidemic of suicide and disconnectedness and while the nation struggles with a crisis of civic education, the philanthropic community is well-positioned to help. 

Building on such programs, donors may wish to consider innovative ways to expand the connection between veterans and civic education through the funding of projects aimed at bringing these two worthy causes together.

At its best, civic education encourages citizens to love their country and inspires them to live up to the demands of citizenship. There is great opportunity for donors and other leaders to reengage our veterans in the service of strengthening civil society and promoting widely accepted American norms of liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility. This Purple Heart Day, let’s remember those who have shed their blood answering the call of duty, and let us consider ways that they might help in the ongoing efforts to inspire the next generations of citizens to understand and live up to their responsibilities. 

Shaun Rieley is director of civics and veterans programs at the Philanthropy Roundtable.





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