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August 29, 2003

a conservative critique of civics

Here are some thoughts prompted by Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (edited by James Leming, Lucien Ellington and Kathleen Porter and with an introduction by Chester E. Finn, Jr.). This is a conservative alternative to The Civic Mission of Schools, the joint CIRCLE/Carnegie Corporation report on social studies and civic education released earlier this year.

The rhetoric of the Fordham Foundation report is angry. Chester Finn says that “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”; that the response of the “education establishment” to Sept. 11 was “despicable”; that the “keys of Rome are being turned over to the Goths and Huns.” However, I think it’s worth looking beyond these fighting words to the content of the report, which differs interestingly (but not completely) from the content of The Civic Mission of Schools.

The Civic Mission of Schools identifies a set of facts, behaviors, and attitudes that students should obtain by 12th grade. It then lists six approaches that seem to produce those outcomes. The main evidence consists of aggregate statistics comparing students who have experienced the recommended approaches with those who have not. Only one of the approaches is formal instruction in history, government, and civics. The Civic Mission does not go into great detail about what content should be taught in social studies classes, although it does stress the importance of factual knowledge and the need to connect it to concrete actions. The Report calls for more research on pedagogy and content.

In contrast, Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? is almost entirely concerned with what teachers are telling students in formal history and government classes. Young people are repeatedly described as woefully ignorant, and the blame is ascribed to pedagogical methods and content selection in formal classes.

The authors focus on content and pedagogy for two reasons. First, they believe that what teachers say matters a great deal. Mark C. Schug contributes a chapter endorsing “teacher-centered instruction” as the most effective pedagogy. Perhaps the authors do not think that the other approaches have much effect at all. James S. Lemming argues that discussion of controversial issues is developmentally inappropriate for k-12 students, which is why many do not participate and those who do talk don’t really deliberate (p. 138). Several contributors disparage service-learning. There is no mention whatsoever of extracurricular activities or student participation in school governance.

Secondly, the authors’ emphasize content and pedagogy because of their extreme dismay at some of the things that they believe students are being told in formal classes. “Why is social studies in such deep trouble? The contributors believe one reason is the dominant belief systems of the social studies education professoriate who train future teachers. [Thus] in this book we exclusively focus upon, to use E.D. Hirsch’s phrase, the ‘thought world’ of social studies leaders’” (pp. i-ii). In practice, this means that the authors quote textbooks on pedagogy; textbooks used in k-12 classes; and statements of official groups such as the NEA, NCATE, and NCSS. These quotations are supposed to prove that education professors and other experts favor relativism, skepticism about all forms of truth, anti-Americanism, and other objectionable doctrines. Education schools turn out teachers with little knowledge and poor values; teachers impart what they were told to their students; and students score badly on tests such as the NAEP Civics Assessment. “Garbage In, Garbage Out” is the title of chapter 6 and the theme of the whole volume.

Empirically, there are two weaknesses to this argument. First, I am not at all convinced that the depiction of education experts (through selective quotations) is fair or complete. For instance, no author mentions Magruder’s American Government, which claims an outright majority of the high school market. Unlike the textbooks that the authors do quote, Magruder’s is quite congenial to their views, so it would rhetorically inconvenient to mention it.

An example of pretty tendentious criticism is Jonathan Burack’s reading of The La Pietra Report (by Thomas Bender and other historians). He quotes a passage about the dangers of nationalism that he calls “unobjectionable” in itself (p. 46). But, he says, “the problems the La Pietra project claims to address do not appear to be all that significant. This suggests that other agendas may be at work. On the matter of American exceptionalism, for instance, is the aim to temper uncritical pro-American bias, or is it to instill indifference to any patriotic appeal at all, no matter how well founded?” The answer is probably the former. In any case, one could easily apply Burack’s interpretive methods to his own article. One would quote selectively, argue that the problems he addresses are “not all that significant,” and darkly allege that “other agendas may be at work.”

Second, there is not much about what teachers say and do in their classrooms. Schug thinks that real teachers (those who survive their first-year of hazing by students) ignore what they were taught in education schools (p. 101). Ellington and Eaton cite evidence that teachers are considerably more conservative than education professors (p. 72). Burack thinks that the relativism preached by education experts may be “triggering an understandable, if in some cases equally mindless, reaction against it” (p. 41). Nevertheless, most contributors assume that education professors are causally responsible for poor student outcomes. If teachers pay little attention to their professors, then this cannot be true.

Each contributor to Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?” ends with recommendations, but I think they can be roughly summarized as follows: History is the core subject matter. Teachers are responsible for teaching it, and there are limits to student-centered, experiential approaches. American history should be taught “warts-and-all,” but most current textbooks are far too critical about American institutions. (Several authors emphasize that the United States is the single best polity in history; see, for instance, p. 27.) The scope and sequence of social studies education is misconceived, because students do not have to start with their own neighborhoods and work outward (p. 115). Learning about heroes and struggles from the past is inspiring at any age. Teachers must be careful not to try to reform society through social studies education, but they should impart rigorous knowledge of the past.

On his website, Finn gave The Civic Mission of Schools a “C+.” Given his explanation of poor student outcomes (he blames groups like the NEA and NCSS), it would have been awkward for him to give the report an “A.” But he couldn’t give it an “F,” either, because there are too many points of common ground. In particular:

• There is not a whiff of relativism in the Civic Mission of Schools, which emphasizes the importance of factual knowledge and “moral and civic virtues.” We do say that “competent and responsible citizens” are “tolerant of ambiguity and resist simplistic answers to complex questions”; but this does not imply skepticism or relativism. Diane Ravitch says something quite similar: “teachers and textbooks [must] recognize the possibility of fallibility and uncertainty” (p. 5).
• Finn thinks that one problem with social studies is the emphasis on testing in reading, writing, and math. He argues that “what gets tested is what gets taught,” and therefore “NCLB is beginning to have deleterious effects” on civics. This is also a theme in the Civic Mission.
• J. Martin Rochester cites the same evidence of student disengagement that we cite (e.g., declining turnout), and endorses Kids Voting because of its thoughtful combination of knowledge and experience (p. 28).
• I personally share Burack’s criticism of superficial multiculturalism that doesn’t go into depth on any culture or ever address the negative aspects of cultures other than our own (p. 50).

In short, the two reports are not worlds apart, although there are significant differences, and several contributors to the Fordham report bitterly criticize the very groups that signed the Civic Mission.

August 29, 2003 12:02 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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