Would revived civics end up being progressive ed redux?

The good news is that civics education, which teaches children the basics of good citizenship, is quickly gaining fans after being dormant for decades.  There is a growing recognition that democracy cannot endure if three fourths of American students don't know what makes their country tick.

The big unknown is whether revived civics coursework will become a means of teaching kids that they live in an exceptional republic whose founders molded a constitutional system within which citizens can find their niche and enjoy the blessings of liberty.  Or will it be a vessel for something else entirely?

The bad news is that education progressives and the political left appear to be determined to make civics a playground for their pet causes. 

In a major study released in January, the National Association of Scholars found that much of higher education has shifted from instructing students on the fundamentals of constitutional government to pressing a radical agenda via community service projects masquerading as academics.  Author David Randall documented millions of credit-hours granted to students annually working for such causes as "de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity-group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international 'norms' over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals."

That is New Civics in a nutshell.

A handy way to install this ideology in grade schools, K-12, is to argue that civics education should be action-packed and exciting for children.  Along that line, Education Week recently featured an article advocating for a personalized civics education in which a grasp of fundamental knowledge takes a backseat to students engaging in civic activism via project-based learning.

Officials of Generation Citizen, a nonprofit pushing this activist approach, offered ways students essentially could construct their own civics as opposed to sitting through lectures on the separation of powers and such.  One tipoff to the built in slanting of such instruction lies in this sample topic: "After learning about the role of climate change in the recent hurricanes, they can pressure their local governments to explore alternative forms of energy or upgrade the town sewage system."

That project posits as a certainty that the active 2017 hurricane season has been the product of man-made global warming.  Science has not validated that speculation.  And never mind that twelve years of unusually light hurricane activity preceded this year's fierce tropical cyclones, even as carbon dioxide emissions have risen.

It is laughable when educrats claim ownership of project-based learning as some bright innovation.  In truth, the concept goes back at least 100 years, to the genesis of progressive education, which took root in teacher-training institutions and has hung out there since.

In 1918, a high-powered commission on secondary education determined that history should be merged into a mishmash of disciplines called "social studies" and greatly de-emphasized.  Civics should be about not knowledge, but instead "social efforts to improve mankind," stated the Committee on Social Studies.  "It is not so important that the pupil know how the President is elected as that he shall understand the duties of the health officer in his community."  (This is drawn from Diane Ravitch's insightful history published in the year 2000, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.) 

In short, battles between advocates of traditional civics and utilitarian civics have raged for all these decades, and soon, they may be at their fiercest level ever.  This tension, rooted in basic divisions as to the purpose of education, strengthens the argument for parental choice.  Let families decide whether they want their children to learn about the principles of self-government that make this country exceptional or if they would prefer that the kids gather petitions to submit to the local waterworks department. 

Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

The good news is that civics education, which teaches children the basics of good citizenship, is quickly gaining fans after being dormant for decades.  There is a growing recognition that democracy cannot endure if three fourths of American students don't know what makes their country tick.

The big unknown is whether revived civics coursework will become a means of teaching kids that they live in an exceptional republic whose founders molded a constitutional system within which citizens can find their niche and enjoy the blessings of liberty.  Or will it be a vessel for something else entirely?

The bad news is that education progressives and the political left appear to be determined to make civics a playground for their pet causes. 

In a major study released in January, the National Association of Scholars found that much of higher education has shifted from instructing students on the fundamentals of constitutional government to pressing a radical agenda via community service projects masquerading as academics.  Author David Randall documented millions of credit-hours granted to students annually working for such causes as "de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity-group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international 'norms' over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals."

That is New Civics in a nutshell.

A handy way to install this ideology in grade schools, K-12, is to argue that civics education should be action-packed and exciting for children.  Along that line, Education Week recently featured an article advocating for a personalized civics education in which a grasp of fundamental knowledge takes a backseat to students engaging in civic activism via project-based learning.

Officials of Generation Citizen, a nonprofit pushing this activist approach, offered ways students essentially could construct their own civics as opposed to sitting through lectures on the separation of powers and such.  One tipoff to the built in slanting of such instruction lies in this sample topic: "After learning about the role of climate change in the recent hurricanes, they can pressure their local governments to explore alternative forms of energy or upgrade the town sewage system."

That project posits as a certainty that the active 2017 hurricane season has been the product of man-made global warming.  Science has not validated that speculation.  And never mind that twelve years of unusually light hurricane activity preceded this year's fierce tropical cyclones, even as carbon dioxide emissions have risen.

It is laughable when educrats claim ownership of project-based learning as some bright innovation.  In truth, the concept goes back at least 100 years, to the genesis of progressive education, which took root in teacher-training institutions and has hung out there since.

In 1918, a high-powered commission on secondary education determined that history should be merged into a mishmash of disciplines called "social studies" and greatly de-emphasized.  Civics should be about not knowledge, but instead "social efforts to improve mankind," stated the Committee on Social Studies.  "It is not so important that the pupil know how the President is elected as that he shall understand the duties of the health officer in his community."  (This is drawn from Diane Ravitch's insightful history published in the year 2000, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.) 

In short, battles between advocates of traditional civics and utilitarian civics have raged for all these decades, and soon, they may be at their fiercest level ever.  This tension, rooted in basic divisions as to the purpose of education, strengthens the argument for parental choice.  Let families decide whether they want their children to learn about the principles of self-government that make this country exceptional or if they would prefer that the kids gather petitions to submit to the local waterworks department. 

Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

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