The Fordham Institute, an organization I admire for its work in education policy, has given the Texas public education social studies standards adopted by the State Board of Education a grade of D and criticized the standards for rigor and clarity as well as a political agenda that biased the curriculum from a leftist orientation to the far right. I quote the report: “In Texas, they are trying to resurrect the old triumphal narrative in which everything in American history is wonderful, as opposed to the left-wing narrative in which America is uniquely evil. And in the end, who suffers but students, because they don’t learn history at all.”
This is embarrassing and I suppose we should plead guilty, although as I monitored from afar the debates on the standards last year, while lamenting some of the extremes in the content, I justified the final product in the interest of rebalancing the curriculum that had become extremely biased to the left over the past several decades.
But further reflection is warranted. For in my estimation the ultimate culprit is the abdication of higher education in its leadership role as purveyor and curator of our cultural heritage. After all, it all rolls downhill and our leading intellectuals have debauched the core curriculum, virtually abandoned the systematic study of the Western intellectual tradition, and denigrated the study of America and its ideals.
In spite of this development, an American Enterprise Institute study last fall found that 83% of social studies teachers view the U. S. as a unique country that stands for something special in the world and just 1% want students to learn that the U. S. is a fundamentally flawed country. That’s the good news. Not so encouraging is that only 24% of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections of the Bill of Rights, 15% think that their students understand concepts such as federalism, and 11% believe their students understand the basic concepts of the free market. So it appears that the biases of the teachers are not the problem and that they deserve standards that properly reflect a rigorous, balanced and objective view of our history and ideals.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, at the request of Congress, has recently established the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences “to bolster teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences”. I’m not bowled over by the membership of this Commission, but maybe it will shed some light on the confusion in the field and help to restore some order and depth. In the meantime, I have a suggestion for the Texas SBOE: retain the National Association of Scholars, a nationally recognized organization of leading liberal arts scholars, to review and make recommendations on the social studies standards. Of course, this suggestion from someone like me will be DOA, so there will probably not be a resolution of the problem until the overhaul of public education governance in Texas to extricate the standards from partisan politics.