Don’t Know Much about History

When N.C. State history professor Holly Brewer learned that the North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) was planning to start the high school U.S. history class with the year 1877—eliminating everything from the colonial period to Reconstruction—she started a firestorm of protest. She quickly developed a Facebook following of more than 9,000 people. And she won. The DPI backed down and said it would take another look.

By focusing attention on what students are taught in high school social studies (which also includes history and political science) Brewer has revealed the enormous gaps in high schoolers’ education. One reason for these gaps is that the people preparing the curricula come from education schools, not from college history, political science or English departments. And education schools these days are all about social justice and multicultural perspectives.

Although the offending history curriculum is being revamped, here are some other deplorable examples proposed for the revised curriculum:

  • Ninth grade-English: As recently as 1996, students (I was one) read Romeo and Juliet and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Now ninth-grade English has been stripped of any literature. Instead, students will focus on “communication, language and meaning, critical thinking and research.” One assignment asks students to “interpret text through personal, historical, social, and cultural significance.” While some teachers might still use classic literature, there is no requirement for them to do so.
  • Eleventh-grade English: Traditionally an American literature course, eleventh-grade English will now include an assignment requiring students to “produce a multimodal small group presentation to persuade a global audience to understand divergent perspectives about a global issue.” While The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are still part of the course, students will also “analyze how Watterson’s comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ entertains readers while making the reader question traditional methods of human reasoning.”
  • Seventh-grade social studies: Students will spend several weeks learning “how cultural diversity has contributed to the development of North Carolina and the United States.”
  • Eighth-grade social studies: One goal is to “explain the impact that the legacy of colonialism (imperialism) has had on developing nations.”

This curriculum has little in common with what I remember learning in school, and probably even less in common with what Baby Boomers learned before me. Will today’s students ever read Romeo and Juliet, Ethan Frome, or the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass? Will they ever learn the names and capitals of all the countries in the world? Should students who haven’t heard of John Calvin or Thomas Hobbes be analyzing “Calvin and Hobbes” instead?

We got into this mess partly because the path to power over North Carolina’s curriculum runs squarely through curriculum degrees in the nation’s education departments.

The four people instrumental in crafting North Carolina’s proposed social studies changes are products of those schools. They all have education degrees. One has a Ph.D. in educational leadership, another in educational leadership and policy. One has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. Another has an education specialist degree (designed for individuals who wish to develop additional skills or increase their knowledge beyond the master’s degree level, but do not wish to pursue a degree at the doctoral level.) None has a degree—not even a bachelor-level degreein history, political science, economics, or philosophy—the subjects that are covered by North Carolina’s K-12 social studies curriculum.

Not only are education school products woefully short on knowledge of the content of these subjects, many have been indoctrinated in the progressive goals that are prevalent in education schools around the country.

In the Pope Center’s study “University of North Carolina Education Schools: Helping or Hindering Potential Teachers,” George Cunningham explains how education schools’ focus on progressive education theory undermines traditional subjects like American history and English literature. The trend began, he says, when specific subjects like history and geography were reorganized into “social studies” early in the last century. 

Furthermore, says Cunningham, the pervasive culture in education schools pushes the belief that “a set of non-academic goals including diversity, self-esteem, ‘critical thinking,’ and efforts at promoting social justice should take precedence” over student achievement.

This education-school focus on social justice, “is nothing more than a justification for Marxist and radical-left designs,” wrote Jay Schalin in an article for the Pope Center. It serves as “a means to subvert and indoctrinate,” rather than educate, he said.

One such program is the master’s degree program in Culture, Curriculum, and Change at UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of education. The school’s website describes the program as “the study of educational change and reform through perspectives derived from curriculum studies, educational policy and social foundations. It accommodates a range of individual interests including traditional curriculum disciplines, teacher education, gender studies and cultural studies. The specialty is committed to promoting educational equity.”  Some of the available courses include Social Change and Education, Gender, Race and Class Issues in Education, Philosophy of Modern Education, and Transformational Education.

With UNC-Chapel Hill’s education school ladling out such courses, it should come as no surprise that the North Carolina K-12 social studies curriculum is more about promoting the progressive goals prevalent in education schools than about teaching history.

Editor’s note: The Department of Public Instruction will accept feedback on the curriculum proposals until March 2, 2010.