Date: November 7, 2003
Subject: The fog of war

"War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty." —On War, Carl von Clausewitz

Now that we are coming down the home stretch to the final draft of the social studies (and science) standards, I sense that the public at large is having trouble cutting through the "fog of war" over the U.S. History standards in particular. They are feeling some of the fear factor when the education establishment uses straw-man terms like "factoids," "drill and kill," "rote memorization," "dead white man history," and say there won't be time for any critical thinking after we fill our wee ones' heads with such trivia. Conservatives fear a return to the Profile of Learning under a new name, if all of the specifics are stripped from the U.S. History standards and overruled by a new history skills standard filled with process and devoid of knowledge.

In his November 5th commentary in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, "Commissioner Yecke, tear down this wall (of ignorance)!," D.J. Tice cuts past the content vs. process debate by reminding us that we need both. The larger question is, what is the purpose of social studies? Is it, Tice asks, "to teach schoolchildren that American history is just another sorry sequence of 'tragedies and injustices' (like every other nation and culture on earth)" or that it is "a special experiment in human liberty whose ideals and institutions, however imperfect and imperfectly realized, have produced as decent and successful and improvable a society as humankind has known."

We need to know about America's history, warts and all as the Commissioner has said, without forgetting to teach our children what makes America great.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant -- and free -- in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." —Thomas Jefferson

The Albert Shanker Institute sent the Academic Standards Committee a copy of their report published in September 2003, called "Teaching for Democracy." Endorsed by a wide range of prominent citizens, scholars and educators—including former President Bill Clinton, President Reagan's UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, historian David McCullough, essayist Richard Rodriguez, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, actor Christopher Reeve, and Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami—the document calls for an expanded course of study in history, civics, and the humanities, providing students with a full, warts-and-all understanding of our own and other nations. It is an important document that unfortunately was not made available to the committee until last Saturday's meeting.

In the weeks ahead, the social studies writing committee needs to blow past the fog of war, and carefully consider: what is the purpose of social studies education? Is it enough to teach our children to be "active citizens in a democracy," or must we first pass them the torch of the principles upon which our country was founded, to ensure that freedom is preserved? As Diane Ravitch said, "Our ability to defend -- intelligently and thoughtfully -- what we as a nation hold dear depends on our knowledge and understanding of what we hold dear." Knowledge must proceed "critical thinking;" otherwise we end up with a cohort of ignorant activists, which is already happening.