US history classes teach horns, but not halos, report says

When she thinks of liberty, of those who fought to expand humankind's notion of freedom, she thinks of C├ęsar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel. She thinks of Aung San Suu Kyi and the lone Chinese student facing a tank in Tiananmen Square.

Sandra Feldman, president of the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, says that, while she also thinks of such American leaders as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, most American children don't.

"We need to present American history in a way that neither minimizes nor magnifies our failings," says Dr. Feldman, who last week released "Education for Democracy," a report that found many students unable to identify democratic institutions and their capacity to correct themselves.

And their views on democracy, she says, tend to be swayed by disillusionment.

The report, which calls for study that provides students with a "warts-and-all understanding of our own and other nations," has been endorsed by dozens of prominent Americans, including former President Bill Clinton, National Education Association President Reg Weaver, and actor Christopher Reeve.

Based on studies of textbooks and author research, the report finds that students hear a "distorted account" of their country's past - a past that is "irredeemably flawed."

Schools should offer a more positive tone, it states, but should also be careful to avoid "propaganda and patriotic drills," which many children find antagonizing.

The report cites several signs of apathy and disengagement, such as children recognizing Memorial Day as little more than "the day the pools open."

And, over the past 30 years, the percentage of people under the age of 25 who vote has dropped by about 15 percentage points.

As part of its national review, the Albert Shanker Institute offers suggestions for each state (go to www.shankerinstitute.org) as to how schools might improve their curricula.

As we reach the second anniversary of Sept. 11, Feldman says, "America's students need to understand the continuing threats to democracy. At the same time, the recent 40th anniversary of the March on Washington ... reminds us of America's continuing struggle to make the ideals of democracy real for all."

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