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.
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.''
At the same time, the project study group found that ``any number of popular curriculum materials deprecate the open preference for liberal democratic values as `ethnocentric.'''
The statement, designed to ``shift the debate from a narrow discussion of values, to a debate over curriculum'' according to project director Ruth Wattenberg of the AFT, calls for a reordering of curriculum around history and geography, a ``realistic and unsentimental study of other nations,'' and deeper study of the ideas, biographies, and events of Western civilization.
Experts say that the statement may be a reference point for teachers, textbook publishers, and educators who want to reexamine democratic education - but not be saddled with the unpopular label of ``superpatriot.''
Many of the intellectual assumptions of the project can be found in the works of Dr. Bloom and Dr. Hirsch. They suggest that the education policies of the past 30 years need to be turned around. In the 1950s, for example, uncritical patriotic sloganeering was seen as civic indoctrination. Progressive educators fought for a more accurate and open portrayal of American history.
Now, however, says Bloom, openness and toleration have themselves become forms of indoctrination - substituting a facile intellectual pluralism for the hard-edged ability to make distinctions among human types, and civic and political ideas.
Hirsch suggests that a common core of American culture be taught to all students, regardles of racial or ethnic heritage, or social class. These views have been criticized as elitist. But Hirsch argues that upward mobility is based on knowing the ideas and symbols of ``literate culture.'' Denying children access to this literacy in order to reinforce their home culture - a common policy in the 1970s - keeps them from the knowledge that is power in society, he says.
Textbook expert Harriet Tyson comments: ``Hirsch is making sense to a lot more people. In the future, the real elitists may be those who support a separate curriculum for the underclass.''
Freedom, relatively speaking
An example of ``neutral'' or ``relative'' civic values is found in this question from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. The ``correct'' answer is B. But, say critics, this misleads students about the meaning of freedom: A job, ample food, and medical care are readily available to most prisoners in the US today.
Maria and Ming are friends. Ming's parents were born in China and have lived in the United States for 20 years. ``People have no freedom in China,'' Maria insists. ``There is only one party in the election and the newspapers are run by the government.''
``People in China do have freedom,'' Ming insists. ``No one goes hungry. Everyone has an opportunity to work and medical care is free. Can there be greater freedom than that?''
What is the best conclusion to draw from this debate?
A. Ming does not understand the meaning of freedom.
B. Maria and Ming differ in their opinions of the meaning of freedom.
C. There is freedom in the US but not in China.
D. People have greater freedom in China than in the US.