The nation's social studies teachers have lots of ideas for improving the curriculum -- all of them bad
Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of the City Journal and the author of Ready or Not: What Happens When We Treat Children as Small Adults.
September 11 was a transforming moment in the civic imagination of many Americans. To them, the attacks drove home the reality that pluralism, religious tolerance, equality, freedom, and prosperity are not the default condition of mankind but a fragile gift of history in need of our reverence and protection.
But not to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS). The leaders of this 26,000-member organization of teachers of history, sociology, geography, political science, psychology, and economics saw matters differently. They were sure the attacks would provide the excuse Americans wanted to indulge their reflexive racism and "revenge-oriented ideology," as one writer put it in the October issue of the organization's magazine Social Education. "For some the events of September 11 were reminiscent of Pearl Harbor," editor Michael Simpson began his introductory essay. "Following that attack the treatment of the Japanese-American population opened a dark chapter of American history." At the organization's national conference in November, keynote speaker James Loewen (author of Lies Across America, a tour of the nation's monuments, whose "lies and omissions . . . suggest times and ways that the United States went astray as a nation") warned against patriotic displays like the singing of "God Bless America." "The Swedes," he noted, "the Kenyans don't think God blesses America over all other countries." Alan Schulman, a participant in a panel examining "The Impact of September 11th on Social Studies Professionals" at a meeting of a Greater New York NCSS-affiliate chapter, got to the heart of the matter. Responding to a teacher who said her students had been wanting to know more about American history since the attacks, he said, "We need to de-exceptionalize the United States. We're just another country and another group of people."
Meet the professionals who are in charge of turning the nation's young into "effective citizens." These are the folks responsible for passing on "the content knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic values necessary for fulfilling the duties of citizenship in a participatory democracy," as their website has it. But entrusting this vital job to people like those who run the NCSS makes about as much sense as tapping Ralph Nader to administer NAFTA. Deeply cynical about the American idea, they lack the vaguest understanding of the Founders' vision of education as the wellspring of self-government.
In fact, Schulman's "de-exceptionalizing the United States" perfectly captures a core goal of the NCSS. Take a look at "Expectations of Excellence," the group's 1994 curriculum standards for social studies, widely followed by education authorities as they draft state standards and curricula around the country. "Thomas Jefferson, among others, emphasized that the vitality of a democracy depends upon the education and participation of its citizens," this statement begins promisingly. But what follows is a yawning list of "performance expectations," ranging from the obscure to the impenetrable, about culture, economics, technology, "continuity and change," and personal identity, that includes no American history, no major documents, and only a smattering of references to government at all.
Such references as there are to government -- "Describe how public policies are used to address issues of public concern," for example -- exist in some hazy realm of ur-citizenship that could apply to the Democratic Republic of Korea as easily as to our own. While it's true that high school students are expected to be able to "explain the origins and continuing influence of key ideals of the democratic republican form of government, such as human dignity, liberty, justice, equality, and the rule of law," this task is 78th in a series of 87, given no more salience than such pressing civic goals as knowing how to "construct reasoned judgments about specific cultural responses to persistent human issues" or how to "analyze the role of perceptions, attitudes, values, and beliefs in the development of personal identity."
Many states have embraced the NCSS's idea that you don't need to know any American history to be an effective citizen. Hawaii, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota, among others, use the NCSS guidelines as the model for their state social studies standards and thus require their students to study no history at all. The states that are developing strong history standards -- notably Massachusetts, California, Texas, and Virginia -- still confront the problem of finding teachers who can put them into practice. Many young people entering teaching today went to schools where, thanks in part to the influence of NCSS, their experience with American history was largely limited to reports on Sojourner Truth, dioramas of Navajo villages, and "reasoned judgments about specific cultural responses to persistent human issues."
The nation's schools of education are doing little to ameliorate their students' ignorance; ed school faculties are notoriously uninterested in traditional course content, and it is no coincidence that many of the leaders of the NCSS are prominent members of education faculties. Education historian Diane Ravitch observes that apart from physics, history is the discipline with the fewest teachers who have actually majored in their subject. And though most states require some history credits for certification, judging from the courses that fill today's college catalogues, your child's fourth grade social studies teacher is more likely to know about 19th-century lesbian writers than the Constitution.
That a professional association of teachers would do nothing to encourage kids to think of themselves as Americans with a common history and common ideals will surprise no seasoned observer of the nation's schools. Like many in the education establishment, the NCSS regards promoting an American civic identity, particularly in minority children, as "ethnocentric," an example of an "assimilationist ideology." Instead, schools should "maximize the opportunity for individuals to choose their own group identifications and affiliations," in the words of the organization's "Curriculum Guidelines for Multicultural Education."
Until recent years, however, the education establishment did encourage the nation's kids to think of themselves as niche Americans -- Asian Americans, African Americans, and so on. Now, this familiar multiculturalism has begun to give way to something known as "global studies," a sprawling discipline that encompasses world history, current events, world religions, geography, ecology, and world economics. Like multicultural education, it aims to promote respect for other cultures and an "appreciation of diversity." But where multiculturalists sought to accomplish this by emphasizing the contributions of, say, blacks, Chinese, and women to American culture, global studies enthusiasts want to accomplish it by stressing the contributions of the Bantu people and the Ming dynasty to world culture. Global studies works to "de-exceptionalize" both America and the Western world as a whole. "Globally oriented teachers don't teach an 'us-them' dichotomy that only views events or issues from the norms of American foreign policy or Eurocentric tradition," explains Merry M. Merryfield, a teacher of education at Ohio State University. "Instead they focus on the commonalities of the human experience."
Doubtless, many rank-and-file teachers, who tend to be less doctrinaire than their leadership, are simply expounding a gussied-up version of world history under the guise of global studies. But the theoreticians in the social studies establishment have a more radical agenda. They want children to think of themselves not as Americans, but as members of the "global community."
In a much-discussed 1994 essay that could easily serve as a keynote address at an NCSS conference, University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum promotes the idea of the cosmopolitan citizen who eschews provincial allegiances. "An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient," she writes, invoking the dangers of patriotism, "too often reinforces this kind of irrationality by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory." Kids should be taught they are "citizens of a world of human beings . . . [who] happen to be situated in the United States." It seems lost on Nussbaum and the globalists that some citizens of the world "happen to be" heirs to the Taliban, burqas, and suicide bombers, while others are heirs to religious tolerance, freedom of speech, equality of the sexes, and the form of government that sustains them. At the post-9/11 conclave of social studies professionals mentioned earlier, buzzwords like "diversity" and "interdependence" and "multiple perspectives" were as abundant as half-drained coffee cups.
So if the NCSS has its way, young Americans will graduate from high school with a few hazy ideas about equality and freedom of speech, but almost no knowledge of their country's past. They'll be more likely to get teary-eyed at "We Are the World" than "The Star Spangled Banner." They will be engaged citizens, to be sure, but engaged as community and global activists. Having been taught that kids need "to solve real problems in their school, the community, our nation, and the world" (according to a recent NCSS position paper), the ideal NCSS graduate will be as busy as he is ignorant. "Expectations of Excellence" touts classrooms where high-schoolers debate alternative sites for their town's new landfill, where middle-schoolers agitate against a store's requirement that teenagers be accompanied by adults, where fourth graders meet with community leaders to decide the best use for an abandoned factory, and where elementary school kids organize to "Save the Earth."
It would be difficult to exaggerate NCSS's betrayal of the Founders' view of education. To be self-governing, the Founders believed, citizens must grasp the principles of their country. Because men are prone to greed and ambition, and democracy is a fragile arrangement, each citizen must be, in Jefferson's words, "enabled to know ambition under all its shapes." To this end, schoolchildren must learn not only their own Constitution, but also political history, especially the story of republican governments. Equally important, the self-governing citizen must revere his country and its ideals, for only those who understood their country could love it, and only those who loved it would be willing to undertake the work and sacrifice to sustain it.
Yet those in our schools who are shaping the civic imagination of the next generation discourage not just a love of America and its guiding principles, but any interest in the fortunes of our nation in particular. And their efforts are paying off. In addition to the woeful ignorance of their American heritage proved by study after study, graduates of American schools set new records in their indifference to politics and public affairs year after year. Since 1971 when 18-year-olds were enfranchised, young people have voted in progressively lower numbers. The annual freshman survey from the Higher Education Research Institute has shown steadily declining interest in public affairs since the 1960s (apart from an anomalous uptick in 2001 that the authors attribute to the unusually close 2000 election). In 2001, a little over 30 percent of respondents said they believe keeping up to date with political affairs "is a very important or essential life goal," down from a high of 57.8 percent in 1966.
"I mean, being American is not very special," one Midwestern high school boy told interviewers in a study of civic identity conducted by William Damon, director of the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. The NCSS should be heartened by his words. "I don't find being an American citizen very important," concurred another. "I don't know, I figure everybody is a citizen so it shouldn't mean nothing." Or another: "I don't want to be a citizen. . . . It's stupid to me."
Regrettable at the best of times, these sentiments are preposterous with our country at war. But at least you can't say our kids aren't picking up what they're being taught at school.