Controversial decisions about what we teach in history and social studies will affect the course of our liberal democracy.
June 1, 1999
by John Fonte
Many educators believe that truth and objectivity depend on one's perspective, which in turn often depends on one's race, ethnicity, gender, or class.
1) Truth and objectivity depend on one's perspective, which in turn often depends on one's race, ethnicity, gender, or class. To foster self-esteem, children from all groups (races, ethnicities, genders, cultures) must "see themselves" in the curriculum. Standards should not unduly emphasize the roles of presidents, prime ministers, kings, philosophers, generals, or writers of constitutions because this tends to "privilege" white males. Equal emphasis should be given to the stories of ordinary people, women, and minorities.
2) Major demographic changes including a large influx of non-Western immigrants and the increasing interdependence of the world's peoples have rendered the traditional premises of the high school history/social studies/civics curriculum obsolete. The old curriculum, emphasizing Western civilization and American political culture, is Eurocentric and ill-suited for an increasingly diverse school population. Fortunately, the traditional curriculum is being replaced with new ideas that place race, ethnicity, gender, and class at the center of history and social studies curricula.
Variations of these assumptions advanced under the rubric of multiculturalism are accepted by many professionals in the schools and universities, and they have direct consequences on the creation of standards. For example, some standards and curricula such as the New York curriculum of 1991, the national history standards of 1994, and the Maryland academic standards of 1996 refer to the "peoples" of America rather than the "American people." Clearly, such language assumes that the United States is a collection of different peoples similar to Canada, Belgium, the former Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union, not one people as in "We the People of the United States."
Likewise, in an effort to avoid "Eurocentrism" and promote multiculturalism, the national history standards describe the creation of American civilization as a "great convergence" of three cultures (European, Native American, and African). Concepts such as "the Great Convergence" and "Three Worlds Meet" articulated in the national standards imply that American civilization is not predominantly of Western origin but an amalgamated culture that is only partially, perhaps only one-third, Western. But these are assumptions, not facts, and those drawing up history and social studies standards should bear in mind that there is another approach: the objective search for the truth.
End of Objectivity
Traditionally, the intellectual purpose of history and social studies was to search for truth, to portray past and present reality as accurately as possible. Obviously, historical events are subject to interpretation, and different points of view must be welcome in the classroom, but all interpretation, teaching, and learning should adhere to standard historical and social science rules of evidence and analysis. Although historical and social science interpretations will differ, methodological objectivity-the attempt to be as accurate, objective, balanced, rigorous, and scholarly as possible-is a reasonable goal.
Unfortunately, many academic historians and social scientists of today reject the ideal of objectivity altogether, insisting that all history and social science is "political" and merely represents the perspective of particular groups in a struggle for power. But if history is not an honest attempt to understand the past and social science is not an objective effort to analyze current social phenomena, why should they be taught in public schools as disciplines? On what basis will standards and curricula be developed? How can students and the public feel any confidence in educators who scorn the very idea of objectivity, accuracy, and the search (however imperfect and incomplete) for truth? Many educators believe that a student will gain self-esteem and hence improve scholastically by seeing his ethnic group or gender portrayed favorably and extensively throughout the history and social studies curricula. There is little evidence, however, that this improves children's academic performance, and much evidence that self-esteem is gained through one's own efforts.
Moreover, to suggest that high school history and social science should foster self-esteem is to subordinate the academic curriculum to an unproven theory of social therapy.
A truly inclusive curriculum is not an ideologically based framework. The former accurately examines the roles of women and men and studies all races, ethnicities, and classes. The later uses a race, ethnicity, gender, or class perspective as a prism through which to view all life, and wields this perspective as an instrument in a "struggle for power." Thus, for example, a nonideological women's history differs vastly from a gender-based feminist history. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted this: "The new feminist history, unlike the old women's history, calls for the rewriting and reconceptualizing of all of history from a consciously feminist stance and a feminist perspective." This, of course, is the opposite of inclusion because it deliberately excludes those who do not share a feminist perspective.
Historically in the U.S., social studies and civics have been directly wedded to citizenship education, and history has complemented civic education by providing a nonpartisan, nonideological record of humanity's accomplishments and foibles. The civic purpose of history is to provide future citizens of the American nation with the historical information most important for American citizenship-for citizenship in this nation, here and now.
To be informed citizens in our republic, it is important for American students from all ethnic backgrounds to understand the development of constitutionalism, limited government, civil society, free institutions (including the role of religion), and liberal democracy. As the American Federation of Teachers' Education for Democracy document asserted a decade ago, "citizens must know the fundamental ideas central to the vision of the [American] eighteenth century founders." Furthermore, "to understand our ideas," the AFT document declares, "requires knowledge of the whole sweep of Western Civilization." Likewise, Yale professor Donald Kagan wrote, "the unity of our country and the defense of its freedom require that its citizens understand the ideas, history, and traditions that created them."
For example, standards should explicitly require that students examine the significance of the Federalist Papers and its concept of human nature to democratic political thought. They should also examine the major philosophical ideas of the West, such as the theory of natural law. This concept, articulated by Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas, posits that there is a natural law understandable to all men through a process of reason universally valid in all historical epochs and among all peoples. This concept underlies Western ideas such as equality, individual rights, and self-government.
In general, standards should examine the core ideas, values, institutions, and events of all the world's major civilizations, including the Confucian civilization of East Asia and the cultures of Islam, India, Persia, Africa, and Meso-America, as well as the West. This does not suggest that it makes sense to strive for mathematical parity among cultures. If standards and curricula devote equal time to the five or six major cultures in the world, Western Civilization will automatically be shortchanged. Clearly, the study of Western civilization-heir to the rich legacy of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, of Judaism and Christianity, of individual rights and political freedom, of the belief in reason and science, the rule of law, and constitutional, liberal democracy-is central for students who will be future citizens of this nation. As Professor Kagan reminds us, the United States "was never a nation in the sense of resting on common ancestry but one that depends on a set of beliefs and institutions deriving from the Western tradition."
That Western tradition has shaped our modern world for both good and ill. If liberal democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law are Western ideas, so too are fascism, communism, and nihilism. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis has noted that even the concepts of "Eurocentrism" and "multiculturalism" were invented by Western intellectuals. In fact, to understand today's world, students from all over the globe, not just American ones, have to be thoroughly grounded in the history of Western institutions. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what the top students in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are doing today. It is not "Eurocentric" to emphasize the study of Western ideas and institutions and the principles of America's founders; it is common sense and essential for education for citizenship in our nation.
In fact, the large influx of non-Western immigrants into the U.S. means that it is more, not less, important for all American students to gain a thorough understanding of the principles and origins of our liberal democracy and our Western heritage. As Sidney Hook put it more than a decade ago, precisely because America is a "pluralistic, multiethnic, and uncoordinated society" all citizens need a "prolonged schooling in the history of our free society, its martyrology, and its national tradition." Just as a hundred years ago it was more important for immigrant children to understand the ideas and institutions of eighteenth century America than those of the Czar's empire, the Ottoman provinces, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, so today it is more important for the children of new immigrants to understand the (Western) ideas and institutions of eighteenth century America than those of eighteenth century Asia, Africa, and Latin America. "We" Versus "They"
As noted earlier, in recent years the idea that race, ethnicity, gender, and class should be it the heart of curricula in American schools has been gaining strength in the universities and among professional educators. This idea, however, is not consistent with civic education in the American liberal democracy.
Race, ethnicity, gender, and class are ascribed characteristics, ones that an individual is born into. President, legislator, judge, civil-rights leader, women's-rights leader, entrepreneur, union leader, newspaper editor, military officer, etc., are achieved characteristics, ones that a person earns. It would be very strange for education in America's liberal democracy to emphasize ascription over achievement, focusing on one's status at birth rather than the status one achieves. To suggest that an individual's actions are determined by race, ethnicity, gender, and class is to belittle the ideas of free will and human liberty.
Not surprisingly, those who prefer to view history and social science through race, ethnicity, gender, and class also scorn the study of great individuals and recommend that we examine the lives of ordinary people. Of course, we should study the lives of ordinary people, but to oppose the study of great individuals is to forget that great individuals in democratic societies are not born great but were once ordinary individuals who became great through achievement. Who, after all, was Helen Keller? She was not born great but became so through her own efforts. The same is true of Abraham Lincoln. To scorn great individuals is to scorn the human freedom that makes great achievements possible.
The following hypothetical case illustrates a crucial distinction standards setters should make. Suppose eighth-grade Korean-American female student is studying the Mexican War of 1846-1848 in United States history class. When considering that conflict, does she think in terms of they or we? Does she see the events of that war as something "they"-white males of European descent-were involved in 150 years ago, long before her relatives came to America, or does she think of the Mexican War as a conflict "we" Americans were involved in a century and a half ago? She might be either for or against the war. She might agree with Lincoln and argue that we should not have fought Mexico, or she might agree with President Polk and think that we had to fight Mexico. The crucial point is whether she thinks in terms of we or they.
We implies civic assimilation. If she thinks in terms of we, she has done what previous immigrant and first-generation Americans have done and adopted America's story as her own. But if she thinks in terms of they, she agrees that race, ethnicity, and gender are what matter most and sees America as a group of permanently separate "cultures" or-as the 1994 national history standards, the 1991 New York curriculum, and the 1996 Maryland state standards declare-a nation of separate "peoples."
As Americans develop education standards in history, civics, and social studies, we will inevitably choose between these approaches. Some, of course, will obfuscate and say that we need to find the "middle ground" between we and they. To do this, however, is to choose they over we. Only a clear, unambiguous decision to reject the demands of race, ethnicity, gender, and class is consistent with the intellectual and civic purposes of education in our constitutional liberal democracy.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.
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