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September 29, 2003

ideology and civic ed

The most passionately debated question in civic education is how to present the overall story of American history in schools. Is it a march toward freedom and democracy, a blood-soaked tale of oppression, or something in between? I can see three ways to address this question:

1. By trying to tell the truth. Some historical statements are verifiable (or falsifiable); and we should only tell students the ones that aren't false. However, the debate is not about whether particular facts are true; it's about which facts we ought to mention and emphasize. History is a "vast grab-bag" (as Robert Weibe once said in my hearing); and one can choose which items to pull out. As for grand assessments of the overall meaning of American history—they aren't precise enough to be either true or false, I suspect.

2. By conducting a normative (moral) debate. How to present American history is hotly debated because each approach seems to cohere best with a different moral/ideological worldview. Modern conservatives want to emphasize the degree to which our founding institutions have served us well; some liberals want to stress the March of Progress; and many modern leftists want to focus on violence, exclusion, and resistance. There is nothing wrong with having this debate. However, "is" never implies "ought." One could, for example, take a very dark view of the American past and still believe that students should love their country and its founding documents. Many complex combinations of facts and values are possible.

More importantly, "ought" never implies "is." It is intellectually dishonest to adopt a normative position and then try to teach students a set of historical facts that support that ideology, presented as the history of the United States. If I wanted to help students think about moral and ideological positions, I wouldn't proceed by trying to present a brief version of American history to them. I would teach them explicitly about conflicting values and methods of normative argument.

3. By predicting the effects of each version of history on students' attitudes and beliefs. Many ideologists in this debate assume that particular versions of history will have particular consequences for students' psychological development. For instance, a "triumphalist" narrative will create patriots—or will alienate students, especially minorities. An emphasis on exclusion and oppression will create social activists—or will breed despair.

There is not nearly enough research on this (empirical) topic. William Damon of Stanford argues that young people must develop a positive view of their nation before they can care enough about it to become engaged critics. This theory rings true in my own life. I was a jingoistic patriot at 10, only to become a critical activist by 20. However, I'm not sure that trying to impart a completely positive view of the Founders would work as well with young people of color as it did with me. In any case, I would love to see more research this field, using as many relevant methodologies as possible.

September 29, 2003 11:25 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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