The Decline and Fall of Social Studies

Social Studies instruction is a boring, muddled, content-free mess, writes Chester Finn in a fine tirade.

For a long time, this field's decline resembled that of the Roman Empire (search): protracted, inexorable and sad, but not something one could do much about, even as evidence mounted that youngsters were emerging from high school with scant knowledge of history, geography, civics or economics.

Evidence also mounted that the movers and shapers within social studies had little respect for Western civilization; a disposition to view America as a problem for mankind rather than its best hope; a tendency to pooh-pooh history's factual highlights as "privileging" elites; a tendency to view geography in terms of despoiling the rain forest rather than locating Baghdad on a map; a notion of civics that stresses political activism rather than understanding how laws are made and why they matter; and anxiety that studying economics might unfairly advantage the free-market version.

Since Sept. 11, writes Finn, it's clear that social studies can't just be written off. American students need to learn "what it means to be American, to understand the world they inhabit and the conflicts that rock it, and to grasp the differences between democracy and totalitarianism and between free and doctrinaire societies."

Finn is part of Fordham Foundation's Reclaiming Social Studies project, which includes chapters titled "The Training of Idiots: Civics Education in America's Schools," "Garbage In, Garbage Out: Expanding Environments, Constructivism, and Content Knowledge in Social Studies" and "Ignorant Activists: Social Studies, ‘Higher Order Thinking,’ and the Failure of Social Studies."

Uncomfy Conservatives

Conservative students at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are demanding a commitment to political diversity.

Committee for a Better Carolina (members)...say conservative students are uncomfortable and intimidated on a campus that is overwhelmingly liberal, and they want the university to commit to big changes.

First, they will ask (Chancellor James) Moeser to include political affiliation and ideology in the university's official nondiscrimination policy. They also want the university to devote more money to bring in speakers from a wider variety of ideological perspectives. And they want the university to conduct an investigation into the campus climate for conservatives -- similar to the study conducted last year on the atmosphere for gay students.

The group also wants UNC to hire more conservative professors. Don't hold your breath on that one, guys.

De-Saddamizing Iraqi Books

Iraqi teachers are eliminating Saddamite propaganda from textbooks. It's a big job.

"There were things like: 'The 28th of April is the birthday of Father Saddam. Happy birthday, Father Saddam. Here's a song about Father Saddam,' " said Hisham Abdulla, a Ministry of Education official who co-wrote the English texts used during Hussein's rule...

The editing panel had to review 556 books, sentence by sentence. Fuad Hussein, a returned Iraqi expatriate who chose the panelists, remembers seeing one teacher's hand hesitate the first time she had to cross out a picture of the dictator.

"I told her, 'Don't be afraid. Just bring the pen down here, then across here, and he's finished,'" he said.

The editors -- all Iraqi teachers -- also are removing "slurs against non-Arab ethnic groups."

Patriotism, Rising

Japanese schools will grade students on patriotism, reports Layman's Logic. The Japanese think the younger generation is poorly behaved. (Is there any nation that doesn't think kids aren't what they used to be?) Japanese bureaucrats hope a little old-time patriotism will be the cure.

Lawsuit Hell

Blair Hornstine, who sued her school district for $2.7 million for trying to name a co-valedictorian, has settled for $60,000, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. She'll get $15,000; the rest will go to her lawyers.

Blair Hornstine was reviled for filing a lawsuit to prevent a classmate from sharing valedictorian honors; she felt compelled to skip her graduation ceremonies. Due to the publicity, her plagiarized newspaper articles were revealed; Harvard withdrew its acceptance. Poetic justice can be harsh.

It appears Hornstine will not start college this fall. If she did get in somewhere at the last minute, her family has kept it quiet.

Another star student is going to court. Mark Edmonson aced the SATs with a perfect 1600, but then fell victim to acute senioritis. His As slipped to Cs, Ds and Fs senior year; he lost his place at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's suing to get back in to UNC’s class of 2007. But he's on shaky ground: Like most colleges, UNC warns seniors their acceptance is conditional on decent grades. If he’s really smart, he’ll learn from the Hornstine mess and drop the lawsuit.

Back to Skule

Those kids better larn their lessons, writes Dave Barry. Because their parents are suffering from brain leakage.

Why do our children perform so poorly on standardized tests? Does the fault lie with our teachers? With our school administrators? With our political leaders? Can we, as concerned parents, sue somebody about this and obtain millions of dollars?

Or maybe it's time that we parents stopped passing the buck on education. Maybe instead of pointing the finger at everybody else, we should take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror, and place the blame for our children's lousy test scores where it clearly belongs: on our children. They have a terrible attitude.

I have here a letter, which I am not making up, from a teacher named Robin Walden of Kilgore, Texas, who states:

"I teach math to eighth-grade students. This is an unnecessary task because they are all going to be professional basketball players, professional NASCAR race-car drivers, professional bass fisher people, or marine biologists who will never need to actually use math."

Like Barry, I went to school in the '50s and '60s, when we needed to learn math because some snot named Ivan knew math. A lot of kids were planning to beat up Ivan, if they ever met up with him.


John Kennedy writes:

Our education system has become a joke, as you know. Every year quality decreases, yet all we hear is that the incompetents want more money! School vouchers would put the responsibility for eductaion back on the parents, and create a market for quality schools to be created.

Alex Avilez says:

Is the public aware of the number of teachers we have teaching that are not credentialed? Or have started teaching before having student taught? Or the number of principals we have that have never taught grade levels (i.e. a middle school science teacher principaling a K - 5 school) that they are leading?

World peace is simple compared to fixing our schools.

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 while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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