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Chapter One: Gilbert T. Sewall and The Postmodern Schoolhouse
Gilbert T. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council, a research organization that conducts independent reviews and studies of schoolbooks in history, civics, and the humanities. A former instructor at Phillips Academy, Andover, and an education editor at Newsweek magazine, he is the author of Necessary Lessons: Decline and Renewal in American Schools and co-author of After Hiroshima: The USA Since 1945. His articles have appeared in Fortune, the New York: Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.
The appearance in 1994 of a proposal for national standards for the teaching of American and world history is the public madeleine Gilbert Sewall dips in his tea for our contemplation. Funded jointly by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, their release provoked a widespread storm of reaction, culminating in their being voted against in Congress. Their inclusion of virtually every current interest group's favorite theme or personage from the past at the expense of the careful consensus of historians makes of history the equivalent of a national poll.
Equally troubling for Sewall is the supersession of the teaching of citizenship and the means to foster it by a train of lesson plans emphasizing self-esteem, therapy, sexual self-control, and the understanding of alternative lifestyles. Fueled on one side by those who assert the so-called social construction of reality and, on the other, by threatened defenders of tradition and continuity, the debate--and the downward pressure it has induced at the classroom level--goes on.
A GROWING NUMBER OF parents face a world outside their front doors--or in their living rooms, on TV--that they don't like. These parents go to the mall. They see blank-faced thirteen-year-old girls, dressed like hookers, and aggressive boys, Tupac Shakurs and Kurt Cobains in training, children who take gentleness and politeness to be signs of weakness. They understand how these feckless, cynical children have come to be, for news of family breakdown, crime, and general anomie has not escaped them. They do not understand, however, why many or most public schools--not only in inner cities--have responded to failing social habits by debasing the curriculum and installing misguided therapeutic programs.
Even in the toniest suburbs, where twelve-year-olds wear Yale and Stanford sweatshirts, parents encounter a disturbing situation: schools where academic programs are flaccid, where moral education is a hodge-podge of relativism and radical individualism. Sometimes, parents discover, schools are places where not much is going on, where students don't do much work, especially homework, where grades are inflated, and where a laissez-faire attitude toward dress and courtesy is expected. Principals, superintendents, and school boards try to avoid the clashing mores and cultural controversies that swirl around them. There are few places where faculty members can really "draw the line." The fear of litigation, not principle, is an animating condition of the system.
"The vision for schools is not hard to imagine except among the culturally sensitive," Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers said to a symposium of the nation's leading educators in 1993. "Parents want their children to learn to read and compute. To go to school in safe, friendly places." A naive observer would imagine that such a statement, which cuts dually on the wise and the trite, would elicit universal enthusiasm among educators. It does not. Some educators press for new political and psychological programs to advance group consciousness, critical thinking, empowerment, and feeling good about oneself. Multiculturalism (also known as "inclusion" and "diversity") and self-esteem education have been the two most potent curriculum forces of the last decade. Both movements are fundamentally hostile to qualitative distinctions of form, idea, culture, and personality.
On the other hand, parents of all backgrounds now recoil when they hear clenched-fist rhetoric about schools. "Black children have been brainwashed since they started school in America to celebrate white heroes, concepts, and values," said Mabel Lake Murray of the National Alliance of Black School Educators to Newsweek, supporting the controversial 1994 history standards developed for the federal government. "What needs to happen now is a reverse brainwashing." In the fields of history and English, bitter controversies over subject content reflect larger and unresolved cultural battles involving civic education and common language. What the schools should do, what they should teach, and how they should do it are questions more puzzling than ever.
New lessons in social studies, values, and sexuality have incited parental concern about what schools now have to say about the world, the nation, and the individual. Three recent curriculum controversies--over the content of nationally developed standards in history, over sex education in Minnesota, and over multiculturalism/gay advocacy in New York City--illustrate how school planners disturb and alienate tradition-minded parents. They illustrate the sharp, evidently widening gulf of vision between the voting public and "culturally sensitive" curriculum officials in charge of the standards, lesson "frameworks," and textbooks that teachers and students use.
The proposed history standards that the National Alliance of Black School Educators and the nation's leading education associations endorsed had been commissioned in 1991 with great fanfare, part of a bipartisan education reform program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. When they were released three years later by the UCLA-based Center for History in the Schools, these proposed standards for United States and world history provoked fierce public opposition. This antagonism culminated in a January 1995 Senate resolution condemning them, surprising the academics and education associations that had created and reviewed the standards in draft.
What the public and elected officials didn't like about these new standards was their failure to affirm or celebrate the nation or the Western tradition. Just the reverse. Like a muffled drum through the U.S. history standards, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, gay Americans, and women face and overcome centuries of oppression, neglect, and adversity. Students meet Speckled Snake and Dolores Huerta, Mahmud al-Kati and Madonna. These people were, according to the drift of the curriculum, the real American heroes. They and others replaced such white patriarchs as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, and Albert Einstein. The defining reform institutions of the future? Political phalanxes like La Raza Unida and the National Organization of Women.
The standards reinvented the European discovery of the New World, changing a once triumphal Columbian conquest into a three-way "encounter" of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. From the beginning, disease-carrying Europeans encounter and enslave innocent people of color. Older paradigms of federalism, industrialism, and expansionism were minimized, along with heroic figures and their achievements. Hamilton end Jefferson, the Erie Canal, Gettysburg, and Promontory Point did not exactly vanish, but they were not much savored either. Teachers and students inherited a solemn, often bitter chronicle of unfulfilled national promise. Historical sufferers and victim groups receive belated recognition and redress. Participation in history becomes an empathetic act. By sharing the pain of exploited groups and learning the gloomy "truth" of the U.S. past, students presumably learn to become more virtuous and sensitive.
The world history standards pushed Western civilization to the side, straining throughout for equivalence of cultures. "Drawing on archaeological evidence for the growth of Jenne-jeno, interpret the commercial importance of this city in West African history," states one suggested activity. "How did the commercial importance of Jenne-jeno in this era compare with that of contemporary western European commercial centers such as early Venice?" The cultural achievements of Classical Greece, the Abbasid Caliphate "as a center of cultural innovation and hub of interregional trade in the 8th-10th centuries," and "the civilization of Kush" receive equal weight in the standards. The miracles of Western science and public health are sidelined in favor of recherche topics interesting only to university specialists. In order to demonstrate historical understanding, eighth-graders could "create a summary evaluation of the Zagwe dynasty of Ethiopia from the view of an Egyptian Coptic Christian" and ask "How would a Muslim from Adal have evaluated the Zagwe history? "
Ancient Rome, Judeo-Christian theology, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution all suffered from inattention, as new attention was paid to Gupta India, Coptic Ethiopia, and Bantu culture. Old military heroes like Hannibal and Wellington disappear from the historical scene. Now Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, Catherine the Great and Louis XIV, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud play supporting roles, and are no longer considered dominating figures of their respective historical ages.
What do these world history standards stress about the modern world? Economic imperialism, slavery end forced labor, pathogens, cultural dislocation, and raw deals for aborigines everywhere. Compare "the consequences of encounters between intrusive European migrants and indigenous peoples in such regions as the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and Siberia," suggests are standard on the "era of Western military and economic domination, 1850-1914," an insinuative spin sure to surprise millions of Americans whose forebears passed through Ellis Island, settled the middle plains, and helped build an American commonwealth.
But the problem is not only one of civic interpretation. With greater alarm, perhaps, discerning parents are also beginning to notice that non-academic courses focusing on personal behavior and social ailments are replacing academic courses in the zero-sum school day. An affective "curriculum of caring," especially popular at the elementary level, realigns school programs to try to improve student mental health, self-esteem, sexual experience, and gender sensitivity. By many parents, lights, these "proactive" programs reflect a misguided or repellent campaign by adults to promote open views of sexuality and self through public education.
Therapeutic and problem-solving frameworks, syllabuses, and lesson plans now circulate statewide and nationally, intending to "treat" well-televised social disorders. One of these is "Girls and Boys Getting Along: Teaching Sexual Harassment Prevention in the Elementary Classroom Grades K-6 Curricula," developed in 1993 by the Minnesota Department of Education through a Title IV federal "sex desegregation" grant, later withdrawn for "revision" after statewide dispute over its contents. From the beginning it is evident this guide is a "psychologically correct" product:
Respect means treating ourselves and others around you [sic] as special people. Respect means treating their ideas and feelings, their bodies and clothing and trees, plants, animals, water and the whole Earth with care. We need to respect others with our actions and with our words. So I always say that respect is a way for us to say to ourselves and others: WE CARE.
But caring in this case is "Dealing with indicators of sexual harassment/sexual abuse," the guide announces, warning up front, "As always, during and after use of the curriculum, observe any change in student grades or attendance, expressions of anger, depression, bullying or acting out sexually. Such change may be an indication of possible sexual harassment or sexual abuse." This guide warns children to be on the lookout for "inappropriate" adult touching. It also advises teachers to be alert to signs that it might be going on. In the K-3 curriculum, students are introduced to the concepts of respect, dignity, and equality, as embodied by three animal characters, to be acted out by teachers: Respect the Turtle, Dignity the Snail, and Equality the Frog. The snail says "Dignity means we all are important" and the Frog says "Equality means we all deserve the same rights." Respect the Turtle says:
We all have special private places. It is important that we do not say mean words or swear words about each other's private places. A boy's body is different from a girl's body, isn't it? A boy has a penis, scrotum and testicles, and that's what makes him a boy. A girl has a vagina and vulva--that's what makes her a girl. Our breasts and buttocks (pat your backside) are our private places too, and if we respect one another we don't touch the boys and girls around us on their special private places.
That leads to the larger lesson: "Sexual harassment is unwanted sexual words or actions and put-downs that make fun of you for being a girl or a boy." At the end of each lesson, through all grades, there is a benediction, when children in unison repeat the pledge:
Sexual harassment is a put-down, And put-downs are not OK. I pledge to do my best to stop sexual harassment, I will show RESPECT by caring for myself and others; I have DIGNITY, and will give it to others; I will work for EQUALITY, and treat everyone fairly. I am special, you are special, and we are all equal.
"Girls and Boys Getting Along" continues:
If you overhear a child saying to another of the opposite gender, "I have a penis and you don't," this can usually be handled by the teacher responding "That's right (child's name). That's what makes you a boy" and moving on to the teaching of the day rather than thinking that this age-appropriate comment is sexual harassment. If the same comment is made to another boy and/or is done in a very public put-down way, these same words can be hurtful and harmful and are likely to have crossed the line into sexual harassment.
Girl-against-boy "harassment" gets its due:
A group of girls are playing jump rope on the playground. Ramon is great at jumping rope and wants to play too. The girls, however, won't let Ramon join in. "This is for girls only," they say, "go find some boys to play with." Ramon feels bad because he wants to play jump rope; but he also wants to play with one of his best friends from his neighborhood, Maria.
The guide goes on to note, apropos of discussion questions, "If the students think Ramon is a `sissy' or a `fag' because he wants to jump rope with the girls, the teacher should try to address homophobia and/or that these words are not respectful." Would a teacher be willing to admit, in the same way that a boy has a penis, "Yes (child's name) you're right. Ramon is a homosexual"? Such lessons are a minefield for misunderstanding, confusion, and student trauma.
An appendix includes examples of "sexual harassment behaviors reported in elementary school." These range from the childish to the monstrous, namely, "`spiking' (pulling down someone's pants), verbal comments about body parts, sexual profanity, sexual name calling (pussy, cunt, bitch), gestures with hands and body, `flip up day' (boys flip up girls, dresses/skirts), `grab the girls, private parts week,' inappropriate touching, `snuggles' (pulling underwear up at the waist so it goes between buttocks), exposing genitals, rape, assault, requests for sex, threats with toy knives, pornography." This list, from verbal taunts to criminal acts, is more than disturbing. Who are these kids who are raping and attacking other kids? In second or sixth grade? Is a curriculum like "Girls and Boys Getting Along" going to make them mend their ways or only fuel their terrible anger and violence?
There is more in the curriculum that is sure to offend traditional parents who feel that it is wrongheaded for educators to dwell on sordid topics instead of nourishing innocence and play. Finally, unbelievably, in the midst of one K-3 lesson, with no explanation given, is the following essay or poem, entitled "Pain . . . My Witness," evidently written by a victim and addressed to an abuser, possibly to be read to a class of eight-year-olds:
I have a witness to all the things you did to me. Pain. I did not feel it then, but now I can. Now I do. Everywhere I am turned in my life, the memories are there. Pain is there. You are there. I could not stop you then. I can now. I do. No more are you The Postmodern Schoolhouse allowed to hurt me. Never again will I be a silent partner to your disgusting displays of affection.
You make me sick. What you did to me was perverse. The things you whispered in my ear-- twisted. Are you proud for what you did?
How could you get your pleasure from a young child? A child is not equipped to know or handle sexual arousal. You, your kind, have no right to the young, their minds, or their bodies. I have faced you, I have fought you, and I have won.
Traci A. Barcus
Thank you to my family for being there when I needed them and to the staff and group members of the Itasca Alliance for Sexual Assault.
Sometimes curriculum battles lead to local political blowouts. A third example, coming again from the elementary level, was a dispute over multiculturalism and sex education that surfaced in New York City during 1994. The Children of the Rainbow curriculum guide was designed to teach six-year-olds tolerance and respect for minorities and alternative families, including those headed by gay and lesbian couples. This curriculum came under massive political fire, led by an ad hoc coalition of Roman Catholics and Christian fundamentalists. The resistance centered exclusively on the issue of homosexuality, considered in a few paragraphs, in a tome of over 400 pages. A sample: "Teachers of first graders have an opportunity to give children a healthy sense of identity at an early age. Classes should include references to lesbians/gay people in all curricular areas and should avoid exclusionary practices by presuming a person's sexual orientation, reinforcing stereotypes, or speaking of lesbians/gays as `they' or 'other.'"
Lost in the politics, which included the firing of New York City schools chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, who supported the curriculum and the distribution of condoms in schools: The topic of homosexuality was peripheral in Children of the Rainbow, only one of many topics and causes that New York education authorities consider an integral part of sound multicultural education. The curriculum guidelines entertained other subjects in much greater detail. Children of the Rainbow worried over social injustices, hidden biases, and gender roles: "By the time children enter first grade, society (predominantly via family, television, and books) has instilled in them many sexist ideas and mores. . . . Challenging sexist myths can begin on the first day of school." A cultural diversity checklist suggested that teachers abandon chalkboard arithmetic for counting with beans and stones. "Multicultural understanding will result when children compare and contrast the climates of their countries of origin," this heavy-handed guide for teachers of six-year-olds declared. If such understanding were so simple.
The examples could go on, endlessly. For parents who oppose condom distribution, in fact, who expect their children to learn how to read and write at school, not how to behave sexually, this sort of curriculum change is alarming and offensive. Parents generally seek schools that teach "values" and have a positive, friendly "affective component." They want schools to let children know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, wholesome and lowdown. They think this can be done without resorting to slanted, politically loaded, inappropriate, or debased subject matter that children are very likely not ready to understand.
How did these contemporary curricula come to exist? The educational revolution of the 1960s encouraged and institutionalized the assertion of individual rights, the contraction of adult authority, the romantic idea of "creative disorder," sexual freedom, and more. It demoted patriotism, mocked decency, and rebeled against Apollonian ideals. It sought counterintuitive truths. The impact of the counterculture on ideals in character education was swift and profound. Summerhill, a book written in 1960 by the eccentric English progressive A. S. Neill, professed that every child had unique creative impulses to be nurtured, that children should be free from dictated information, imposed behavior, and enforced devotion to received morality.
Neill held with grim self-righteousness that for a child to accept a "ready-made code of morals is dangerous." For Neill, "the first thing a child should learn is to be a rebel." Neill turned out to be something of a nut and misanthrope, but more than thirty years after Summerhill, much of what he idealized remains a vision to "caring" reformers. Later came Paulo Friere's famous 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The writings of the Brazilian guru-educator remain canonical among progressive educators and graduate students in education schools across the country. Still virtually unknown to the public, Friere is arguably the most influential educational philosopher since John Dewey and one whose revolutionary spirit, especially in his original pedagogy of "critical thinking" as a means of liberating the "oppressed," including students oppressed by facts, prevails in the nation's research universities and education schools. Asserted one 1988 essay published by the Modern Language Association, rejecting the conservative insurgency represented by William J. Bennett and Allan Bloom in the late 1980s:
It remains now for those groups born of the strife of the sixties and seventies and working largely until now in relative isolation to begin no know themselves and one another as part of a remarkable coalition that has its roots and its future in movements that are not only national but global: movements of colonized peoples, feminists, and literacy workers, all committed to enlightened self-consciousness and radical social change.
This elaborate Friere-inspired tapestry espouses anti-colonialism, feminism, and New Age individualism. Multiculturalism, therapeutics, and perhaps armed resistance intersect. What exactly is going on here, Albert Shanker and many others might ask? What is this contemporary complex of attitudes and moral hypotheses that undergirds the changing curriculum? Why does it exert such authority in curriculum planning and theories of learning?
Take ten statements:
1. There are many interpretations of reality. 2. No single perspective on reality can claim to be the exclusive truth. 3. Every act of interpretation or judgment reflects the symbols and norms of one or more social groups. 4. The self is "socially constructed," constituted by its membership in particular groups whose interests may be in conflict with dominant social pressures. 5. Every judgment or expression reflects the interests not only of individuals but more crucially, of the social groups or interpretive communities. 6. High culture in particular represents the ideas and symbols that have allowed the dominant race, class, and gender to maintain hegemony over others. 7. Works reflecting the interests of the dominant class must be unmasked, and their hegemonic biases--patriarchy, racism, and imperialism--revealed. 8. At the same time, work by and for the oppressed must be retrieved and fully appreciated. 9. If these works do not meet traditional academic standards, then the standards should be changed. 10. Ideals of truth, objectivity, reason, argument, evidence, impartiality, et cetera--elements of a "regime of truth"--are themselves the instruments of oppression.
Sound familiar? These are among what Jerry L. Martin has identified as primary components of postmodernism, the ruling ideology and set of assumptions about knowledge that has for some time driven curriculum change in education schools and the humanities. Old-time English grammar and Euclidean geometry are not feel-good subjects. The, smack of tradition, and they have standards that are easy to measure Facts, spelling, rules, all demand rote learning, to which many Friere-inspired "critical thinking" advocates are allergic. They have traded knowledge for forms of inquiry based on feeling, not fact, and on principles based on an intellectual hall of mirrors, stressing perspective, relativity, illusion, and the "social construction of knowledge."
For the last three decades, the nation's cultural and academic arbiters have resisted a vocabulary of excellence, at least of the kind familiar for two centuries in the liberal West. "Contemporary liberalism is so intellectually and psychologically invested in the doctrine of ever-expanding rights--the rights of privacy, the rights of children, the rights of criminals, the rights of pornographers, the rights of everyone to everything--that any suggestion of the baleful consequences of that doctrine appears to them as a threat to the liberal idea itself," a New Republic editorial puts the situation.
What many educators seek for a better future is a "curriculum of caring." From Philip Rieff to Christopher Lasch, a few--but only a few--social scientists have perceived the radical ideological ambitions of the therapeutic and postmodern clerises at work in schools and other cultural institutions. Tomorrow's curriculum is now developed in large part by educators trained in psychology, the human potential movement, and health education, many of whom have limited personal respect for and knowledge of venerable cultural traditions, especially religious ones. Since these educators almost always assume that people who resist innovative curricula and textbook revision of the kind they advocate are benighted or reactionary, they make little effort to "hear" the voices of those who resist their own gospel.
Since the 1960s, much of what has passed for curriculum reform has unintentionally reflected vast cultural decline. Unable to enforce high standards, increasingly unsure of what they are, trendy educators have chosen to attend workshops in emotional literacy. They have dismissed the English language as "privileged discourse" and have sought to undermine its authority through aggressive bilingualism. They have disparaged and deconstructed classic readings of the West. "A good education would be devoted to encouraging and refining the beautiful," wrote Allan Bloom shortly before his death. "But a pathologically misguided moralism instead turns such longing into a sin against the high goal of making everyone feel good, of overcoming nature in the name of equality. Love of the beautiful may be the last and finest sacrifice to radical egalitarianism. "
The conversation cover values and standards continues. But sometimes it seems as though the combatants now speak whole different languages. Most custodians of cultural symbols in the universities, media, and entertainment world shrug. Respect for the diversity movement continues to anathematize "Western," that is, Anglo-European and Victorian, ideals of art, philosophy, religion, and public life. Meanwhile, seductive images with greater force in children's lives than any curriculum dance across video screens throughout the land. A large number of U.S. educators are abandoning a civics of the kind that the critic William A. Henry III identified as "respect and even deference for leadership and position; esteem for accomplishment, especially when achieved through long labor and rigorous education; reverence for heritage, particularly history, philosophy, and culture; commitment to rationalism and scientific investigation; upholding of objective standards; most important, the willingness to assert unyieldingly that one idea, contribution or attainment is better than another." Whether or not the nation can reclaim these values--whether or not the civilization wants to reclaim these values--is a question at the center of the 1990s culture wars and school controversies.
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