- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

The nation’s public schools offer students plenty about America’s failings but not enough about its values and freedoms, says a report drawing support across the ideological spectrum.

Without a change of approach, schools will continue to turn out large numbers of students who are disengaged in society and unappreciative of democracy, the report contends.

Produced by the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute, “Education for Democracy” is the latest effort to try to strengthen the nation’s weak grasp of civics and history. The authors hope it will lead to curriculum changes and, in the short term, stir debate about today’s social studies classes as people reflect on the terrorist attacks of two years ago.

Based on studies of textbooks, research by authors and other reviews, the report contends students get a distorted account that their country is irredeemably flawed. Schools should offer a more positive tone but should avoid propaganda or patriotic drills, the report says.

It also criticizes a lack of teaching about undemocratic societies, saying the comparison could extol the brilliance of America’s system.

“Vietnam, Watergate, impeachment hearings, the rottenness of campaign finance, rising cynicism about politicians in general — we’ve gone excessively in our society … toward cynicism,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“It’s important that students understand not only our flaws and failings, but also the degree to which the United States was really the first modern democracy and the degree to which it has inspired democrats around the world,” Mr. Diamond said. “It’s a call for balance; it’s not a call for purging from the history books honest criticism of our failings.”

The report calls for a stronger history and social studies curricula, starting in elementary school and continuing through all years of schooling. It also suggests a bigger push for morality in education lessons.

“The basic ideas of liberty, equality, and justice, of civil, political and economic rights and obligations, are all assertions of right and wrong, of moral values,” the report says. “The authors of the American testament had no trouble distinguishing moral education from religious instruction, and neither should we.”

The report is notable for the range of people and groups supporting it, including Republicans and Democrats, left-leaning and right-leaning think tanks, teachers unions, school administrators and labor leaders.

Those who have signed on include former President Bill Clinton; Jeane Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and U.N. ambassador during the first administration of Ronald Reagan; and David McCullough, the historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

“For a free, self-governing people, something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential if we are to hold onto and sustain our freedom,” Mr. McCullough said in May when giving the annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities at the National Museum of American History.

“But I don’t think history should ever be made to seem like some musty, unpleasant pill to be swallowed solely for our own civic good.”

The report accompanies an earlier institute-sponsored study, which contended that history and civics are lost in the national emphasis on reading and math.

“We’re not conveying to young people forcefully enough the American heritage, the American way of life,” said Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

“This report puts a strong emphasis on the inadequacy of our civic knowledge and our civic engagement.”

Over the past 30 years, the percentage of people under 25 who vote has dropped 15 percentage points, the report says. It cites other signs of apathy and disengagement, such as when children touring Washington said they knew Memorial Day as “the day the pools open.”

“People have been so anxious to be self-critical, probably with good intentions,” said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest union of teachers. “But we feel that’s just gone too far over in that direction.

“We definitely have had terrible problems as a nation, but we also have a society that is totally different than that of a totalitarian society. Children need to understand and value what has been built here,” said Miss Feldman, also president of the institute, which is endowed by the AFT.

Reg Weaver, president of the largest education union, the National Education Association, has also endorsed the report. So have leaders of the National School Boards Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Civics education, the study of government and the duties and rights of its citizens, already is on the agenda of Congress. The majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, along with Alliance for Representative Democracy, will hold a three-day conference on the subject starting next week.

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