In a recent article, Classroom Content: A Conservative Conundrum, Robert Pondiscio argues that conservatives have placed all their faith in school choice while retreating in the battle over curriculum in K-12 classrooms. He urges conservatives to stay engaged in this battleground and not abandon educational content to the Left.
Using E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s 1987 landmark book, Cultural Literacy, as his main point of reference, he notes that Hirsch concluded that a “student’s ability to comprehend a text is largely determined by the student’s background knowledge.” That is, speakers and writers make assumptions about what readers and listeners know, and “rely on them to understand references and allusions, and to make correct assumptions about word meanings and context.” But Hirsch warned that we have “permitted school policies that shrunk the body of information that Americans share, and these policies have caused our national literacy to decline.”
This is readily seen in what is almost a complete void in the classroom—civic education. Hirsch wrote that the purpose of the American common school is to be “common knowledge, virtue, skill, and an allegiance to the larger community shared by all children no matter what their origin.” As Pondiscio summarizes, “the goal of fostering allegiance to the larger community is no longer anywhere near the heart of American education.”
We at the American Center for Transforming Education could not agree more. The civics being taught today is more about virtue signaling than becoming a responsible citizen. Promoting specific positions on issues such as gun control, climate change, and abortion, schools encourage students to go scream and hold picket signs rather than holding genuine conversation where all participants are welcome.
So what can be done? Early American leaders understood that of paramount importance was conveying to young people what it means to be a citizen. As Thomas Jefferson asserted, “A democratic republic could succeed only if the people as a whole were knowledgeable about the institutions of self-government and participated in them.”
Author and Discovery Institute founder, Bruce Chapman, writes “elected and appointed officials should make sure that the full story of American representative democracy is again taught in common schools and state-support colleges.” Schools “should examine the moral nature of citizenship and practical politics, as well as government structure and supposedly scientific methods of scholarship in politics.”
And the program chair to ACTE, Don Nielsen recommends that students “take a course on civics to grasp the structure and function of government.” This will aid in the process of “total development” of our children—in short, about “teaching children how to live a happy and healthy life, as a productive citizen, in the twenty-first century.”
Curriculum is but one part to our educational crisis. As Pondiscio summarizes, “Conservatives can no longer stand on the sidelines of debates about the foundational question of what children in public schools across the country should learn. They risk leaving the next generation semi literate and ill equipped for participating in—and simply maintaining—a civil society.”