Past and Prologue, and both sides of truth need telling.
Christopher Columbus: the man who discovered the New World, or the perpetrator of genocide?
Thomas Jefferson: a Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, or a slaveholder whose notion of liberty didn't extend beyond white male landowners?
John F. Kennedy: a visionary political leader who inspired a generation to idealism and social action, or a serial philanderer whose recklessness endangered the country?
Most people can see there's truth in both statements about these historic icons. We understand that Columbus, Jefferson, and Kennedy were human -- complex, contradictory, and flawed like rest of us.
But what if the only thing you learned about Columbus in school was that his arrival was disastrous for the natives of North and Central America? What if all you knew about Jefferson was that he apparently fathered children by one of his slaves, yet did not free them after his death? What if you heard only how the United States failed to live up to its ideals as a democracy? How would your view of the world and the role of the United States be shaped?
These questions are central to the ongoing debate over what should be taught in social studies classes. Few academic subjects evoke as much passion as history (though reading instruction comes close), so the debate is by no means new. It has intensified, however, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The debate also comes at a time when many educators worry that social studies is vanishing from the curriculum. With schools scrambling to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, history, geography, and civics are being pushed aside so more time can be spent on the subjects that are tested -- mainly reading and math.
Not your father's history class
The debate goes something like this:
Students are learning only the dark side of American history, according to a growing and vocal group of social studies educators and professors. And, these critics argue, this focus on the negative is churning out students who are so disengaged from our political system that they scarcely bother to vote.
"It's cultural suicide to raise a generation of cynics who don't value the extraordinary nature of our country," says James Leming, a Saginaw Valley State University professor.
Others say the perception is false, that negative subject matter isn't all that's taught in social studies classrooms, and that children do get a balanced view of history. "[The critics] have this image of what they think social studies is, but it's a distortion of what is happening," says Stephen Thornton, professor of social studies and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.
No one questions that times have changed since the 1960s, when the textbook in Lucien Ellington's high school history class was called American Pageant. The book, Ellington says, was distorted in that it showed only the positive story of American history, with no criticism. But during the Vietnam War -- when faith in American institutions plummeted -- the history field began to change. Textbooks began to reflect both America's triumphs and its failures.
"That's the way American history and world history should be taught," says Ellington, codirector of the Asia program and professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
But whatever is being taught, it doesn't seem to stick. The 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test results revealed that 75 percent of high school seniors were not proficient in the subject. Twenty-five percent of seniors could not identify two ways the Constitution prevents a president from becoming a dictator.
In 1998, fewer than one in five Americans ages 18 to 24 voted, according to the New Millennium Project, sponsored by the National Association of Secretaries of State. Other reports on voting patterns show that while young people are volunteering at greater rates, they have the lowest voter turnout rate of all adult age groups and are less likely than other adults to read the newspaper.
Leming and others charge that low voter turnout and the NAEP scores are proof that social studies is going in the wrong direction. Students are so dispirited by hearing about how bad the United States is, the critics say, that they don't believe it would do any good to vote or become politically active.
"It makes sense to me that if the history that you're learning is oppression and disenfranchisement, corruption and crime, rather than achievements," Leming says, "you form a negative view."
'Cultural and moral relativism'
Ellington, Leming, and a handful of other history professors and teachers belong to an informal group who call themselves the Contrarians. For the most part, they are members of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and they formed partly because they disagreed with the organization's philosophy.
About eight years ago, the group's core members got together and wondered if the social studies field was worse or better than in the past. "We came to the assessment that things are getting worse," says Leming. "The field is more fragmented and distracted on contemporary issues and less focused on the discipline."
Ellington says he and his like-minded colleagues have no desire to go back to the days of American Pageant. Instead, they'd like to see a return to balanced teaching. What happened, he says, is that social studies professors and others have tried to overcompensate for generations of injustices perpetrated on women and minorities. The resulting textbooks and curricula, Ellington says, are just as distorted as the sanitized view of American history that was once taught.
The Contrarians might have been content simply to talk among themselves. But then came 9/11. Suggestions from NCSS and other civic and education organizations on how social studies teachers should discuss the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks "set all of us off like a Roman candle," Leming says. The result, a book called Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? was published in August 2003 by the neoconservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Leming says the group was particularly bothered by recommendations that teachers ask students to ponder why the United States was so hated around the world. Those recommendations, he claims, were clear proof that the social studies curriculum had strayed too far into cultural and moral relativism.
"If you can't make value judgments about cultures, what is worth defending and fighting for? This reaction among social studies theorists showed us the pervasiveness and power of this ideology," Leming says.
Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? features an introduction by Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn Jr. and chapters by social studies education professors and teachers who call for revamping the teaching of history. Many of the authors charge that left-leaning professors of education have, as Leming puts it, highjacked the social studies for their own political agenda.
"Our goal is to refocus social studies on historical content," says Kathleen Porter of the Fordham Foundation and a coeditor of the book. "It's now more focused on social issues than American and world history."
'The nature and needs of democracy'
Lest you think it's only social conservatives who believe that social studies is going in the wrong direction, consider the conclusion reached by the Albert Shanker Institute, a politically liberal organization that is part of the American Federation of Teachers.
In a November 2003 document called Education for Democracy, the institute notes that democracy is "the worthiest form of government ever conceived." The document says schools must do more to improve the teaching of democracy through an expanded course of study in history, civics, and the humanities.
Nearly 150 politicians, civic leaders, professors, and educators endorsed the document. Signers came from across the political and professional spectrum, from former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy to writer and historian Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, the founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum.
Textbooks that depict American history in a negative way have hurt schools' efforts to "purposely impart to their students the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society," the document states. Educators and schools "must transmit to each new generation the political vision of liberty and equality that unites us as Americans, and a deep loyalty to the political institutions put together to fulfill that vision."
According to the document, students need to be prepared to be democratic in four ways, through:
• A robust history and social studies curriculum,
• A full and honest teaching of the American story,
• An unvarnished account of what life has been and is like in nondemocratic societies, and
• A cultivation of the virtues essential to a healthy democracy.
"We do not ask for propaganda, for crash courses in the right attitudes, or for knee-jerk patriotic drill," the document says. "We do not want to capsulize democracy's arguments into slogans, or pious texts, or bright debaters' points. The history and nature and needs of democracy are too subtle for that."
A similar concern is voiced by former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who now serves as president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Hamilton, who signed the document, says social studies must be taught in a way that encourages today's students to get involved and stay involved.
"What has to be done in the educational system is to impress on young people that with freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty," he says. "If the deal is not kept, democracy is threatened."
In the classroom
But wait a minute, say many who are on the front lines of the debate. Things really aren't that bad. In fact, says Richard Theisen, a former social studies teacher in Minnesota, the vast majority of social studies and history teachers want history taught with facts that involve interpretation. Theisen, past president of NCSS, says he resents the implication from the Contrarians and others that social studies and history teachers hate the United States.
"We really do support the principles and founding documents," Theisen says. "We wouldn't be in this country if we didn't."
For the most part, says Thornton, the Columbia professor, social studies teachers present different sides of history in the hopes of getting students to draw their own conclusions, a skill they hope young people will develop into adulthood.
"You find that some people resist getting kids to think for themselves. Their argument is that kids should be exposed to the traditions and values that the United States stands for," he says. "Yes, they should be, but at the center of American values is the right to speak up and think for yourself. If we are serious about our professions, we have to give kids opportunities to think for themselves."
An example of this emphasis on critical thinking is the Choices Program, a high school curriculum for teaching international issues and civics developed by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. The lesson on responding to terrorism calls for students to look at political cartoons about 9/11 from various international sources. Students then advocate for one of the positions represented in the cartoons as a way to help form their own opinions on the event.
Another example is the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, which looks at the historical development and legacies of the Holocaust and other instances of collective violence. Aimed at middle and high school levels, this curriculum calls for students to consider such questions as: What is the difference between crimes against humanity and killings sanctioned by war? Are individuals responsible for their crimes if they have obeyed the laws of their nation? Or are there higher laws?
Culprit I: Multiculturalism
Contributing to the malaise that currently surrounds social studies, the Contrarians say, is multicultural education -- teaching tolerance of other cultures by teaching about those cultures. Jana Eaton, a longtime social studies teacher at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Pa., is an avid proponent of multicultural education. But she doesn't like where it seems to be heading.
Since multicultural and global education began in the 1960s and '70s, Eaton says, professors and teachers have gone overboard with cultural relativism. She notes reluctance among social studies educators to judge other cultures or to say that democracy is a better political system than dictatorships or repressive regimes. "You have to call an evil an evil," she says. "There must be a universal recognition of rights that should pertain to everyone."
Eaton warns that the way multiculturalism is taught today could lead to hyperpluralism, the creation of separate groups that don't see themselves as whole. And that, she says, is especially dangerous in a time when the country -- at war and still healing the wounds of 9/11 -- needs cohesion, not separateness.
"Multiculturalism has been very divisive, pitting one group against another, especially the various minorities, who are being told they are just as oppressed today as years ago," says Eaton.
This attitude contributes to the distorted view that our country is flawed, Eaton and others argue, but it doesn't extend to the flaws of other cultures. "When you look at multicultural literature, racism is limited to European Americans," says Ellington, even though other nations and cultures have been marred by the same racist attitudes and practices.
Just teaching about other cultures doesn't mean that you endorse or agree with those cultures, says Thornton. "Because I teach about Buddhism, it doesn't mean I'm converting children to Buddhism," he says. "It's important that we know how people in the Islamic world view us, but that doesn't mean we say it's OK."
Culprit II: Constructivism
If you think the aim of social studies to is create good citizens, the critics invite you to think again. The reason for social studies, they say, is to teach children history, geography, and civics -- not to make them good citizens or even to make them critical thinkers.
In fact, the Contrarians and other critics place the blame for much of what is wrong with social studies squarely on constructivism, the instructional philosophy that deemphasizes teacher lectures in favor of having students "construct" their own learning through projects and group work. Over the years, constructivism has also meant stressing skills over content.
"Social studies is deeply rooted in progressive education," says Ellington. "The philosophy is that content should help students solve problems, as opposed to making them better-educated people."
The idea that the purpose of social studies is to create good citizens and critical thinkers has pushed content -- historical movements, political and economic theory -- into the background, critics say. And that has resulted in widespread ignorance and apathy about American history and political institutions.
For example, says Ellington, most teachers believe a good citizen is someone who can understand and help solve society's problems. It might be a good thing, then, to get a high school government class involved with voter registration. But if the students aren't also learning about federalism and how the government works, they'll become what Leming calls "ignorant activists."
But Syd Golston, dean of students at Alhambra High School in Phoenix and a member of the NCSS board of directors, says that the Contrarians and the Fordham Foundation are calling for the return of lecture and memorization of facts. And those teaching techniques, she says, simply don't work.
Golston, herself a former social studies teacher, doesn't advocate what she calls "soft curriculum" in which students do projects and perform skits but don't learn anything from them. The activity must spur students to think about and retain information. "That's what you do in good classes," she says. "You teach kids how to think. A great lesson in social studies has that as its objective."
Golston agrees that one purpose of social studies is to make students good people who want to make a difference in their communities. In that respect, she says, social studies lessons often don't focus enough on the poverty, injustice, and discrimination faced by some groups of people in the United States now and in the past.
"When you say life has been unfair to many people in this country, some kids will do something about it," says Golston. "If that's not what we're about, then what is?"
The content of the curriculum
It all boils down to what to teach, and that question is nowhere more evident than in the different ways educators at each end of the social studies spectrum approach the writing of curriculum standards. The battle lines were clearly drawn in the 1990s, when the National Center for History in the Schools, at UCLA, issued a set of national standards for history that drew immediate fire from critics.
Skirmishes are still occurring. This past fall, educators and politicians in Minnesota were locked in battle over state social studies standards, with each side saying the other is pulling the agenda too far to the left or to the right. New, less politicized standards went to the state legislature for adoption in January. Similar battles over what to include in state social studies standards have occurred in California, Virginia, Vermont, and elsewhere.
But the fault may not lie with the leftist professors of education or the ideologues of the right -- or with multiculturalism or constructivism, for that matter. The fault might lie with the state standards themselves, says Boston University historian Paul Gagnon, the author of two books on teaching high school history.
Gagnon, who has studied social studies standards in most states, has concluded that most of the standards are so stuffed with specific facts, events, and topics that no teacher could possibly get through all the required material in a single year. And because states aren't testing history standards, schools and teachers are picking and choosing among the requirements.
"I don't find actual villains dominating," says Gagnon of what ends up being covered in class, "but it's so easy to be sloppy that people aren't focusing."
Gagnon would have people focus on what he calls standards to ensure a "common civic core." In another, similarly titled Shanker Institute publication, Educating Democracy, Gagnon argued that the biggest problem with existing standards is not deciding on priorities.
And therein lies the rub. The only thing certain about the social studies debate is that it isn't going away. As long as Americans hold passionate views on politics and history, there will always be disagreement on what we should teach our children about those subjects. In some ways, the argument reflects the current philosophical and cultural divides in our society.
Thornton sums it up this way: "You have cultural conservatives increasingly arguing for a relatively sanitized version of the American story being told, a story about why the United States is superior to other cultures. You have other people saying, 'Hold on, the world is a more complicated place.'"
Past and Prologue
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES