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Elites Battle Over History While Students Fail Basic Civics (Washington Examiner) January 21, 2021

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

It’s bad enough that civic education is in the tank. In the most recent national testing, only 24% of 8th graders were “proficient” or better in U.S. history, while a pitiful 15% were proficient in government and civics. Only one-third of Americans can pass the basic citizenship test. Funding for civic education is a pittance, as the federal government spends five cents per student per year on it, while investing $54 per student on STEM (science, technology, education and math) education.

But don’t worry, supposedly the experts have our backs. Their answer is to launch a series of wars over the content of history and civics to be sure that what little students might learn or retain is politically correct.

Nationally, the New York Times weighed in during 2019 with its 1619 Project, aimed at changing the understanding of our founding from the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the signing of the Constitution (1787) to the arrival of the first slaves in 1619. Nevermind that there was no country then being founded because the project sought, above all, to redefine the essence of America as its unjust and discriminatory economic system, not its proclamations of freedom and equality or the primacy of laws.

This week, then, the political football was returned by then-President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which released “The 1776 Report.” This was a product of a hurry-up offense, to be sure, because the commission, composed of conservative academics and activists, was appointed a month ago, whereas most projects of this nature take months or years to complete. Perhaps further time was not really needed to, as the commission put it, “restore” the events of 1776 and the Declaration of Independence as America’s true founding.

The sad truth is that instead of debating how to improve civic education, experts are turning it into a political football. The writer Thomas Mann was evidently describing our day when he said, “Everything is politics.” So what we have increasingly in the teaching of U.S. history and civics is adults fighting their political wars on the battlefield of their children’s education — children who, by the way, need Civics 101, not The Politics of Civics.

The California Legislature is doing its part to improve civic education, debating over the terms of teaching ethnic history. California educators are on their third draft to try to create an ethnic studies curriculum that, instead of celebrating and teaching ethnic heritage, seems to prefer attacking white nationalism, colonialism, and the like. The attempt to incorporate critical ethnic studies has had even proponents of ethnic studies divided and unable to agree on a proper curriculum.

Or consider the California schoolteacher who required third graders to deconstruct their racial profile and identify their “power and privilege” ranking. The teacher, in math no less (everything is politics), explained that they live in a “dominant culture” made up of “white, middle class, cisgender, educated, able-bodied, Christian, English speakers,” all of which is a problem in critical race theory. The parents were aghast, and the battle lines were drawn. This was not high school or college, mind you, but third grade.

The point is that battles over political correctness are not what students need in order to improve their civic education. Our lack of national civic knowledge speaks clearly of the need to learn the basics first. As Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University has said, younger students “do not get the interpretive game [and] are just learning that claims must be judged not for alignment with current issues of social justice but for the data they present.” It is in college where students are best prepared to read multiple accounts from different perspectives and make comparisons and judgments.

Cancel culture, covering up art, taking down statues, redefining the founding, critical race theory — these are all efforts by highly political adults to rewrite the script of history. Fine, let academics publish their articles and have their debates. Just not on the backs of young students who desperately need to learn the basics.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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