Is Congress falling for scheme to ruin civics and history classes?

Apr 11, 2021 by

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Jay Mathews

Patriotic scholars differ. I think Americans just don’t like civics.

The Civics Secures Democracy Act sounds like what we need. It’s bipartisan. It would spend $1 billion annually for six years to reemphasize the teaching of history and government in elementary and secondary education.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said in explaining their support: “In today’s contentious civil environment, it is more important than ever that students are equipped with knowledge of our institutions and confronted with the enduring questions of civic life and political change.”

But Mark Bauerlein, an education scholar and emeritus professor at Emory University, fears that money will go to university education schools and departments “dedicated to filling the heads of aspiring teachers with identity politics and progressive dogma.”

He identified one nonprofit organization,, as a likely recipient of federal funds. It has strong ties to public education and universities in that state. It also supports one program, Bauerlein said in a piece for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, that promotes the view that “by the time they start kindergarten, children begin to show many of the same implicit racial attitudes that adults in our culture hold.” programs, Bauerlein said, “call not for informed, patriotic appreciation of our country, but for ‘unlearning’ — that is, replacing traditional American principles with identity politics.”

Bauerlein has an exceptional ability to reveal what is actually happening in classrooms, as opposed to what we hope is going on there. But his attack on this latest congressional effort to improve our schools does not convince other scholars. They think Bauerlein is worrying too much because they, like me, think American teachers are unlikely to become left-wing ideologues, no matter what their ed school professors tell them.

Bauerlein said the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, a massive effort by foundations and the federal government that would get some of the federal money, was not the balanced enterprise it claims to be. A close look, he said, revealed it to be focused on “group identity, access and exclusion, agency and dissent” and other buzzwords.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president emeritus of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., and a former Reagan administration education official, defended the road map in an email. “What it is is a series of questions (not answers) designed to stimulate curriculum and instruction that would rekindle (and commingle) the teaching and learning of both U.S. history and civics,” he said.

Michael J. Petrilli, Finn’s successor as Fordham Institute president, said that what the country needs is high-quality instructional materials in those subjects. The shift to remote learning during the pandemic revealed how hard they are to find.

Educators who love this country are troubled that the percentage of respondents telling Gallup pollsters they were “extremely proud to be an American” dropped from 70 percent in 2003 to 45 percent in 2019. That may, however, be the result of a temporary surge in pride right after the 9/11 attacks and not a reaction to too much America-bashing in schools.

For decades I have heard people fret that history teachers are down on America, but evidence for that is hard to find. Larry Cuban, a Stanford University researcher who likes to get inside schools, has visited many history classrooms. The notion “that teachers are turning politically progressive has little basis in what I have observed.”

Critics have asserted that socialist historian Howard Zinn’s textbook “A People’s History of the United States” has revolutionized the teaching of America’s story, but there is no data to support that. “There is far more rhetoric from a minority of teachers citing Zinn than actual lessons using his concepts in class,” Cuban said.

Bauerlein told me he was distressed that worthy portions of the Common Core State Standards “did not hold steady all the way into the classroom.” He mourned the demise of a Common Core standard on literary standards that he helped write. It would have required high school juniors and seniors to “demonstrate knowledge of foundational works of American literature” from the early 18th to the early 20th centuries. But most states ignored it.

The hopes of history fans like me for better teaching of our national saga never had a chance. Many Americans are more interested in their families, their friends, their jobs and their recreations than who won the War of 1812. We have been doing poorly on civics tests since schools started giving them more than a century ago.

That’s not the only problem. A new book has revealed how our education system poisons any effort by standards-makers to change what schools teach. Just as the Common Core is withering, congressional plans to invigorate civics teaching will also fade away. I will explain why in next week’s column.

Source: Is Congress falling for scheme to ruin civics and history classes? – The Washington Post

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1 Comment

  1. David Hedrick

    re: spending to improve the teaching of civics in our schools …… as a retired social studies teacher I support the guiding of student learning of critical thinking skills. This can be a required course or, better, reinforced in all core subjects: all it takes is dedication and once a week or month practice.