Blame Woodrow Wilson for social studies

Woodrow Wilson, now reviled as a racist, bears an even heavier burden of shame, writes Bill Evers in National Review. He’s responsible for replacing history, geography and civics with “the abomination we call social studies.”

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

The Wilson administration’s U.S. Bureau of Education puts its clout behind a 1916 federal report on social studies, issuing the report as a bulletin and promoting textbooks using the new approach.

“Social studies” should not focus on chronology or the workings of government, the report said. Instead, teachers should focus on “concrete problems” that are “of vital importance to society.”

That sounds familiar.

History should be studied if it’s “practical or functional,” social studies enthusiasts believed. “Ancient Athens was studied not as part of the political and intellectual development of Western civilization, but rather in connection with the contemporary problems of city planning,” writes Evers.

The “key note of modern education” is “social efficiency,” the report concluded. Social studies was to train students to “take a job based on the service the job ‘rendered’ to ‘the community’,” rather than personal preferences.

Instead of recommending that students study the social sciences in order to form an independent mind knowledgeable about the past, the 1916 social-studies report effectively encouraged students to conform and adjust to prevailing views. Ever since this paradigm change, social studies has been bedeviled by fads, fashions, and indoctrination in the name of relevance.

Many Americans “don’t know what happened or when” in history, Evers concludes. They don’t understand “federalism or our system of checks and balances.”

I wonder how many could tell Woodrow Wilson from Flip Wilson.

Those who don’t know history …

Ninety-eight percent of high school seniors couldn’t explain Brown v. Board of Education on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, according to the Boston-based Pioneer Institute. States should require students to pass a U.S. history exam “with a strong focus on the founding documents” to earn a high school diploma, argues a new Pioneer report.

States, perhaps with federal help, would have to set aside funding for high-quality training in “the teaching of rigorous academic content,” the report adds. “Administrators should focus their hiring on teachers with strong content knowledge,” rather than familiarity with “the latest pedagogical techniques.”

Trendy education ideas, such as “21st century skills” and “authentic learning,” focus on showing students “how the issue they are studying either reflects or will impact the life they live now,” the authors write.

The idea that the purpose of education, let alone history education, is to remove a student from the here and now and to get them to understand ideas and worlds beyond their immediate interests is anathema to proponents of today’s trendy reform ideas.

“The stories of the past – be it about the rise and fall of Napoleon, the march of Alexander the Great across Asia, or the rise and ideas of businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller – are intrinsically fascinating,” they write, not just “for what lessons their stories can offer us today.”

Is your school’s namesake worthy?


Florida has more schools named for manatees than for George Washington.

Some want to rename the nearly 200 K-12 schools named for Confederate leaders, writes Robert Pondiscio. As a teacher of civics and history, he sees a teachable moment.

So here’s a challenge for every school in this country named after a president, military figure, athlete, civic leader or any prominent person: Commit the coming school year to a close examination of the life and work of your school’s namesake.

. . . Let (students) debate, defend or challenge the merits of their namesake – but from a position of deep, informed conviction.

. . . Agree that the current name must stand until or unless an alternative person – not a street, natural feature or other bland, inoffensive name like Valley View High – is chosen if the current honoree fails to pass muster.

It’s increasingly rare for public schools to be named for people, according to a 2007 paper by Jay Greene and colleagues.  It’s easier and safer to choose a name from nature. That’s why Florida has 11 schools named for manatees and only five for George Washington. Arizona has as many public schools are named for the roadrunner as for Thomas Jefferson.

“Unfortunately, such caution betrays public education’s civic mission,” Greene and his colleagues wrote. “To teach civics effectively, we have to affirm that democracy and liberty are superior to other systems of government and that the history of democratic societies – shaped by the leadership of people whose names we should know – reinforces this point.

Is there anyone we can agree to honor?

History, civics, geography: Huh?

www.usnewsMost eighth graders don’t know much about U.S. history, civics and geography reports the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Only 18 percent tested as proficient or better in history, 23 percent in civics and 27 percent in geography. About half of students scored at the basic level. The rest did even worse.

The good news is that scores are no worse than in 2010, when the test was last given.

NAEP tested a representative sample of eighth graders in 2014.

Only 45 percent could interpret time differences using an atlas with time zones, notes AP.

Only about a third knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most people in the U.S.

While most students said their social studies classes used textbooks, the percentage is falling. More are reading primary sources, such as letters and other historic documents, and viewing online presentations.

Should everyone take citizenship exam?

Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship must pass a simple exam on civics and history facts. In Arizona and North Dakota, all students will have to pass the citizenship exam to qualify for a high school diploma.

Requiring the citizenship test is a good idea, editorializes USA Today.

Some questions are easy or trivial. But many about voting, the First Amendment, states’ rights and the Supreme Court offer jumping-off points for enticing discussions about current events. . . . The test can provide a floor on civics learning. It doesn’t have to set the ceiling.

One in three native-born citizens failed the test, according to a 2012 Xavier survey of adults.  (Quiz yourself here.)

The test trivializes civics education, responds Peter Levine, associate dean for research at Tufts’ College of Citizenship and Public Service.  It’s easy to memorize the right answers with a little cramming.

More than 90 percent of high school graduates have taken a semester-long civics course and most have devoted a year to studying U.S. history, Levine writes.

Then why do so many adults fail basic questions about the U.S. political system? Because we have forgotten what we learned in civics class. Too often, the subject wasn’t inspiring or challenging and didn’t build habits of following and discussing the news.

The problem with civics is not that we fail to teach it. The problem is that civics is often viewed as a set of disconnected facts, not as a challenging and inspiring subject that will continue to interest us after high school.

For example, the citizenship exam asks how many constitutional amendments have been passed, writes Levine. “You don’t need to understand reasons for or against those amendments, or have any sense of why they were important” as long as you’ve memorized the right answer, which is 27. 

Required civics classes and tests have little impact, if students don’t go “deeper,” argues a Jobs for the Future paper. Some students — usually the collegebound — “participate in high-quality service learning programs, collaborative research projects, student-produced newspapers, classroom debates, mock trials, model legislatures, and the like.” Most students don’t learn much that’s memorable.

My uncle and aunt helped a young Chinese friend study for the citizenship exam. The three of them knew the line of succession to the presidency down to the postmaster general. Which is trivia. If we strengthened the exam for new Americans, it might serve as a useful screen for high school students. Otherwise, it’s an absurdly low bar.

Idiotae loquere

An eighth-grade Vermont girl studying Latin thought it would be nice if her state had a Latin motto. She wrote to Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, who introduced a bill proposing “Stella quarta decima fulgeat,” (“May the 14th star shine bright”) in addition to the state’s English motto, “Freedom and Unity,”  writes John Walters in the Vermont Political Observer.  Vermont was the 14th state to join the Union.

It seemed like a “nice, harmless” thing, writes Walter. Then, all hell broke loose.

WCAX-TV did a story about the bill and asked for comments on its Facebook page about adding a Latin motto. There was some confusion.

 Dorothy Lynn Lepisto: “I thought Vermont was American not Latin? Does any Latin places have American mottos?”

Norman Flanders: “What next Arab motto??”

Kevin P. Hahn: “How about ‘go back south of the boarder’”

Richard Mason: “We are AMERICANS, not latins, why not come up with a Vermont motto that is actually from us”

Judy Lamoureux: “Throw him out of the country tell him to take obama with him!”

Phil Salzano: “My question is, are we Latin, or are we Vermonters? Alright then, English it is…..”

Lori Olds: “I thought this was USA why are they trying to make Americans aliens”

Chris Ferro: “That’s a BIG NO, if you live in the United State YOU need to learn ENGLISH!!”

Julie Kellner: “No, you a USA citizen!.. Learn & understand the language!!!.”

Kurtis Jones: “No cause vt ain’t no Latino area. Leave the motto alone”

Zeb Swierczynski: “ABSOLUTLY NOT!!!! sick and tired of that crap, they have their own countries”

Ken Curtis: “Just when I felt our represenatives could not possibly get any dumber , they come up with this…get real… this is the USA, not some Moslim or Mexican country…stop given in to these people…PRESS 1 for English and forget the rest… worry about the problems you were elected to do”

Ronald Prouty Jr. “No way this is America not Mexico or Latin America. And they nee to learn our language, just like if we go there they want us to speak theirs”

Heather Chase: “Seriously?? Last time I checked..real vermonters were speakin ENGLISH.. NOT LATIN..good god…”

“Vermont” was named by explorer Samuel Champlain, a Frenchman, one of Walters’ readers points out. It means green mountain.

Vermont spends $19,000 per student — more than any other state — and has the highest graduation rate.

Arizona: Know basic civics to earn a diploma

Arizona students will need to pass a civics test — the same one given to would-be citizens — to earn a high school diploma.

Stephanie Parra, a member of the Phoenix Union High School District governing board, said the requirement will waste time and money, reports NPR. “Having students memorize and regurgitate facts is not going to get to the goal of what we want to accomplish here, which is retaining the importance and value of what American civics education should be,” Parra said.

Translation: Knowledge is useless.

In Model Citizens, Robert Pondiscio calls the requirement “a no-brainer in more ways than one.”

The naturalization test requires very basic knowledge:

What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?
Name two rights in the Declaration of Independence.
Why do some states have more representatives than others?
Who is the governor of your state now?
How old do citizens have to be to vote for President?
Who is the President of the United States?

Applicants for citizenship — and now Arizona 12th graders — need only get 60 percent of the questions right.

In 2010, the pass rate among those seeking naturalization was 97.5 percent according to a Xavier University study. Yet more than one in three native-born citizens fail when asked to show even that rock-bottom, basic level of civic knowledge. Raise the bar to seven out of ten for a passing and 50 percent fail.

. . . Serious People in Education cluck at the citizenship test. It’s just trivial pursuit, they say. It’s no substitute for deep engagement in civics and citizenship.

“If you graduate from a U.S. high school without being able to name one of your senators, any war fought in the 1900s, or the name of a single American Indian tribe, something has gone seriously wrong,” responds Pondiscio.

I had to memorize the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution as part of a test on the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions to collect my junior high diploma. (Those who failed were allowed to retake the test multiple times.) I think I could do the Preamble today, nearly 50 years later.  “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . . “

6th graders ‘update’ the Bill of Rights

Arkansas sixth-graders were assigned to help a government task force revise the “outdated” Bill of Rights, a mother complained to Digital Journal. Students were told to dump two amendments, recommend two new ones and explain their reasoning.

Lela Spears said her daughter hadn’t been taught about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights before the assignment. Students didn’t learn how the Constitution is amended and might think it can be changed by a “special” committee.

Spears knew it was a “critical thinking” assignment. But how can students think critically about the Bill of Rights without knowing anything about the Bill of Rights?


A photo of the worksheet asking students to  omit  two Amendments in the Bill of Rights

The right to nonpolitical homework

Can a teacher require students to be activists? There’s a First Amendment right to nonpolitical homework, concludes the New York Times‘ ethics columnist.

A parent wrote:

For my daughter’s high-school biology class, the students are required to take a public action addressing climate change. They have a wide range of options of what they can do: write a letter to a public official, design a website, develop a public-service announcement or organize a flash mob. They are required to submit proof that they presented their work publicly — that is, that they mailed the letter, launched the website, etc. Is it ethical for the school to require students to speak publicly on a specific issue? Or even to give extra credit for doing so? Does the students’ right to free speech also give them the right not to speak publicly on this topic? KATHARINE LONDON, CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

The teacher can “teach climate change as hard science” without “universal community support,” responds the ethicist. But requiring public support for a divisive idea is not science.

Asking students to create the groundwork for a presentation (letter, website, flash mob) is not unethical, because it’s mostly a way to make students investigate a subject in a less conventional, more practical context. They will understand the ideas with greater depth. It’s a creative means for self-directed education. But forcing them to publicly advocate for that idea is something else entirely. That’s an extension of civics. And if a civics instructor demanded all her students campaign in public for a controversial environmental view that she personally supported, it’s pretty easy to see how this would be a problem. Here again, the issue is not about the subjective accuracy of the concept; it’s about forcing someone without agency to serve as a conduit.

The biology teacher might respond that students could “address” climate change by writing a letter saying it’s all hooey. That would be a brave student. But, even if students were given a real choice about what opinions to voice, mandatory activism is creepy.

And . . . organize a flash mob?

Making Americans: Core civics


Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

Social studies — including history and civics — is being crowded out of the classroom by the push to raise reading and math achievement, said Stefanie Sanford at a Manhattan Institute event on Civic Education and the Common Core. As a Fordham trustee and chief of Global Policy and Advocacy for The College Board, Sanford thinks the new standards will revive civic education.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.” It was his strong belief in education as the bedrock of democracy that made Jefferson one of our earliest and strongest champions of public education.

The amount of time devoted to history and civics education “has been on the decline for decades,” says Sanford. Schools have shifted time from science, history, and the arts to English language arts and math. But reading achievement has stagnated in the last 40 years.

In 1971, the average reading score on the twelfth-grade NAEP was 285. In 2008, it was 286.

While the goal of improving reading achievement is noble, our efforts to do so have been misguided and have inadvertently undermined our efforts to improve civic education for two reasons.

First, student reading comprehension will not improve unless we teach content.

Research tells us that, once students have learned how to read, the best way to improve reading comprehension is to broaden students’ content knowledge and to expand their vocabulary. That means that, rather than shifting time away from history and civics, if we really want to improve reading achievement, we should redouble our efforts to teach important content. And that includes teaching U.S. history and civics.

Second, civics education cannot stand alone.

. . . civics education should be infused throughout the K–12 curriculum. Students in English classes should be asked to read and understand the Founding documents—not just for their historical significance but also for their literary merit. And they should be invited to study and analyze the great texts that are part of the Great Conversation. These are part of a well-rounded ELA curriculum, not an add-on that comes only if and when schools have time. We cannot expect to graduate a generation of culturally and historically literate American citizens unless our curriculum and instruction are infused with the great literary works that informed and drove our nation’s great history.

Sanford is the author of Civic Life in the Information Age: Politics, Technology, and Generation X.