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.

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