U.S. Students Need Better Civics Education, Experts Say

Emphasis on multiculturalism and cultural diversity is getting in the way of proper history and civics educations, particularly the teaching of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and its aftermath, say some education experts who are demanding teachers refocus their classes.

“What is wrong with social studies today is a large number of those who determine what is taught ... don’t think it’s important to teach what it means to be an American," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., speaking to an audience Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute (search).

"They do not believe America is exceptional. They do not believe unity is more important than diversity. There are a lot of people who don’t think it’s important or right for Americans to have a common culture,” he said.

Last month, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (search) released a book titled, "Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?," which lambasted the way social studies are taught in America's schools.

The volume criticizes university professors who steer future teachers in too liberal a direction. It attacks weak civics curricula and a misplaced focus on multiculturalism, and expresses particular indignation about the way the Sept. 11 attacks were handled by educators.

“At the very time we most need our citizens and future citizens to learn what it means to be American and why America is worth defending ... the part of the school curriculum on which we must rely for help has turned into a hindrance. It’s not getting the job done. It’s wrongheaded. It may even be making matters worse," reads the book's introduction, written by Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Fordham Foundation.

"The keys to Rome are being turned over to the Goths and Huns," Finn wrote.

Teachers’ associations reject the suggestion that educators have failed at teaching social studies and take exception to accusations that social studies teachers and their mentors in academia are attempting to spread an un-American message.

“We do not see ourselves as lunatics, Huns or Goths,” said Rick Theisen, former president of the National Council for the Social Studies (search) and a veteran teacher.

Theisen said that while the language of the Fordham report is objectionable and does little to further a dialogue on the improvement of social studies, the teaching of history and civics could be bolstered in a number of ways.

For instance, as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act (search), which places an emphasis on reading and math and imposes serious consequences on schools that fail to educate students in those subjects, social studies gets short shrift.

“If it’s not tested, it’s not taught,” Theisen said, adding that if NCLB is not modified, “it will do more [to harm the teaching] of social studies than virtually any other movement."

Theisen also said publishers can also do more to increase student interest in the topic.

“Most textbooks are almost universally bland and uninspiring,” he said.

Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett (search) agreed that teaching civics and history should not be merely an academic exercise.

In light of Sept. 11, “it’s very important for people to know what to love and not to love, what’s worth defending and what’s not,” he said.

Bennett offered several remedies for the problems he saw both in the way social studies is taught and in education generally.

Citing the narrowness of opinions on some campuses, Bennett said schools should emphasize greater intellectual, rather than cultural, diversity.

He also encouraged parents to become more involved in their children’s education and emphasized the importance of school choice.

“You really should be able to flee a place that you think is corrupting the child’s mind,” he said.

Alexander said he is not just complaining about the way social studies is taught. He has also taken action, sponsoring the "American History and Civics Education Act (search)," passed 90-0 by the Senate in June.

The legislation, based on the Governor’s School (search) program that Alexander established while governor of Tennessee, would establish grants for as many as 12 Presidential Academies for Teachers of American History and Civics (search) and authorizes $25 million to fund them.

The House has not yet scheduled a vote on its version of the bill, introduced last March by Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.