Monday, May 30, 2005

Civics Education and Backwards History

In his Memorial Day column for the Washington Times, the distinguished free-speech advocate and jazz critic, Nat Hentoff, bemoans the woeful state of civics education in our country. Hentoff begins by writing:

Too few studies of what's wrong with our school systems focus on a crucial failure -- enabling the young to learn the foundations of their liberties and responsibilities. How do local, state and federal governments interact? How does the Constitution work, and why and how has it survived as the oldest guarantor of its citizens' freedoms in the world?

A chilling 2003 report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland reveals that in our high schools, "most formal civic education today comprises only a single course on government compared to as many as three courses in civics, democracy and government that were common in the 1960s." This situation has not yet markedly improved.

The report adds that in this single civics course, these days, there is hardly any discussion of the role of a citizen in this society.
One of CIRCLE's reports has some intriguing findings. Civics Curriculum and Civic Skills: Recent Evidence, by Melissa K. Comber, notes that:
Those students who reported having studied civics also reported higher levels of civic skills. For example:

- Students who have studied Congress, the Presidency, or political systems and voting reported greater confidence in their ability to understand political issues.

- Students who reported studying topics such as Congress and how laws are made answered slightly more political interpretation questions correctly than students who did not report studying these topics.

- Students who reported learning about aspects of American government, especially Congress, were more likely than other students to expect to write letters to a newspaper about social or political concerns as adults.

- Students who have had courses requiring them to pay attention to government, politics, or national issues within the past two years were slightly more confident that they could write letters to government officials about an issue that concerns them.

- Except for 11th graders, students who have had courses requiring them to pay attention to government, politics, or national issues within the past two years were slightly more confident that they could make a statement at a public meeting.

- Students who have studied Congress, the Presidency, how laws are made or voting and political parties were more likely than other students to agree that they have something to say regarding social or political issues when part of a discussion.

- Students who reported studying Congress, political parties and voting and how laws are made were more likely to participate in student councils than students who have not studied these subjects.

- For every grade except 12th grade, students who have studied Congress, the Presidency, how laws are made or voting and political parties were more likely to have worked with student government.

- Students who reported studying the Constitution, Congress, political parties and voting and how laws are made were more likely to read newspaper articles “often” or “sometimes”.

- Overall, the percentage of students stating that they read the newspaper “almost daily” or “at least once a week” was greater in the older grades. Once again, students who have studied Congress, the Presidency, how laws are made or voting and political parties read the national news more often than other students.

- Students who have studied Congress, the Presidency, how laws are made or voting and political parties watched or listened to national news more often than other students.

- Overall, the percentage of students who have participated in a debate was greater in the higher grades. Students who have studied Congress, the Presidency, how laws are made or voting and political parties were more likely to have participated in such a debate or discussion.

Hentoff proposes to solve the civics education deficit through federal spending on education, which I think is the wrong way to go. Improvements in civics education should come through initiatives at the lowest levels of government, such as local school boards, with funding coming from the political parties and private foundations. (The Republican and Democratic parties already subsidize education for democracy in foreign countries, through the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, respectively.)

Hentoff endorses a federal subsidy of $21.5 million for the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, California. I accept Hentoff's judgment that the center does laudable work, but that does not translate into entitlement for taxpayers' money from the federal government. We should be trying to wean schools off of the federal teat and reduce Washington's involvement in education at every level, rather than increasing government interference in private institutions like the Center for Civic Education and in local schools' curricular decision-making processes.

Let me add another suggestion to the mix, one inspired by my mentor at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Ernest W. Lefever, who is still active at the age of 85. He recently published an article in the Washington Times entitled "Why theocracy can't happen here"; his most recent books are America's Imperial Burden: Is the Past Prologue? and The Irony of Virtue: Ethics and American Power. (I wonder if he was thinking of the title of my book, The Politics of Sentiment, when he named that latter one?)

In the late 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, Dr. Lefever came up with the novel idea of "teaching history backwards" in order to enhance the engagement of students in the study of current affairs. In December 1996, when I was serving as co-chairman of the Social Studies Advisory Committee for the Arlington County (Virginia) government schools, I wrote an article based on that concept. It appeared in the metropolitan news section of the Washington Times, and I think in this post-Cold War, post-9/11 environment, the proposal still has merit:
How About Teaching History Backwards?
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

In his 1978 essay, "Teaching History Backwards," Ernest Lefever noted that "most high school seniors probably know more about ancient Greece and Rome and the voyages of Columbus than about the recent events that have shaped the outlook of their parents."

Lefever went on to say that learning history "is vital for any people. It is especially so for the United States, which is a democracy, a superpower, and the leader of the free world. The exercise of U.S. power and influence or the failure to exercise it has global reverberations. A responsible American citizen must understand this and must also be aware of the external dangers which threaten our freedom or that of our allies." The global scene has changed tremendously in the past 20 years -- symbolized vividly by the fall of the Berlin Wall -- but this perspective is still valid today.

To address the problem of how the recent past affects our present more saliently than the distant past, even while schools often fail to teach about recent events, Lefever suggested "teaching history backwards" -- starting with the past 30 years, then moving on to more distant developments that have affected U.S. and world affairs.

For the past several years, the Social Studies Advisory Committee has recommended that the Arlington Public Schools add a fourth year of social studies to the required high school curriculum. Specifically, we have recommended that a second year of world history be offered in Grade 10, largely to compensate for the phenomenon that many of us have experienced -- one year of world history is simply too short to cover all of the developments in the 20th century. We commonly experience this as "not getting past World War II" in a typical history course.

Arlington schools now face an additional problem: The new state Standards of Learning (SOLs) require an assessment at Grade 11, which may become a barrier to graduation, just like the "Literacy Passport." We felt that something should be done to prepare our students for that test in a way that would also fulfill our long-held desire for a fourth required course in social studies.

In response, the curriculum development staff has recommended a new tenth- grade course, called "The World Since ‘The War to End All Wars.'" This staff proposal, which has been forwarded to the School Board for final approval by Superintendent Arthur Gosling, meets the criteria set by the Social Studies Advisory Committee. The course is precisely what our committee had in mind when we made our repeated recommendations for a fourth year of social studies. As envisioned, it combines history, geography, and political science in an interdisciplinary and case-study fashion that brings students up-to-date in regard to the important events and trends of our own era. A course like this builds a conceptual bridge to the 21st century and helps students find a common language to communicate with their parents and grandparents, who lived through these same events and trends.

Some parents and students object to this change in the curriculum -- which would begin in the 1998-99 school year -- because it reduces elective opportunities for students, particularly art or music electives. True, the number of electives available during tenth grade would fall from three to two, but the negative impact -- if there is any at all -- will fall on students taking social studies electives, primarily psychology (359 students), sociology (173), AP European History (143), and economics (25). Out of 1100 tenth-grade students, only a few dozen -- if any at all -- would have to forgo art or music classes.

One reason the School Board is considering this curriculum change now is precisely to give fair warning to parents and middle-school students that in two years they will have to meet this new requirement, and that they should plot out their course of electives with this in mind. Those desiring to take art, music, or AP European history can plan on taking them in later grades, or can use one of the other two tenth-grade elective slots for these courses.

If the Virginia Board of Education makes the eleventh-grade social-studies assessment a barrier to graduation, but the School Board fails to make this curriculum change, we could face major problems down the road. Should any Arlington students fail the test because no preparation was available in tenth grade, our whole school system will be poorer for it.

In designing this new course and considering all other options, the staff aimed for minimal disruption to the current curriculum, as well as the lowest cost to taxpayers. The new 20th-century history course is being added to the high school program of studies with almost surgical precision, designed to meet both state-mandated requirements and the desire of Arlingtonians to prepare our students from the classes of 2001 and beyond to be better, more informed citizens.
I had to resign from the Social Studies Advisory Committee in August 1997 for health reasons, and subsequently I lost track of the committee's progress in implementing curriculum reforms. Perhaps readers in Arlington can bring us up-to-date on what is being taught in Arlington schools in terms of recent history and civics/citizenship.

1 comment: said...

Do you know of any more specific information about how to teach history backwards? I would like to teach my teenaged son U.S. history at either the high school or college level working backwards, because he is not that interested in history until he wants to understand how politics affect product ideas that he has. I have a law degree and a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in history so I believe that I understand history but I would like any help I could get from anyone who has already taught U.S. history backwards, so that I am not trying to do so from scratch when I believe I will only be doing it once, although certainly I would like to advocate that our schools try this. Do you know of any books or curriculum that approach U.S. history backwards?