When it comes to civic literacy, the average American is hardly a rocket scientist—and the problem seems to be getting worse. This is, of course, not exactly news for experienced professors who regularly encounter students unable to recall even the most rudimentary facts, turning lectures into high school level remedial courses.
Despite America’s massive spending on K–12 education, our schools are clearly doing a lousy job. It is hardly surprising, then, that many are sounding the alarm. Almost overnight, multiple projects have been launched that will, allegedly, reverse America’s civic deficiency. Unfortunately, with a few conservative exceptions, these putative nostrums intend to indoctrinate youngsters in the latest leftist ideological fads under the guise of “improving civic life.” These “reforms” will only continue to dumb down American higher education.
Several of these duplicitous schemes now exist, but the most consequential is Educating for American Democracy (EAD). John Fonte’s superb American Greatness essay exposes this fraud, but the more warnings the merrier. It’s truly amazing what the Left attempts to impose in the name of “saving America.”
EAD is a big-time project thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education. It enjoys partnerships with Harvard, Tufts, and Arizona State University, with more than 300 demographically and ideologically diverse scholars and educators.
According to EAD’s alarmist mission statement, “Our constitutional democracy is in peril. After years of polarization, the United States is highly divided, and there is widespread loss of confidence in our very form of government and civic order. For many decades, we have neglected civics and history, and we now have a citizenry and electorate who are poorly prepared to understand, appreciate, and use our form of government and civic life. … we as a country can rebuild our civic strength to meet the modern challenges we are facing.”
This is a massive redirection of K–12 education, whose anti-American, woke fingerprints—including its embrace of diversity, inclusion and equity—are everywhere. EAD explicitly takes an activist view of K–12 education, as if even children, with the proper instruction, are capable of resolving complicated policy dilemmas that befuddle experts.
EAD’s learning objectives give the game away. Consider, for example, topics dealing with Native Americans. These teaching units include American Indians in a Changing World (grades 3–5), An Independent Judiciary: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (grades 6–8), Anishinabe/Ojibwe/Chippawa: Culture of an Indian Nation (grades 3–5), and Annexation of Hawaii (grades 6–8). There is also ample celebratory coverage of the black civil rights movement.
Tellingly, lessons downgrade acquiring knowledge qua knowledge in favor of
… provid[ing] guidance that shifts content and instruction from breadth to depth by offering an inquiry framework that weaves history and civics together and inspires students to learn by asking difficult questions, then seeking answers in the classroom through facts and discussion for a truly national and cross-state conversation about civics and history to invigorate classrooms with engaging and relatable questions.
Students might have to ask, “How can groups and individuals transform the United States? What are the various strategies and processes (e.g., elections, protests, social movements, litigation, etc.) that people can use to bring about social change?”
Meanwhile, students from kindergarten to second grade will discuss “… conflicts and histories of oppression and power and explore constructive ways to discuss hard histories.” By high school, the discussion shifts to “… the impact of enslavement, Indigenous removal, immigration, and other hard histories on definitions of and pathways to citizenship.”
This is cliché propaganda that lacks any scientific rigor. If it were a proposal submitted to the FDA to cure an illness, it never would make the cut. Educating for American Democracy offers no connection between its laundry list of nostrums and any political outcome. Will, for example, learning about Indian removal policy improve public discourse on current immigration policy? Pushing immature students toward civic engagement might encourage mob action, not decorous town meetings. It’s a modern version of the Children’s Crusade.
Nor is there any evidence that current teachers can master the material. This is yet one more doomed fix-the-schools reform concocted in the Ivory Tower. Remember the New Math fiasco, or the computerized learning fad? Can K–12 education survive another miracle cure?
Professors have skin in this game since, sooner or later, they may face students who disdain “mere facts” in favor of discussions and dialogue. There are huge opportunity costs here, and EAD overflows with content-free nonsense masquerading as education. “Sexy” debates will crowd out learning dreary facts, guaranteed.
Moreover, as in so many leftist utopian schemes, the poor, especially poor blacks, will disproportionately suffer from this shoddy experiment. The countless hours invested in this untested elixir can only harm black students with low reading and math scores. For blacks and Hispanics who need extra help with the basics, EAD is a guaranteed ticket to college remedial courses, or even flunking out.
If anything, all students need help with the basics. A recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that, in 2022, eighth graders’ history and civics test scores were at historic lows. Only 13% were deemed “proficient.” It’s hard to argue that EAD’s focus on debating controversial issues is the cure for students’ widespread ignorance of facts.
Educating for American Democracy will be a nightmare for professors who already face growing numbers of ignorant, slothful students. Few of those who pass through EAD-dominated schools will possess the basic, building-block knowledge that professors assume. Students’ “knowledge” of biology might just consist of correctly identifying black and women biologists. They might love debating the evils of inequality long into the night, but the phrase “the Great Depression” may draw a blank stare.
Professors must take a stand on the K–12 pipeline. This is no different from businesses demanding that schools turn out graduates with vocationally relevant skills. Insist that, if a college education is to mean anything, American schools produce youngsters with basic competence in reading, writing, math, history, economics, and the arts. Absent these skills, college will become the new high school.
Certifying incoming undergraduates as college-ready was once simple—a decent SAT or ACT score served as a minimal quality-control device. And those schools whose students did poorly on these tests were punished when fewer of their graduates were admitted to top schools. No school wanted to be known as a place where its top graduates could do no better than the local community college.
There is an unvoiced link between the Left’s ideological agenda, its war on standardized testing, and its proposed K–12 reforms. Specifically, as radical school reformers replace traditional knowledge with woke pseudo-knowledge, colleges and universities will lack an instrument to detect the bait-and-switch. And for good measure, a high GPA now signifies a healthy appetite for the ideological Kool-Aid.
With EAD in place, a college applicant who “knows” all about America’s mistreatment of indigenous people from reading lurid, first-person accounts may be unable to identify President Ulysses S. Grant, despite his role in Indian policy. Nevertheless, absent test scores, uninformed students will get seats in the classroom. Picture a professor lecturing on nineteenth-century US history to undergrads who are unaware that Grant was a Civil War general, head of the Union army, and a president?
Attention, professors: consider yourself warned if Educating for American Democracy and similar leftist “reform” schemes come to pass.
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