The Right Standards for American Schools

The Civics Alliance has just published, in time for the Fourth of July, its American Birthright, a model for the reform of American K-12 education in social studies (history, geography, economics, and civics). It’s a real blast of the trumpet, intended to open a new front in America’s culture wars. The document consists of a set of content standards for each level of education from kindergarten through high school; recommendations for reforming pedagogy; and a strategy of political action to restore America’s civic values within state and local educational systems. It required years of preparation and has broad backing in the conservative movement. The Alliance is supported by a coalition of some sixty organizations concerned with education, mostly conservative ones, convened by the National Association of Scholars, which worked in consultation with dozens of leading scholars, pundits, educators, and legislators. American Birthright deserves serious consideration by all those concerned with the condition of American schools.

And really, everybody should be, now more than ever, especially parents of school-age children. The woke revolution has infected state departments of education as it has every other institution in American life. Change in state educational standards, already marked during the Obama years, has been accelerating rapidly since 2020, and not in a good way. The phenomenon has not drawn much scrutiny, even from websites and publications devoted to education, whether on the left or the right. But the woke termites never sleep. Citizens need to be aware of how the foundations of social science education are being eaten away and to take action to prevent further damage. American Birthright provides tools to do just that.

Which is not to say that the document is beyond criticism.

I’ll begin (Part 1) by considering the Civics Alliance’s proposed content standards, especially in my own field of history, and the pedagogical methods it recommends to instill them. Then, in Part 2, I’ll take up the much more difficult question of whether the Alliance’s political strategy for renewal has a chance of victory over “The Blob.” The Blob, in case you were wondering, is the term William J. Bennett, secretary of education under President Reagan, invented to describe those groups most resistant to educational reform. These included the heads of teacher’s unions; the politicians they support and who support them via the public education bureaucracy; the teachers’ colleges, accreditation agencies, testing companies, and local school boards. The Blob is still with us, bigger and more well-funded than ever, and is now flanked by a serried array of NGOs and public interest groups that hardly existed in Reagan’s day.

Part 1: Standards, Standards, Everywhere

But first, the standards. By publishing its own content standards, the Civics Alliance is entering a crowded field. Almost every state in the union publishes standards—some recommended, some mandatory—describing what public school students should be studying in every year from kindergarten through high school. Many of these, even in blue states, provide sound guidance as far as they go, although the situation is in flux. Civics Alliance in fact based some of their standards on those published in 2003 by deep-blue Massachusetts’ Department of Education, but I doubt it would find the 2018 standards as much to their liking, to say nothing of the further revisions currently under consideration.

Oregon undoubtedly takes the prize for having the most woke standards in the country. In Oregon, wokism has already entered the stage of self-parody. Here history has effectively been replaced by ethnic studies. Oregonian pedagogy emphasizes the mistreatment of Amerindians, colonial oppression, identity politics, intersectionality, and the whole leftist whine list. Third-graders are to be taught to identify “how systems of power, including white supremacy, institutional racism, racial hierarchy and oppression affect the perceptions of different individuals and groups.”

Have these people ever met an eight-year-old? One hears so much about “historically marginalized groups” that one soon longs to hear something, anything, about the groups that have been historically central to American history. How can you learn about margins while in a state of near-total ignorance about the center? Who were these awful people making miserable the idyllic life of the Chinooks? What malign forces brought them into the Pacific Northwest? I guess students can always look up on Wikipedia who Lewis and Clark were or what the Revolutionary War was about, if, quite by accident, they ever come across those names. They won’t in Oregon’s schools if its Department of Education has anything to say about it.

The Civics Alliance standards in my opinion have two very solid advantages over even the best state standards, such as those set by Florida (after the latest revision) and Indiana. First, they devote far more attention to the deep past than most of the state standards or would-be national standards, such as the slick, interactive set of mix-n-match topics assembled by Educating for American Democracy. In recent years, serious study of the deep past—classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Reformation—has been sharply downsized in university history departments. The history professions’ increasingly superficial coverage of premodern history has been mirrored in the state standards adopted for high schools.

Without study of the deeper past, a student loses many of the advantages of historical study. The range of human experience held before the mind’s eye narrows. It becomes impossible to study modern phenomena (like the American love of liberty for example) “in the process of their growth,” as recommended by Aristotle. Without knowledge of the premodern world—without a sense of how violent, miserable, and precarious life once was for most people—we also lose our sense of proportion about our own problems. We come to believe, for example, the absurdity that modern U.S. society is uniquely racist or sexist, and that zero tolerance for such blemishes is possible or worth the loss of all our liberties. A shallow historical vision also hides from our sight the historic abnormality of the modern moral world and makes it harder to perceive the threat that our current moral immuno-deficiencies present to the body politic. For that sort of perspective, one needs a wider, civilization-level view of history.

This brings me to what I consider the second great merit of the Civics Alliance’s new standards: the restoration of Western civilization to its former place in the social studies curriculum. Before the climacteric year of 1968, the commonest sequence of historical study in public K-12 education went from local and state history, to U.S. history, then on to Western history, world history, and civics, sometimes with a second look at U.S. history in the junior year of high school. Over the last three decades, however, Western history has almost completely disappeared from social studies curricula, and if it survives anywhere in current state standards, I have been unable to find it. It’s missing even from the standards published by Florida, Indiana, and Texas. The combined effects of right-liberal globalization and left-liberal post-colonialism has led most educators to regard the study of Western civilization as obsolete.

The predictable effect of this change is that Western civilization is no longer considered a special part of the American heritage. Socrates and Cicero, Dante and Michelangelo, Handel and Beethoven, no longer belong to us as citizens of Western countries; they are just possible foci for individual tastes and interests, no different in kind from the teachings of Confucius, the spiritual disciplines of Buddhism, Mongolian throat-singing, or Japanese Noh plays. Without understanding the centuries-long struggle to preserve liberties in the ancient and medieval worlds, without understanding the uniquely rich development of the legal tradition in the West, without appreciating the role that argument, hypothesis, mathematical modelling, and replicable experiment has had in Western science since the Greeks, the young are more likely to acquire the frivolous state of mind, now common, that thinks great civilizational achievements can be jettisoned without loss, once found guilty of “white supremacy.”

Civics Alliance Quote Bar
There is no way to test for phronesis on multiple choice tests. You can only test for practical wisdom by writing essays, and the essays can only really be judged by sages.

Without a grasp of the historical experiences of religious war, of the abuse of lordly power, of the control of labor and trade by governments, privileged individuals, and corporate bodies; without understanding how unproductive and even harmful science can be when it becomes dogmatic; without understanding the centuries of costly errors that led to Western embrace of religious freedom, freedom of expression, and economic freedom—without understanding all that, the young will never understand the reasons for preserving Western traditions. If you need an explanation for why the younger generation—the generation now beginning to take over the institutions of our society—does not value the great achievements of Western civilization, here’s your answer: they have never been taught anything about them.

The readiness to dispense with Western history also reflects peculiar features of our pedagogy. One thing that distinguishes the American educational system from its more staid European counterparts is the speed with which pedagogical fads arise and spread across the land. Incubated in teacher’s colleges, spread by educrats eager to make their mark and displace rivals, these nostrums often defy common sense and experience and are backed by as little field-testing as the latest mRNA vaccine. Our children are the guinea pigs. After five years or a decade, when it’s obvious that the new fad is not achieving the desired results—basic literacy, for example, or numeracy—a new fad is introduced. Too bad for the millions of schoolchildren who in the meantime have become deficient in reading or are unable to construct a grammatically correct sentence. They’re just collateral damage. And don’t expect an apology.

In recent years the fads have come more and more to resemble political indoctrination. American Birthright inveighs against some of the more egregious examples: “action civics, so-called ‘anti-racism,’ civic engagement, critical race theory, current events learning, inquiry-based learning, media literacy, project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and virtually any pedagogy that claims to promote ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ or ‘social justice.’” The Civics Alliance takes no position on correct pedagogy, preferring to leave those decisions up to teachers. Pedagogy should be “discipline specific,” however, not impart generalized skills. Nevertheless, the Alliance’s focus on factual knowledge and the study of basic texts “aligns well” with the pedagogy advocated for many years by E. D. Hirsch, oriented to achieve “cultural literacy.” Students who actually know things about America will be less likely to buy into ignorant or maliciously one-sided views of American history like the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” now a viral pedagogical fad in its own right.

As an intellectual historian of the premodern world, what struck me the most, as I read through statement after earnest statement on the aims of social studies pedagogy, was the almost complete lack of interest today in what was always the chief rationale for writing and reading history from the time of Herodotus until the blessed advent of the Educational Testing Service in 1947. State departments of education, the National Council for Social Studies, and even the Civics Alliance speak of acquiring reading and writing skills; learning how interpretation is based on sources; learning how to summarize, analyze, and criticize historical accounts; how to gather evidence and evaluate it; how to assess historians’ arguments; how to ask questions, form hypotheses, and test them. All of these are immensely valuable skills, to be sure, but they sidestep the traditional goal of history in the premodern world: acquiring the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom—Aristotle’s phronesis. It’s worth asking why this is the case. After all, practical wisdom is the virtue we most need if our civic life is ever to be restored.

Phronesis is by its nature probabilistic, comparative, and deals in judgements of relative value. It seeks to adjudicate between and reconcile the advantageous with the morally worthy. It adapts solutions to circumstances and never claims that there is only one correct solution. The courses of action it advises are never counsels of perfection. It never claims the power to predict the future, but reminds us how similar decisions in the past have turned out. It thus requires disciplined historical imagination. It uses information and sound scientific results but does not subject itself to the diktat of scientists. It knows that its counsels are based ultimately on opinions and not certainties, and its epistemic humility is reflected in its careful methods of trial and error. Its way of reasoning, in other words, is the opposite of the kind of scientistic reasoning so valued by modern social scientists.

One limitation of prudence from the point of view of social science is that there is no way to test for phronesis on multiple choice tests. You can only test for practical wisdom (as the neo-Confucian thinkers of medieval China recognized) by writing essays, and the essays can only really be judged by sages. One begins to understand why modern bureaucracies lack practical wisdom and are even actively hostile to it. You can only write fair standardized test questions when they yield answers that are unambiguously right or wrong. Every teacher knows how difficult this is, and how the best such questions, to be “objective,” have to be stripped of implicit moral judgements, contingencies, or imponderables—the very stuff of phronesis.

The Villa Falconieri, home of the Academia Vivarium Novum, a classical school in Frascati, Italy, where the students speak Latin. Designed by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). (A. De Gregorio / Getty)

Hence the Civics Alliance wants your child to know what year Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania, who won at Gettysburg, and what Lincoln said after the battle. You can test for that. Progressive pedagogy will want your child to evaluate five different interpretations of why Lee invaded Pennsylvania and identify their ideological motivations. You can test for that too, though it’s easier to insert ideological messaging into the questions (for progressives, a feature, not a bug). A teacher concerned with phronesis, by contrast, will put you in command of the Army of Northern Virginia in the summer of 1863 and ask you whether, without benefit of hindsight, you would have invaded Pennsylvania and why. But your answer won’t be right or wrong; it will be wise or foolish. It can’t be machine-graded. It won’t produce metrics the Department of Education or ambitious parents can use to evaluate your teachers and your school. A wise answer won’t help you get into Harvard.

One begins to touch the limits of legislative and bureaucratic solutions to the deeper problems of education in modern America, a subject I address in Part 2.

Part 2:  Can the Civics Alliance Defeat The Blob?

Educational reformers have never had much success against the Blob. That truth is demonstrated above all by two facts: that the Blob is still with us after more than a century in business, and that, for a half-century, the Blob has presided over a gradual slide in educational achievement relative to other advanced industrial nations. (The U.S. is currently in thirtieth place worldwide in mathematics, reading, and science.) One would have thought that bad performance would have given an opening to reform but it has not. The most effective challenges to the Blob hitherto—the charter school movement of the 1990s and the parallel movement for educational choice—have cut away from the Blob’s control no more than a few million of the 55 million children and adolescents who enroll in K-12 schools each year. Federal actions to upgrade educational standards, such as George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2002, have all ended in failure thanks to successful resistance from the Blob.

Some believe that this time may be different. The iron quadrangle that controls public education—teachers’ unions, the education bureaucracy, teachers’ colleges, and party politicians—is showing signs of stress. Parental support for public education is weakening; politicians who support the education establishment are losing elections or running for cover; teachers as a profession are no longer as popular with the public as they once were. Even though some of this unpopularity is owing to pandemic policies and may be transitory, much of it arises from the excesses of wokery, especially the spread into school curricula of radical identity politics, “anti-racism” education, and gender ideology. The impression that public education now teaches children to hate their country, despise religion, and abandon liberal principles of tolerance and intellectual freedom has weakened public trust in unionized public schools (as opposed to charters). This looks like an opportunity for conservative reformers, but is it?

The Civics Alliance certainly thinks so. While the main purpose of American Birthright is to propose model standards for social studies, the Alliance also outlines a political strategy to take back public education from the radicals. What is proposed is essentially a red-state strategy. It depends on conservative politicians winning elections and supporting the reformers. Winning state elections is more important than success in national elections. Sympathetic politicians at the national level are advised that their role is to keep the feds out of policy areas like education that constitutionally belong to the states. At the state level, the Alliance wants legislatures to reform social studies requirements on the model set out in American Birthright. It also wants its document to serve as a guide to professional development for social studies teachers. The Alliance recommends that teachers should preferentially be qualified in writing and “subject matter training.” This means that history teachers should learn history and not waste time with courses on education taught in teachers’ colleges or university schools of education.

The Alliance’s counsels for implementation also contain a number of rubrics beginning with the words, “Pass laws.” States, the report advises, should pass laws against woke pedagogies; they should pass laws requiring the study of Western history, U.S history, and civics. They should pass laws requiring all existing and planned academic standards to be “submitted to the state legislature and governor for review and possible veto.” They should pass laws to give local school boards more autonomy from educational bureaucrats. They should pass laws to end the gatekeeping power of education schools and departments.

I have to confess to a certain skepticism about the prospects for success of this strategy, which amounts to a frontal assault on The Blob. Direct political action can surely do some good, but how much and for how long? If it cannot affect real, long-term change, is there another strategy that might succeed? Can it really count as a conservative strategy to impose reforms by legislative fiat? If “America’s birthright is freedom,” as the first words of American Birthright proclaim, in what way does tightening the regulatory framework of public schools advance freedom?

The obvious weakness of a red-state strategy is that it depends on red-state reformers remaining in office, remaining energized, not allowing themselves to become distracted by the churn of events and other issues, and not sacrificing educational goals when convenient in order to negotiate some more desirable political deal. (One recent poll claims that only 1% of respondents list education policy as their top concern; now imagine how that figure translates into legislative priorities.) It also depends on the political officials in departments of education, whether appointed or elected, getting cooperation from their subordinates. The recent experience of Betsy DeVos in Trump’s Department of Education is not encouraging on that score. “Pass laws” sounds like an impressive strategy to conservatives, who tend to confuse legal reform with substantive change, but we live in an age of lawlessness when statutes, like traffic signals in Naples, are considered facoltativi, subject to the judgment of the individual.

And it’s not wise to underestimate the Blob’s powers of resistance. It’s an established principle of public choice theory that groups that care most about an issue, even if they constitute a small minority, can often be successful in imposing their will on a relatively indifferent majority. A determined governor like Ron DeSantis, backed by a state legislature, can empower reformers and disable radicals in the short run. But ultimately reformers are going to run up against the fundamental fact about public school teachers in America: they are overwhelmingly progressive. Even in red states, the great majority of them are progressive. Like their students, they get most of their opinions from social media. Even though social studies teachers tend to be somewhat more conservative, they swim in progressive waters. Personnel is policy, and even with a changed legal and administrative environment it would take many years to make enough conversions among progressive teachers to accomplish the wider goals of the Civics Alliance: to change the minds and hearts of the next generation.

If I were a parent I would be overjoyed if my children were able to master the curriculum outlined in American Birthright.

All this is not to accuse public school teachers of being political activists in disguise. This is true of some—the professional DEI trainers are the worst—but not of the vast majority. There is a distasteful tendency among conservative commentators to demonize public school teachers as advocates for radical progressivism, but this distorts the reality. Most public school teachers are not like the “Libs of Tik-Tok.” The main concern of most public school teachers, whatever their politics, is teaching their students as well as they can. Classroom teachers tend to resent it when politics or bureaucracies interfere with them doing their jobs. Many public schools have excellent teaching in social studies, especially in wealthier school districts, often much better than in woke private schools of high prestige. Broad sympathy among social studies teachers with the general outlook of the progressive tribe does not translate automatically into poor, ideologically-driven teaching or antagonistic relations with students’ families.

There thus exists a danger that heavy-handed political action could turn schools into ideological battlefields and destroy the environment for the excellent teaching that still distinguishes many public schools. A battlefield is not a good place to teach the young. As conservatives above all should know, a good education comes from good teachers, engaged parents, and administrators who trust and give wide discretion to their teaching staff. Whatever policies are adopted at the state level, they should avoid turning local schools into ideological war zones. Ideology makes you stupid; freedom nourishes the mind. This should not be in dispute among conservatives.

The point is connected with another question I have about the Civics Alliances’ political strategy: to what extent will changing state standards have the desired effects? Few advocates of legislative solutions to the educational crisis, left or right, seem to appreciate the degree to which current educational standards are disregarded by classroom teachers and local administrators. Teachers don’t like being told what to do by bureaucrats, as it turns out, and most principals don’t want to intervene in classroom teaching unless the school is in danger of losing its accreditation. Most K-12 history teachers teach what they want to teach. Most statewide tests in social studies require no prior knowledge—they mostly test skills, not content. That makes it easier to ignore the elaborate standards and sample curricula promulgated by state departments of education.

As a rule, high school social studies teachers are far more constrained by the standards of the Advanced Placement (AP) tests administered by the College Board than they are by state standards. As colleges and universities have begun to dispense more and more with ACT and SAT tests, now condemned as racist, the AP tests have become the metric of choice for the many hundreds of universities still eager to be counted as “selective.” Parents looking for quality schools use the number of AP courses offered as a mark of excellence. Ironically, AP tests are far less egalitarian than SAT tests. Only about a quarter of high school students take History APs, and those come disproportionately from wealthier school districts. Yet it is the AP tests that today drive curricula in the best public high schools, not state standards.

The popularity of AP courses among the college-bound has done a great deal to prevent the erosion of content-based social studies education in American high schools. But what they cannot do, what reformed state standards will not do, and what the whole red-state strategy outlined by the Civics Alliance will not do, is to achieve what we might call the spiritual goals of conservative reformers. The Civics Alliance is distressed above all, as well it should be, by the indifference of the young to traditional civic norms, love of country, reverence for the Founders and the Constitution, love of liberty, and the rule of law. It is concerned about the lack of sympathy among the young for America’s free-market system and the absence of any attachment to the Western tradition. But these values are not going to return by attacking the Blob with legislative cattle prods.

What is needed to effect a deeper change in the hearts of the next generation are teachers who have an entirely different forma mentis from most of those teaching in unionized public schools.  Teachers in public schools inevitably absorb progressive habits of mind. For them, the present is morally superior to the past and should stand in judgement over it. The principal reason to study the past is to use its failures to endorse progressive values. Any remnants of oldthink among their students—beliefs that objective standards or meritocracy might be good things for instance—are a blemish they work to remove.

They prefer Millian “experiments in living” to settled ways of life, authenticity to moral realism. They are uncritical of innovation and assume that every technological advance is mandatory; to resist is to be on the wrong side of history. They think that scientific authority should trump the claims of self-government. They think that all “values” are socially constructed and reflect power relations in society. The word “truth” requires inverted quotations because everyone has a right to their own truth, if that’s what makes “them” feel better. In the study of history, they adopt the great principle of medieval hagiography that whatever should have been true, must have been true. They are unsympathetic to the beliefs and creative accomplishments of people in the past, not only because, by modern standards, they were racist and sexist, but also because the Western tradition’s whole attitude to truth, beauty, and goodness stands as a defiant challenge to their own most basic assumptions. For progressives, the past is not only a foreign country, it is enemy country.

Where can teachers be found who do not share this progressive mindset? The best place to find them, in my opinion, is in schools and other teaching environments that have embraced classical education. I have written about the movement here and here. Classical teachers as a whole have one shining advantage over teachers in thrall to progressive orthodoxy. The default setting of all classical education since the Renaissance is the belief that the world of the present is corrupt and in need of the wisdom of the past. The best way to improve civic life, avoid tyranny, and prevent factionalism is to cultivate virtue in the young. The best way to acquire virtue—human excellence both moral and intellectual—is to study history, the great classical authors, and the greatest works of art and literature. Incredibly, all these beliefs are flourishing at this very moment in the classical school movement, which now educates as many as a million American children every year.

This is why I believe the classical school movement is the best hope for curing the spiritual disease of woke capture in K-12 American education. And school choice programs, like the one recently passed by Arizona in a landmark bill, do more than anything to allow that movement to flourish. If the best public schools are made to compete with private schools, a strong dose of economic reality could turn out to be the best medicine for wokery in infected school districts.

To make sure parents can make reliable comparisons between schools, we could test all students at the state level using the same content-based examinations, perhaps modeled on British A-levels or the old New York State Regents exams. Or we could make use of independent testing agencies beyond the reach of the College Board like the Classical Learning Test.

If I were a parent, I would be overjoyed if my children were able to master the curriculum outlined in American Birthright. But if I wanted them to love virtue, to respect the wisdom and beauty of the past, and to take pride in the best achievements of our country, I would want them to be taught in a classical school.