Teaching Patriotism: Can You Pick the Century?

Okay, friends, it’s time to play…Pick That Century! When it comes to teaching patriotism and civic engagement, pundits have been saying the same sorts of things for a looooong time.

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Boring…boring…boring from within.

Case in point: One of the quotations below is from today—July 6, 2019—tweeted by the free-markety Fordham Institute. The other is from an American Legion publication, April, 1941. Can you pick the new one?

Quotation 1: beware “the indoctrination of youth against traditional ideals and institutions . . . lack of emphasis on true American life and too great emphasis on the unfavorable aspects, failure to give due acknowledgment to the deeds of our great American heroes, questioning private ownership, too favorable emphasis on what has been done in [other (hostile) countries], the creation of doubt in the minds of pupils and teachers as to the ability of our democracy to function successfully, the dissemination of alien propaganda, statements that the United States Supreme Court favors vested interests.”

What do you think? Is that from 2019? Or 1941? How about this one:

Quotation 2: “Civics education tends to focus mostly or entirely on what is bad and broken in American society and politics. This risks creating in the minds of our students a vision of their country as exclusively antagonistic to their interests and well-being.”

Check your answers: click here to see today’s quotation. Didja get it right? What gave it away?

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The Wrong Way to Talk about Civics Education

We just can’t do it. As educators and Americans, that is, we can’t agree about what “civics education” is supposed to be doing. We do know one thing, though. The way to understand it is not by doing what one pundit recently attempted.civics textbooks

Why is it so hard to teach civics? As I’ve argued in these pages and in books such as The Other School Reformers, the problem isn’t that no one cares. It’s not that people think schools shouldn’t teach kids to be good citizens. Rather, the problem is that Americans can’t agree on what “being a good citizen” entails.

Think about it: How enthusiastic would you be if your tax dollars supported student activism in a cause with which you disagreed? Say, for example, that kids in a high-school civics class took their project to the streets, protesting against a local abortion clinic? Or, for the other side, what if students marched out their civic responsibilities in a gay pride parade? Either way, real-life student civic engagement is not usually something that controversy-averse public school administrators can support.

None of that is the point this morning, however. One civics-ed commentator recently demonstrated another related challenge when it comes to discussing civics education. Robert Pondiscio of the marketeering Fordham Institute recently unintentionally underlined why it is so difficult to know what students are really doing in schools, when it comes to civics education or anything else.

That wasn’t Pondiscio’s point, of course. Rather, he was trying to articulate a need for a more traditionalist vision of proper civics education. He was hoping to push teachers to teach

A lifelong love of liberty. Of freedom and the rule of law. A lifelong love of America.

Pondiscio thinks schools aren’t doing this. And he wants to prove it. That’s where he runs into trouble.

As school-watchers know, it is infamously difficult to know what goes on behind the classroom door. Creationists warn their followers that public schools are cramming gay-friendly atheism down children’s throats under the guise of science classes. Atheists fret about religious zealots using public schools to cram hate-filled fundamentalism down children’s throats.

So how did Mr. Pondiscio come to his conclusion that public schools are not teaching kids to love America? The wrong way. He looked at the mission statements of America’s 100 biggest public school districts. What did he find?

Well over half—fifty-nine of the one hundred largest U.S. school districts—make no mention of civics or citizenship whatsoever in their mission or vision statements. . . .  The words “patriotic” and “patriotism” do not appear at all. Neither does “America” or “American.” Not even once.

Proof that American teachers are not teaching students to love this great land? Of course not. If Mr. Pondiscio had instead asked 100 of America’s best teachers to paraphrase their districts’ mission statements, he would have found that zero of them could do so.

On the other hand, if he asked 100 social-studies teachers if they tried to help students understand what Pondiscio calls “a sense of gratitude, for the blessings of liberty, our Constitutional freedoms, what it’s taken to secure those things for us, and for thoughtful pride and patriotism”, he’d find much different results. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most American social-studies teachers out there teach some version of those goals.

So why bother with school-district mission statements? Like so much other bad punditry about America’s public schools, writers can use mission statements if they want to make a point. In reality, though, district mission statements have only the tiniest effect on real teaching.

The real lesson here should be a sober warning about the difficulties of understanding what really goes on in America’s schools. If we want to do more than rile people up, we need to be humble about what we think we know about real teachers and real classrooms.

Is THIS Okay?

It’s not easy to be a social-studies teacher these days. We are supposed to inspire our students to love history and to become active citizens, but we’re not supposed to dictate political beliefs to students. We are encouraged to share our own biases and political commitments with students, but we’re not encouraged to tell students what to think. Our job is to help form moral persons—real empowered humans—but we aren’t hired to cram our morality down anyone’s throats.

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Civics ed? Or sinister indoctrination?

Given all that, we ask today: Did this Philly school teacher go too far? The chair of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party says yes. He says a flyer handed out by Philadelphia Central High teacher Thomas Quinn crosses way over the line.

The flyer encourages students to vote. Nothing very controversial there. But it also tells students to support Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, and to oppose the “Trump regime.”

It will come as no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH that I support this whole platform. I would love it if every student voted this way. But that’s not the most  important point here. The real question is about the proper political role of a good teacher.

What do you think? Should social-studies teachers encourage students to vote a certain way?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The ILYBYGTH International Offices are back up and running after a short vacation. Here are some of the stories that swirled while we sang our vacation theme song:

From the Archives: Mildred Crabtree does her thing, at National Archives.

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Rockin the library, Crabtree-style.

Larry Cuban remembers creepy Channel One.

Non-white evangelicals in era of Trump: “When push comes to shove, I feel like you threw me under a bus.” At R&P.

Conservative Ben Shapiro challenges Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, at Fox. Does it count as sexual harassment?

In the belly of the beast: the American Humanist Association continues its fight against graduation prayers in the hometown of Bob Jones University.

The state of civics education in the USA, at Brookings.

Trumpism abroad: Evangelicals rally around a thug in Brazil, at The Conversation.

Peter Greene: Why heartwarming school stories don’t warm his heart.

No school should ever need a celebrity’s help. No nice people with cash should ever encounter a teacher shopping for classroom supplies. And it should never occur to anyone that a teacher might need a decent car. Thank you, nice people, for helping out teachers or schools in need. Now can we focus some energy on fixing the system so that schools and teachers never need to depend on the kindness of strangers ever again.

The other Benedict Option, at CT.

The oxymoronic quest of academics to build their brands, at CHE.

Why Civics Education Can’t

It would be nice. It sounds logical. But pumping state standards full of more civics-education requirements won’t produce a more civil society. It can’t. As a recent report reveals, most civics education classes in practice are limited to the same old outlines of government checks and balances, calculated to turn students into nappers, not active citizens.

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More talk than action…

Not that we don’t want civics education to work. As pundits continue to repeat, Americans in general could use more knowledge about government and about citizen rights and responsibilities. As one writer opined,

A functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry, including baseline knowledge of societal laws and institutions. Bafflingly, many schools no longer teach children how our government works, and what basic rights Americans are guaranteed.

And it’s not that school leaders haven’t tried. Many states have instituted new curricular rules about civics classes. A new law in Washington state, for example, drew praise from the editors of the Seattle Times. By requiring more time in civics class, the editors celebrated, the new law was

positive news for our democracy. Students who enter adulthood understanding government and their role as citizens are better equipped to participate in elections and hold officials accountable.

I hate to be a sourpuss, but I have to disagree. Not that educated adults aren’t a good thing. Rather, I disagree that mere standards and curriculum changes are enough to do the trick. As I found in the research for my book about the history of American educational conservatism, there is good reason why the centuries-old dreams of civics educators have never really come to fruition.

In a nutshell, civics education can’t work because Americans can’t agree what it is supposed to do. As a recent Brookings report highlighted, schools are very spotty when it comes to delivering the goals of civics education.

If high-quality classroom-based education in civics means anything, it should tend to include some basics. As the Brookings folks put it, there are ten goals:

  1. Classroom instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics, and geography

  2. Discussion of current events

  3. Service learning

  4. Extracurricular activities

  5. Student participation in school governance

  6. Simulations of democratic processes and procedures

  7. News media literacy

  8. Action civics

  9. Social-emotional learning (SEL)

  10. School climate reform

Unfortunately, most civics education is limited to classroom discussions and stale memorization of schoolhouse-rock-level government info.

As the Brookings report found (emphasis added by me),

the most common practices are classroom instruction, knowledge building, and discussion-based activities. These are far more common than participatory elements of learning or community engagement. . . . The lack of participatory elements of learning in state accountability frameworks highlights a void in civics education, as experts indicate that a high-quality civics education is incomplete without teaching students what civic participation looks like in practice, and how citizens can engage in their communities.

In short, most civics classes aren’t able to do the most important parts of real civics education. They aren’t able to engage students in projects that students find meaningful and have an actual impact on public life.

Why not? Ask any teacher. From sex-ed to creationism, any topic that carries the scantiest whiff of controversy is anathema in most schools. Students often care a lot about social issues, but their teachers are hamstrung when it comes to helping students get politically active.

Imagine it: What if a student group decided that their civics project would be a protest against a local abortion provider? Or if students wanted to march in a gay-pride parade? Such activism should be the goal of all civics education, but it is the rare teacher and the rare principal who is willing to take the inevitable heat.

Most schools are caught in a bind. On one hand, they are called on to teach students their duties as active citizens. On the other, if students engage in activism that members of the public disagree with, schools and teachers will inevitably be attacked for it.

Would you want YOUR tax dollars to teach kids to actively oppose a cause you agree with? It’s easy to support civics education in the abstract, but when it comes right down to it, the most we can really agree to is a bland, passive sort of civics information.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Another week come and gone–here are some ILYBYGTH-themes headlines you might have missed:

Should colleges ban the laptop?

Trump Trump Trump! More news this week from the land of Lord Dampnut:

Reza Aslan and Lawrence Krauss go head to head: Is religion a good thing?

Could the Museum of the Bible have thwarted Roy Moore-philia? George Weigel connects the dots at National Review.Bart reading bible

Why do school reformers charge in without thinking first? Curmudgucrat Peter Greene offers an explanation.

If Roy Moore wins his election, he still won’t be the worst senator Alabama has ever sent to Washington.

Let’s segregate our schools better, from Rann Miller at Salon.

Is this a “Sputnik moment” for civics education? Robert Pondiscio and Andrew Tripodo make the case at Flypaper.

How did we get the bajillion-dollar Bible Museum? At IHE, Scott McLemee reviews Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.

From the Creation-Museum-watching Trollingers: How does the Bible relate to creationism and vice versa?

Why Is It So Hard for Us to Teach Civics?

We should be freaking out. It’s not just that Americans don’t know about basic democratic principles. In increasing numbers, we don’t seem to care. Pundits lately have hoped we might be in a rock-bottom crisis of civics education, a “Sputnik moment” that drives Americans to re-invest in basic education in democratic ideas. We’re not. Our civics stand-off is even more hopelessly rancorous than our never-ending fights about creation and evolution.

Last year, Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey hoped that the ugly, bizarre emanations from Trump’s White House might scare America straight when it came to civics education. It wasn’t only Trumpism that alarmed them. The numbers seemed truly shocking and getting worse. As they explained,

Civics literacy levels are dismal. In a recent survey, more than two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government. . . . Far worse, declining proportions say that free elections are important in a democratic society.

When asked in the World Values Survey in 2011 whether democracy is a good or bad way to run a country, about 17 percent said bad or very bad, up from about 9 percent in the mid-1990s. Among those ages 16 to 24, about a quarter said democracy was bad or very bad, an increase from about 16 percent from a decade and a half earlier. Some 26 percent of millennials said it is “unimportant” that in a democracy people should “choose their leaders in free elections.” Among U.S. citizens of all ages, the proportion who said it would be “fairly good” or “very good” for the “army to rule,” has risen from one in 16 in 1995, to one in six today. Likewise, a June 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that a majority of Americans showed authoritarian (as opposed to autonomous) leanings. Moreover, fully 49 percent of Americans agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”

More recently, Robert Pondiscio and Andrew Tripodo offered a few specific suggestions about how teachers can “seiz[e] the moment to improve civics education.”

I share their concern and Pondiscio and Tripodo offer some smart concrete steps to start making improvements. As all these authors are surely aware, though, civics education faces an impossible challenge.

Consider the Sputnik analogy: Back in 1957, Americans were rightly dismayed that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in space technology. Among the many results was a new burst of funding for new science textbooks, books that no longer truckled to the political power of creationists. The BSCS series included robust information about evolution, and by the end of the 1960s those books were being widely used in American classrooms. (If you’re looking for a quick guide to this history, check out Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.)

We aren’t facing a similar situation when it comes to our shoddy civics education.

Why not? Much as creationists might not like it, by 1957 the mainstream scientific community had reached a powerful consensus about the basic outline and importance of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. There is no similar mainstream establishment that can satisfactorily define the proper aims of civics education.

Consider the example I included in my book about educational conservatism. Back in the late 1930s, a set of widely used social-studies textbooks became intensely controversial.  Harold Rugg’s books had been used by millions of students, but in just a few short years they were mostly all yanked from classroom use.

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Watch out: Your school might be teaching civics…

The problem was that Rugg was pushing his vision of civics education. It was a vision that conservatives such as the founder of Forbes Magazine and leaders of the American Legion found subversive.

What did it mean in the World War II years to educate citizens? Harold Rugg thought it meant teaching them the dangers of authoritarianism. He thought it meant teaching them that the United States was one country among many, and that citizens needed to be rigorously skeptical of big business and back-room government deals.

Conservatives thought it meant teaching students to honor and cherish the best American traditions. They wanted children in school to learn to be proud Americans, not weak-kneed socialists. Bertie Forbes explained his beef in one of his popular syndicated columns. He was chatting one day with a group of middle-school students, Forbes related, and they told him about their experience with their Rugg books. When their teacher asked them if the United States was the best country in the world, many of them had answered “Yes.” The correct answer, their teacher read from their Rugg teachers guide, was “No.” In his column, Forbes teed off on that sort of civics education:

Do American parents want their children taught such ideas?  Do they want them to be inculcated with the idea that the United States is a second-rate country, that its form of government is open to question, that there are other countries more happily circumstanced and governed than ours?

Maybe I’m getting too cynical in my old age, but I don’t think we have evolved very far from this 1940s level. When it comes to civics education, we face a stark and glaring divide about the fundamental purposes of such a class. Are students getting a good civics education if they learn how to properly, reverently, fold a flag? Are they getting a good civics education if they can rattle off the correct structure of federal government? Or are they getting a good civics education when they learn how to stage a Black Lives Matter protest?

We can’t agree. And until we can, we will continue to have shameful outcomes in our attempts to teach civics in public schools.