In November 2023, the late terrorist leader Osama bin Laden’s infamous “Letter to America,” justifying his 2001 attack on the World Trade Center that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, was reposted on TikTok. Apparently, quite a few young Americans did not know much about bin Laden or the 9/11 terror attack and were willing to give credence to his screed.

Later, among the students chanting “from the river to the sea,” to show their support for the Palestinian cause, more than half could identify neither the river nor the sea in question, with some naming such seas as the Caribbean. Since they knew little geography, these students had little understanding of what they claimed to be advocating.

Many of those who know little or nothing about the seemingly relevant facts, nevertheless have opinions, sometimes even strong opinions, about public matters. This decoupling of opinion from knowledge is sometimes said to be characteristic of our contemporary “post-truth” polity, in which many citizens are no longer concerned with objective facts, but simply accept as true what they believe or feel. It was precisely the danger that citizens might act upon the basis of uninformed opinions and feelings that James Madison feared could make popular government “a farce or a tragedy.” It would be a government by opinion standing on a firm foundation of ignorance.

America’s educational system is, at least in part, to blame for this foundation of ignorance. Most young Americans know very little about their nation’s history and institutions. They are victims of what could be called “uncivic education.” The first feature of uncivic education is a failure to teach U.S. history effectively. Courses in history, civics, and social studies are required in every American elementary and secondary school. Yet, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) only 13 percent of eighth graders were “proficient” or above in U.S. history, less than half the number scoring “proficient” in reading and math.

In their classes, many schools emphasize “critical thinking” and analytical skills over historical narrative. K-12 curriculum development was once guided by “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” a hierarchical ordering often presented as a pyramid consisting of six major categories or steps. At the base of the pyramid was knowledge, followed in ascending order by Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Today, however, progressive educators argue that the venerable pyramid should be inverted. Students should first be taught to think creatively, with actual knowledge coming last. No one would deny that analytical thinking is important. But, omitting a factual foundation paves the way for the substitution of feelings for facts.

As to colleges, only about 18 percent require a foundational course in U.S. history or government. In the history and government classes they do take, most college students are quite properly required to think critically and analytically. But, as most professors can attest, the average student’s capacity to assess and analyze the facts is hampered by a shocking lack of knowledge. One colleague told me that the students hardly know anything about World War I or World War II and only know which came first because these conflicts are numbered.

Contemporary pedagogy is damaging in a second way as well. Students are often taught pernicious beliefs about America that, absent any knowledge of facts, they are not prepared to evaluate. In some classrooms, the United States is presented as having been built upon a foundation of racism, settler colonialism, and imperialism. American history, to be sure, certainly includes slavery, oppression, and exploitation, matters that traditional curricula sometimes ignored. Yet, there is an important distinction between including and framing. To include unpleasant facts is to broaden civic education. But to frame American history entirely through the lens of oppression is to overlook the promise of liberty and prosperity that drew the tens of millions of immigrants who struggled to come to America.

Critical pedagogy views America through a lens that obscures and uncovers truths about the nation. Students who know no facts are taught to have only negative feelings about America. Can we be a democratic nation whose citizens see their country only as exploitive, racist, and imperialist? Probably not. Uncivic education ultimately contributes to the unmaking of America.