Ben Franklin, Ken Burns, and a National Civics Curriculum

I just finished watching the Ken Burns’ Documentary on Benjamin Franklin. I recommend it as great television. I was struck by how it was both honest and respectful in its approach to one of America’s founding fathers.

I was also impressed by how it provided a very balanced approach to American history. It gave me hope that we might actually be able to construct a common U.S. history and civics curriculum. The Centrist Independent Voter addresses the need for developing a common U.S. history and civics curriculum for K-12. The important points raised in that discussion are that the curriculum needs to be: age appropriate; honest about America’s failures to live up to its aspirations; and respectful of the institutions and values that are at the core of what it means to be American. It also needs to represent a point of view that a supermajority (say 75%) of Americans would be comfortable presenting to their children.

I think that the Ken Burns documentary meets all, or almost all, of those criteria. It might be appropriate delaying some of the subjects covered until middle school, but even those subjects are handled tactfully.

America is not united by a common ethnicity, race, or religion. We share a common language, but we share that language with much of the world. What makes America exceptional is its commitment to a common set of values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America has been at its best when it has lived up to those values; it has been at its worst when it has failed to do so.

The Ken Burns documentary of Ben Franklin captures all of that, while providing interesting insights into the life of what some historians believe was the “First American.”

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