Even in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., the textbooks used to teach future history teachers often present American history as “a dark and dismal tale in which there has never been … any progress,” according to Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice president and a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In response to the terrorist attacks, groups such as the National Education Association (NEA) advocated that schools teach more about Muslim culture—often via role-playing activities—and focus on supporting students’ emotional health. “Give students the opportunity to discuss and have validated their feelings about the events of September 11 in a non-judgmental discussion circle,” advises one NEA lesson plan for middle and high schools.
At a forum on civic education held at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) last week, Cheney noted that a May 18 article in The Washington Post referred to the Abu Ghraib scandal as a “teachable moment” for American schools. She wondered why more educators didn’t consider the heroism and bravery of the vast majority of American soldiers to be “teachable moments.”
William Galston, a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, argued that, while civics is certainly important, one should keep in mind that civic education is not always congruent with liberal education: While the latter is based on the search for truth, the former is concerned primarily with loyalty.
“History records that free inquiry does not always vindicate the particular policies or institutions of democratic governments,” noted Galston, “nor, regrettably, does it always vindicate the more expansive claims of democracy itself.” He said that civic education cannot completely avoid what one 20th-century educator called “indoctrination into the democratic faith.”
Jeffrey Mirel, a professor of history and educational studies at the University of Michigan, said that the debate between traditionalists and progressives over the proper focus of civic education continues to this day, as is seen in the debate over how teachers should approach the September 11 attacks. Traditionalists maintain that students need a better grounding in history and civics in order to understand the war on terrorism and its relation to previous wars.
The progressive philosophy on the opposite side of the spectrum, represented by such groups as the NEA, drew criticism from Cheney, an AEI senior fellow. The notion of common standards is so reviled among the progressive education elite, Cheney said, that in 2000 the head of the American Educational Research Association declared standardized testing “evil.”
With the United States engaged in a high-stakes war that threatens to drag on indefinitely, the civic education of young people is a topic that has acquired renewed urgency. Still, civics classes often appear to be an endangered species in American schools, according to Galston.
“In the past 30 years, civic education has been largely extruded from our public schools,” he said. “The median number of civics courses in high schools has gone down by two-thirds during that period.” The No Child Left Behind Act, with its focus on literacy, numeracy, and other basic skills, could accelerate the crowding out of civics courses, Galston warned, although he added that he remains an “unrepentant backer” of the act.
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report.