WASHINGTON (AP) # The nation’s schools are telling an unbalanced story of their own country, offering students plenty about America’s failings but not enough about its values and freedoms, says a report drawing support across the ideological spectrum.
Without a change of approach, schools will continue to turn out large numbers of students who are disengaged in society and unappreciative of democracy, the report contends.
Produced by the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute, “Education for Democracy” is the latest effort to try to strengthen the nation’s underwhelming grasp of civics and history. Authors hope it will lead to curriculum changes and, in the short term, stir debate about today’s social studies classes as people reflect on the terrorist attacks of two years ago.
Wide range of support
Beyond its provocative findings, the report is notable for the range of people and groups supporting it, from Republicans and Democrats to labor unions and conservative think tanks.
Those who have signed on include former President Clinton; Jeane Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and U.N. ambassador during the first administration of Ronald Reagan; and David McCullough, the historian and author. Dozens of scholars, professors, labor leaders and representatives of school groups have backed it, too.
“It really shows the depth of concern across the country about the status of our civil society,” said one signatory, Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. “How low voter participation can you have and still have a democracy?”
Too many classroom lessons and text books contribute to a sense of historical indifference by focusing on America’s darker moments, the report says.
In a push to give a warts-and-all account of the struggles of democracy, schools have turned the nation’s sins into the essence of the story instead of just a part of it, the new report says.
“Vietnam, Watergate, impeachment hearings, the rottenness of campaign finance, rising cynicism about politicians in general # we’ve gone excessively in our society … toward cynicism,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
“It’s a call for balance; it’s not a call for purging from the history books honest criticism of our failings.”
“People have been so anxious to be self-critical, probably with good intentions,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest union of teachers. “But we feel that’s just gone too far over in that direction.
“We definitely have had terrible problems as a nation, but we also have a society that is totally different than that of a totalitarian society. Children need to understand and value what has been built here,” said Feldman, also president of the institute, which is endowed by the AFT.
Report: History, civics lost
Reg Weaver, president of the largest education union, the National Education Association, has also endorsed the report. So have leaders of the National School Boards Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
The report accompanies an earlier institute-sponsored study on civics standards, one that contends history and civics are often lost in the emphasis on reading and math.
The report says: “We do not ask for propaganda, for crash courses in the right attitudes or for knee-jerk patriotic drill. We do not want to capsulize democracy’s arguments into slogans, or pious texts, or bright debaters’ points.”
But it takes aim at a lack of teaching about non-democratic societies, saying that comparison could show the “genius” of America’s system. Sanitized accounts of real-life horrors elsewhere lead to the “half-education” of children, the report says.
The report calls for a stronger history and social studies curriculum, starting in elementary school and continuing through all years of schooling. It also suggests a bigger push for morality in education lessons.
“The basic ideas of liberty, equality, and justice, of civil, political and economic rights and obligations, are all assertions of right and wrong, of moral values,” the report says. “The authors of the American testament had no trouble distinguishing moral education from religious instruction, and neither should we.”