Monthly Archives: August 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


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.

who are the anti-globalizers?

(posted on Friday morning) I am curious about the "transnational

activists": those young people who organize movements and stage

protests about global issues. In particular, I wonder about

their knowledge levels. In the 1999 IEA

Civic Education Study, American 14-year-olds ranked dead last (out

of 28 countries) in their knowledge of international issues and institutions.

I presume that the transnational activists are more knowledgeable than

their peers are, although that should be investigated. I wonder whether

knowledge is a predictor of activism, and/or whether people gain knowledge

through participation.

It is possible that interest in transnational issues has risen because

knowledge of local and national issues and institutions has fallen.

A lot of young people are fairly perplexed about how and why they might

participate in local or national issues. Before they can participate,

they must form opinions about private actors (such as corporations)

and also about elaborate sets of public institutions. For example, if

they want to get involved in US environmental issues, they may find

that they have to understand the role of the EPA and the courts, the

differences between Democrats and Republicans, their own state’s regulations,

and many other matters that polls show they do not grasp. They also

have to understand and consider a wide range of potential actions, such

as voting for particular candidates, joining parties, and criticizing

specific public officials. At the international level, however, the

public institutions are very weak and can more easily be ignored. I

realize that activists often choose to protest outside the existing

international public institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF.

But my sense is that these bodies are viewed mainly as symbols of multinational

capitalism. They don’t exercise as much power as national governments

do, and they give average people no opportunities for influence. Paradoxically,

their weakness and undemocratic nature may make them easier to understand.

the 18th century comments on Campaign ’04

(Written while stuck in the Manchester, NH, airport, and posted on

Thursday): Imagine that some of the major political philosophers of

the eighteenth century are observing modern politics from their permanent

perches in Limbo. What would they say?

Edmund Burke: We should normally maintain the status

quo (whatever it may be), since people have learned to adjust to it

and it embodies the accumulated wishes and experiences of generations.

I am especially skeptical of efforts to reform societies quickly by

imposing ideas that came from other cultures or from the exercise of

"universal reason" (as if there were such a thing). Good conservatives

are hard to find today. This Newt Gingrich person represents the polar

opposite of my views. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was sensible throughout

his career, from his days opposing Great Society programs to his battles

to preserve welfare (always in the interests of maintaining an existing

social structure). Some modern leftists are Burkeans, in their efforts

to conserve indigenous cultures against markets. The IMF and the World

Bank remind me of the British Raj—they are arrogant purveyors

of a rationalist philosophy that will backfire in distant lands. I’d

vote Green, just to shock people.

Edward Gibbon: The Roman Republic exemplified the

main civic virtues: patriotism, military discipline, sobriety, love

of the common good, and worldly reason. These virtues were undermined

by Christianity, which was other-worldly, pacifistic, superstitious,

and hostile to national pride. I have a soft spot for your deist Founding

Fathers, but I can’t find anyone to like these days. Conservatives share

my list of virtues, but they’re revoltingly pious. Things continue to

decline and fall.

Thomas Jefferson: The New Dealers used to like me

because I was a civil libertarian and a political populist. They built

me a nice monument. Now conservatives love to quote statements of mine

like "That government is best which governs least." But I’ve

given up on politics. I don’t know what to make of a society in which

independent family farmers represent much less than one percent of the

population. I was surprised when governments started enacting expensive

programs with the intention of benefiting ordinary people; that never

happened before 1850. Did the programs of the Progressive Era and the

New Deal represent popular will, or did they interfere excessively in

private life? I can’t decide. In any case, my own dead hand should not

weigh heavily on the living, so I advise you to ignore any advice I

gave in my own lifetime. I now spend my whole time working on labor-saving


James Madison: I sought to construct a political system

that would tame the ruling class (to which I admit that I belonged)

and align our interests with those of the broad public. The ruling elite

in my day included Southern planters and Northern traders, manufacturers,

and bankers. They had reasons to care about their own families’ reputations

(especially locally), and thus could be induced to play constructive

roles. Also, they had conflicting interests: planters stood on the opposite

side of many issues from manufacturers and shippers. Thus each group

could be persuaded to check the worst ambitions of the others. I expected

men of my class to hold all the offices in an elaborate system of mutually

competitive institutions. They would seize opportunities to feather

their own nests, but they would also care about the long-term prospects

of their home communities, the institutions within which they served,

and the United States. Therefore, they would act in reasonably public-spirited

ways. In contrast, today’s ruling class consists of large, publicly

traded corporations. They have no concern with their political reputations,

and no loyalty to communities or the nation. You moderns need to look

for a different mechanism for inducing today’s ruling class to serve

public purposes. I do not view the system that I created as adequate

for that purpose.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: All patriotic, decent people

have the same interests and goals. Disagreements arise because people

chatter together privately in little groups or factions, and also because

some people mislead others with their clever rhetoric. A perfect democracy

would have no factions and no debate. I am heartened to read in a book

by Hibbing and Morse that millions of Americans are Rousseauians.

They hate political debate, parties, legislatures, and professional

politicians, for they realize that all decent people have the same interests.

I like this Schwartzenegger fellow; he seems so natural.

Tom Paine: Most Americans still agree with me, and

yet the aristocrats run things. I’m going to endorse Dean.

Adam Smith: Everyone realizes now that international

trade creates wealth, that markets encourage specialization (and thus

efficiency), and that official monopolies and trade barriers are bad

for the economy. Fewer people pay attention to my moral philosophy and

my account of civil society. I get plenty of praise, but some of it

from embarrassing quarters.

newspapers vs. websites

(Still from Camden): If you compare a newspaper website to

a conventional newspaper page, I think the results are a little

surprising. We’re used to seeing the Internet as a great expansion of

possibilities, compared to print. But news websites only display about

15 words on each line, plus advertising and navigation bars. That means

that a reader must essentially scroll down one vertical column of text

at a time. A traditional sheet of newsprint, by contrast, is very wide

and can contain an elaborate array of stories (some linked together),

diagrams, and photographs. The reader can spread out a newspaper, scan

it quickly, and select what to read and in what order.

As a result, news sites are perhaps more like broadcast programs than

they are like conventional newspapers. A broadcaster can only transmit

one stream of content at a time. There is always a danger that listeners

will switch channels if they don’t like what they see and/or hear. Thus

broadcasters feel pressure to cater to as large an audience as possible

with each of their programs. In contrast, a traditional newspaper is

a diverse bundle of material, which readers can navigate and read selectively.

The more diversity of content, the better, at least to a point. One

would think that Internet sources would be more interactive and diverse

than newspapers, not less so. But I think that the width of

our current screens may actually make websites more like broadcast channels.

They have to emphasize a few headline stories and try to keep their

visitors from "clicking" away to other sites.

Of course, there are other differences between newspapers and news

websites. (To name just a few: the lack of any final edition on websites;

visitors’ ability to search current and archived editions; and the prevalence

of links to sites beyond the newspaper’s control.) Still, the difference

in width deserves mention.

what’s wrong with the California recall

(Written in Camden, Maine) On August 16, the Washington lawyer Robert

F. Bauer wrote an interesting opinion piece on the California

Recall election. He noted that the recall is competitive, largely

non-partisan, short, and intensely engaging to the public and the media.

These are the very qualities that reformers usually find lacking in

our long, partisan, low-turnout elections. Thus, Bauer says, reformers

should be delighted with the recall as an alternative to "politics

as usual." Instead, they rail against it as a "circus"

or even a "tragedy." That is because it is not "the controlled,

tidy, deliberative politics that some of them profess to care about:

‘serious’ candidates engaged in ‘serious’ debate mediated by political

‘experts,’ such as themselves, in an established, familiar setting."

Bauer thinks that reformers are sanctimonious and also impractical;

normal politics is much better than they believe. The specific progressive

reform that led to this election—allowing governors to be recalled—was

really an attempt to banish "politics." That is what progressive

reformers always want, Bauer thinks, and the results always


Implication: progressives should rethink their support for campaign

finance reform, regulation of lobbying, and other "anti-political"

ideas that will, like recall elections, create disasters.

I think Bauer’s criticism applies to Ross Perot and some Nader-type

reformers, who really are anti-political and therefore would like to

see less campaigning, weaker parties, less campaign spending, and less

ideological mobilization. Hence their support for term limits, initiative

and referendum, and spending limits. I have never belonged to this camp,

and neither do some of the leading reform groups, such as Common Cause.

I think parties are good, and that it is helpful for them to

mobilize mass support. I don’t believe that elections last too long;

in fact, I think the presidential primary season may soon become too

short. And I don’t think that too much money is spent on elections.

Last time I checked, the total amount was not more than $16 per capita,

which is not much to communicate to a mass public.

However, we do not have just two alternatives: the California "circus,"

and politics-as-usual. We could have a political system that was less

influenced by private money, more "serious" (in the sense

of being more closely connected to weighty choices that we need to make),

fairer, more competitive, and more engaging to all people, including

those with less money and education.

To me, the California election is a fiasco, because it represents a

failure of Californians to control their own futures. If Arnold Schwartzenegger

wins, it will not be because a plurality of Californians are moderate

Republicans (which would be a tolerably democratic result). Instead,

he will win because a plurality of Californians don’t have any idea

what is going on in state government, so they imagine that a macho new

leader can simply banish all their fiscal problems. This will show that

they have no grasp of the ideological differences that have led to a

budget impasse. Democrats oppose deep budget cuts, and Republicans oppose

tax increases—principled positions that create huge deficits when

put together. Citizens need to choose one position or the other (or

split the difference). But Schwartzenegger claims that he can just clean

up the mess: a totally unprincipled position that sounds impressive

only to people who have never seriously considered the difficult choices

implied by a budget crisis. Thus, if Arnold wins, it will show that

many Californians feel no personal responsibility for the way their

own government has acted in the past.