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
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.