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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What If We Destroyed Citizenship and No One Noticed?

I’ve written here about Teaching American History — the grant program established in the wake of 9-11 that brought historians out to meet teachers and give them new insights into American History, and also allowed teachers to travel to key historical sites. Well TaH is no more — slashed as part of the “Setting Priorities in Education Act.” This bill is the ne plus ultra of the whole mood of testing, “results,” and focus on school as preparation for work. Program after program is cut because, according to Congresspeople who wrote the bill, it “failed to provide date to ‘determine the program’s impact on improving student achievement.'” But there is very clear data on the reverse side. That is, when we don’t teach Social Studies, or cut it back to a half or a quarter time, if we don’t give teachers professional development, if we don’t test Social Studies (thus telling schools, teachers, and soon students that it doesn’t matter), then we get results as in the NAEP study I wrote about earlier: 99% of 8th graders failed to reach “advanced” — when that required answering questions such as “name two ways to contact a Congressperson about a bill or law.” In other words we can prove that our system ensures ignorance — there is plenty of data for that.

I cannot understand why this is not a national crisis. Here are some examples of the “advanced” or “hard” questions that none of our students seem to be able to answer: 98% of 4th graders cannot “explain why the US benefits from having people from different countries and backgrounds,” 99% of 8th graders do not “know the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom,” and 96% of high school seniors cannot “describe two problems in US dependence on foreign oil.” Are we insane as a nation — here we are creating a nation of future citizens who know infinitely more about apps and tweets than the most basic foundations of democracy. And it gets worse.

An author I know recently went to speak with 8th graders about global warming and the other challenges to the planet. He assumed the kids would be bored, having been trained in recycling and save the rain forest since pre-school. But, in fact, they knew almost nothing. Because when we split time between Social Studies and Science both are so amputated no one learns. Our students are as ignorant of science as they are of civics. I simply do not see why our representatives are not screaming, shouting from the rooftops, jumping up and down. I don’t “get” what they think schools are doing. Do we think that a nation of well-trained drones who make sure to be polite as they check us into hotels and on to airplanes is a functioning democracy? I don’t and you don’t. Stop the madness. Push back. More soon — I’m off to meet students (smart) and teachers (interested in learning) — before it is too late.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I am also seeing the results of this lack of attention to social studies in my undergraduate course in Teaching Social Studies in the Elementary School. First, many of my students tell me that the lessons I require them to write and teach during their student teaching experience are the ONLY social studies their students (elementary school children) are getting. Second, my college students–who are quite interested in learning history and social science–have insufficient background themselves and would benefit greatly from continued inservice training. Finally, the children in our elementary schools are interested in learning content. I have seen this firsthand again and again. Telling our teachers that their jobs depend on teaching reading strategies, test taking skills, and ways to structure an essay–all without attention to the purpose for reading and writing–is a grave mistake and a huge disservice to children.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I agree completely — am late in responding b/c I spent the day yesterday with 10th graders and their teachers in a Massachusetts school — and, as usual, found eager responses all around to content, but very spotty prior knowledge.