Academy Article
October 5, 2023

General Mattis, Civics Education, and National Security


The American Academy and iCivics co-hosted an event, Safeguarding American Democracy: Civic Literacy for a Secure Nation, featuring General Jim Mattis, iCivics CEO Louise Dubé, and Danielle Allen, which emphasized civics education as a national security imperative. 

The conversation was a timely one. In 2022, the average score among U.S. eighth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) civics assessment declined for the first time since the assessment began in 1998, with only 22 percent of eighth graders scoring at or above the NAEP Proficient level in civics.

Increasingly, civil society leaders and policymakers have been making the case that the lack of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions among Americans poses a threat to our national security by undermining civil discourse and increasing alienation and polarization. The recommendations included in the Our Common Purpose report, issued by the Academy in 2020, include investing in civic educators and civics education for all ages and in all communities through curricula, ongoing program evaluations, professional development for teachers, and a federal award program that recognizes civic-learning achievements.

In this event, General Mattis shared his opinions on these issues, and Louise Dubé and Danielle Allen spoke about the state of civics education in America.

Louise Dubé offered a roadmap for improving civics education in the nation: “What we need as a nation is a way forward – a roadmap for how to teach history and civics. We’re really fortunate because we have that roadmap. And it is called Educating for American Democracy.” 

General Mattis emphasized the stakes: “A fundamental, absolute foundational requirement for a sustainable foreign policy is a degree of harmony at home on what we stand for, and just as importantly, what we will not stand for. It has to start with civic literacy.” 

Danielle Allen added a cautionary note: “Accountability and inspiration for young people is critical. But we also have to do it in a way that doesn’t bring back any danger of old-fashioned literacy tests that were used to figure out who could be voters and who couldn’t be voters. I would 100% support a required civic learning experience for high schoolers.” 

The speakers also touched on how civics education can play a role in healing America’s divides, how officials can bring a sense of urgency to the pursuit of our civic strength, and how we can build bipartisan consensus and political willingness to ensure that every young American can acquire the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions to become an effective civic participant in our society. 

A video of the event is available here.




Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Danielle Allen, Stephen B. Heintz, and Eric P. Liu