I hated "social studies" in school. It was all about the three principal products of hither and yon: Saskatchewan was wheat, oil and...cattle? It was hard to care.
I loved to read history though, especially American and British history. In "Anti-Social Studies" in the Weekly Standard, Kay Hymowitz argues that American students don't know much about history because their social studies teachers don't believe in teaching it, especially American history.
The National Council for Social Studies, a teachers' group, promotes curriculum standards that are obscure, impenetrable, vast and trivial, Hymowitz writes. There's much on personal identity and cultural sensitivity, little on government and nothing on history.
Such references as there are to government— "Describe how public policies are used to address issues of public concern," for example — exist in some hazy realm of our-citizenship that could apply to the Democratic Republic of Korea as easily as to our own. While it's true that high school students are expected to be able to "explain the origins and continuing influence of key ideals of the democratic republican form of government, such as human dignity, liberty, justice, equality, and the rule of law," this task is 78th in a series of 87, given no more salience than such pressing civic goals as knowing how to "construct reasoned judgments about specific cultural responses to persistent human issues" or how to "analyze the role of perceptions, attitudes, values, and beliefs in the development of personal identity."
Elsewhere, NCSS teachers equate patriotism with racism, says Hymowitz. They don't try to teach a common American identity. Either you're a "niche American" — African-American, Hispanic, etc. — or you're a member of the global community.
Now, this familiar multiculturalism has begun to give way to something known as "global studies," a sprawling discipline that encompasses world history, current events, world religions, geography, ecology and world economics.
With all that, it's no wonder kids don't have time to learn about the Boston Tea Party or the New Deal.
However, I'm not holding out high hopes for the Bush administration's plan to boost civics education, which the Washington Post promises won't include vulgar flag waving or shouts of "U.S.A."
These days, civics education means coerced community service, which disrespects the "spirit of liberty," as Mark Steyn puts it. Democracy demands more than learning how to bag canned food or pick up trash at the beach. For content-rich world and American history, Chester Finn of Education Gadfly recommends the Core Knowledge books. I like storyteller Joy Hakim's "History of US." She thinks reading history should be fun.
Course Requirement: Agree With the Prof
At the University of South Carolina, Women's Studies 797 is required to earn a graduate degree in women's studies. Classroom participation counts for 20 percent of the grade. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports on the professor's Guidelines for Classroom Discussion, which require that students:
"acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist. Students must assume that people — both the people we study and the members of the class — always do the best they can. The Guidelines also stipulate that we are all systematically taught misinformation about our own group and about members of other groups, that this is true for members of privileged and oppressed groups, and that students must agree to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups.
In short, students mustn't challenge the professor's ideas.
Computers Confuse Classroom
Students who used computers in social studies class scored substantially lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress history exam, compared to students who didn't use a computer in class. So says the Education Intelligence Agency:
In the 4th grade, students who used computers at school for social studies every day scored a whopping 47 points lower than students who "never or hardly ever" used computers at school for social studies. The margin for both 8th and 12th graders was 24 points. The trend was virtually unbroken for all three grade levels: the more frequently you used a computer at school for social studies, the lower you scored.
Conversely, students who used the Internet for research projects scored much higher than those who did not. The lesson here seems to be that computers should be used as an enhanced library tool, but that their use in classroom instruction for history is counterproductive.
No Cap and Gown for Job-Bound Graduates
San Fernando Valley high schools won't let graduating seniors participate in graduation ceremonies unless they "commit" to college, trade school or military training. Someone needs to be committed, but it's not the students.
Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at ReadJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.