Obama Better President Than Washington? America’s Crisis in Civic Education

December 21, 2019 Updated: December 23, 2019


America’s historical amnesia hit a new low this month with a Monmouth University poll that showed one in three of those polled believe that Barack Obama was a better president than George Washington.

The news was significantly more horrifying when considering the evaluations of self-identified Democrats who consider Obama to be a better president than Washington by a whopping 63 percent to 29 percent. Republicans showed more historical sanity by ranking the father of our country above both Obama and President Donald Trump, but not by enough to justify much solace.

Just a few decades ago, it was controversial that Abraham Lincoln and, in some polls, even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had surpassed Washington as the best president, as ranked by elite historians. Those results, mostly from surveys of liberal-leaning academics, were troubling enough. The results of the Monmouth poll, however, are significantly more so.

The Case for Washington

That a case for Washington has to be made at all speaks volumes about the state of our civic education in the United States today. But, let’s make the case for Washington’s greatness in just a few sentences.

First, he was known as the father of our country for the very good reason that he was our founding’s “Indispensable Man.” The United States itself is inconceivable without Washington as our first commander in chief and first president.

Second, there would be no presidency at all without him, the office being created around the assumption that he would be its first occupant and would “fill in the blanks” of the Constitution.

Now, also consider that Washington was asked to ascend to an office unlike anything that ever existed. In an age of monarchy, the Constitutional Convention had created a republican executive. The vague language of the Constitution’s Article II and the lack of historical examples put Washington into a situation where he, quite literally, had to invent the office as he enacted it.

What does it mean to be commander in chief? What does it mean to faithfully execute the laws? What does it mean to work with the Senate to write and ratify treaties? No president ever faced such a daunting situation, because they all inherited an office Washington himself created. They had his precedence to rely on as they faced the challenges of their own age.

Putting the challenges faced by Lincoln during the Civil War and FDR during the Great Depression aside for another day, there’s simply no comparison at all between the challenges faced by our first president and those of the 44th and 45th. The fact that the question was even dreamed up to be asked is, frankly, shocking in itself.

Through most of U.S. history, our fellow citizens would have been steeped in history enough to know that no contemporary president could surpass a man commonly recognized as one of the greatest men of modern times.

What Happened?

First, schools that once took citizen education as one of their core missions have largely abandoned the teaching of basic U.S. history and civics under the pressure of “relevance” to the contemporary culture and the economy, along with the worship of the subjects immortalized as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Second, many of our teachers today are trained in schools of education focusing on pedagogy and research and often don’t have substantive degrees in history or a related discipline. Because civics and history aren’t as valued as they once were, even professional development opportunities for teachers in the field have been replaced by workshops on pedagogy, bullying, and literacy.

Third, slavery, the unforgivable sin of early America, now trumps every other consideration. Washington, no matter his virtues and centrality in the creation of the U.S. political order, was a slaveholder and for that, he cannot be forgiven in today’s academy.

Washington’s reputation not only suffers from being a slaveholder but, more basically, from being yet another old white male. “Political correctness,” by its very design, is an acid that spares no greatness that doesn’t measure up to the latest value or fashion.

Fourth, the United States suffers from what C.S. Lewis diagnosed as “chronological snobbery.” Everything that’s closer to us in time is, by the logic of evolution, progress, and technological advancement, better and more sophisticated than anything that came before.

The Monmouth University poll should worry all Americans and call us to action. If we care about the quality of our electorate and their historical knowledge, we should insist that our schools value and reward the teaching of basic U.S. history and civics. We should reform teacher education programs so that teachers in every state get degrees that focus on subject specialties more than pedagogical theories.

We also should support those organizations outside schools and the academy that focus on inspiring and educating teachers in professional development about U.S. history and civics. Some of us have been toiling in these fields for decades, but need more help from the public and buy-in from our school administrators.

If our students, and the general public, don’t know U.S. history and the foundations of our constitutional order enough to know that George Washington’s greatness is in a different category entirely than any recent politician, how can they be expected not to fall for the latest demagogue, political huckster, or fad?

Gary L. Gregg is the host of the podcast Vital Remnants and is author of a number of books on America’s founding principles.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.