Debate on teaching democratic values
HAS democracy come out of the public school attic? That's the question many educators are asking as they find more debate about democratic and civic education taking place in the past three months than has occurred in the past three years. The debate includes scholars and key education groups - as well as a growing number of parents and citizens - and is characterized by a search for consensus rather than an increase in dissent.Skip to next paragraph
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At issue is the growing concern over a ``relativistic'' teaching of world cultures in which all political systems are treated as equal in worth. Closely tied to the debate are calls for the reform of a scattershot social studies curriculum that, it is charged, erodes the kind of coherent, narrative teaching of history that helps shape an understanding of the evolution of democracy in the United States.
Since last March, two powerful arguments have been published on behalf of this view: E.D. Hirsch's ``Cultural Literacy,'' and Allan Bloom's ``The Closing of the American Mind.'' A third study by educator Paul Gagnon is due out in July.
Last month, in a move that took the education establishment by surprise, People for the American Way (PAW), a liberal public lobby, sponsored a major Washington conference that brought together civil libertarians, evangelical Christians, and other religious and educational leaders. The discussion focused on the values - or lack of them - in school textbooks, and explored areas of agreement between previously polarized groups.
Said Donna Hulsizer of PAW, ``We've been on the opposite side of the conservatives in a number of textbook cases. In spite of that, we think they've been asking a lot of good questions about the books - about the need to include more on individual integrity and civic responsibility. So far, they've been alone in raising these issues. But we feel there's a broader range of people now getting interested. Something of a reorientation is going on.''
Two weeks ago, there was further evidence of a ``reorientation.'' One hundred and fifty prominent Americans - ranging from former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to former pro-football player Gene Upshaw and tennis star Martina Navratilova - lent their names to a ``Statement of Principles'' for a radically new teaching of democracy in schools, based on the proposition that ``democracy is the worthiest form of human government ever conceived.''
The statement is the work of the Education for Democracy Project, sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, the Educational Excellence Network at Columbia University's Teachers College, and Freedom House, a human-rights watch group.
Again, the central issue is the tendency in US curriculum materials to ``present political systems as not better or worse but only different,'' and to ``rush to present all cultures in a positive light.'' In one popular teacher's guide on human rights, for example, teachers were asked to favorably compare the right of due process and free speech to the ``right'' to take vacations.
The principles statement quoted a student from a prestigious private high school who had learned about injustices in America, but ``learned next to nothing of the sorts of alternatives to bourgeois liberalism that the 20th century had to offer ... nothing of what it meant to be a small farmer in Stalin's Russia or Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam. That it had been part of Communist policy to `liquidate as a class' the `kulaks' was something we had never heard spoken of.''