June 2002 -- I recently had occasion to meet with two leading administrators of one of the country's largest school districts. This particular school district, because of the poor performance of its students, is facing an unprecedented overhaul of its governance and operations.
The subject of our conversation was the academic preparation of high school teachers of American history. I spoke of the important role that rival interpretations of our national Constitution have played in the great political crises in American history, suggesting the need for history teachers to have a solid knowledge of constitutional principles. The response I received haunts me: "Our school district is committed to a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. We are committed to offering a hands-on learning experience in all of our classrooms. How would you take something like constitutional theory and make it fit our commitments?" I paused for a moment thinking about the frightful educational consequences of allowing pedagogical theory to determine the selection of academic content. Before I could find my voice, a young, enthusiastic administrative assistant jumped in with a solution: You could divide the students up, she said, into black males, black females, Hispanic males, Hispanic females, [homosexuals and heterosexuals], and so on, and they could all imagine what life would be like for their group under different constitutional theories. The administrators loved the idea.
It got worse. One of my hosts, the district's social studies coordinator, proudly described a federally funded three-year program under way that teamed up the district's teachers with a local university to improve their knowledge of American history. The current year is devoted to the study of the American Revolution, organized, he said, around the theme of whom the Revolution excluded and left behind. The second year's theme will be "Race, Class, and Gender in American History." And the third year will address "Industrialization," whose focus, one can only expect, will be the exploitation of the American working class.
My experience is just another reflection of the triumph of the multiculturalist and "progressive" orthodoxies among professional educators. The obstacles these ideologies pose to meaningful improvement in K-12 instruction are only slowly becoming understood and challenged. What the ideologues fear most is public exposure. So allow me to expose.
A couple of years ago, the people of Colorado decided to improve the academic performance of their children. New statewide standards for academic content and teacher performance were enacted to achieve this result. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) was charged with reviewing the state's university-based teacher-education programs in light of the new expectations. To assist them in that review, the CCHE invited the National Association of Scholars (NAS) to examine the programs at four institutions—Mesa College, CU-Boulder, the University of Northern Colorado, and Metropolitan State. We hired Penn State education professor David Warren Saxe, a national authority on state learning standards.
When Saxe's report was made public, ed school administrators and even a state legislator or two waxed indignant. Attempting to deflect attention away from the central issue—Was the report accurate, and if so, did it matter?—they went to the media to attack the messengers. The NAS, they said, was conservative, and therefore could not be trusted. (Our response was simple and truthful: the NAS is an association of thousands of professors from across the political spectrum whose only bias is in favor of high academic standards.) Professor Saxe, some administrators suggested, based his report on nothing more than a brief and inadequate on-site visit. (False again, we said: Those same administrators had provided Saxe with a mountain of documents fully describing their programs. Saxe spent months studying those documents, with site visits coming only at the end of a long process of review.)
What was in Saxe's report from which ed school spokesmen wished to divert the public's attention? Saxe found that the programs at CU-Boulder and Metro were saturated with political dogmas and pedagogical theories that were incompatible with the educational reforms mandated by Colorado law.
The Colorado reforms were aimed at helping the state's young citizens to become sufficiently literate, numerate, and agile of mind to be able to take their place as informed, responsible individuals in a free and self-governing society. Obviously, a commitment to course content and instructional methods that impart relevant skills and knowledge is the heart of such an enterprise. In the schools of education at CU-Boulder and Metro, however, Saxe found only a commitment to a radical social and political agenda nowhere called for by Colorado law or policy.
To those who embrace that agenda, the delicate fabric of Western civilization is something to be scorned rather than understood and perpetuated. The pageant of American history is taught as a sorry record of injustice and oppression of vulnerable minorities. The astonishing diversity of human thought and experience in Western, including American, life, past and present, is reduced to a set of crude variations on the theme of racial, ethnic, class, [sex], and homophobic bigotry.
The introductory course at CU-Boulder, "Becoming a Teacher," was required of all future elementary and secondary school teachers. In the course syllabus provided by CU's administrators, Saxe found no reference to Colorado education laws and learning standards. But it did promise a "learning experience" built on an examination of "contemporary issues like race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and power." A week was devoted to "Understanding White Privilege," another week to "Race and Ethnicity in Education," another week to "Sex, Gender, & Teaching Values," and another week to "Heterosexism & Homophobia: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students." Recommended readings included such timeless classics as Sexual Democracy: Women, Oppression, and Revolution; Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal; and Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. This course set the tone of ideological indoctrination, in all its rigidity and intolerance, that guided the content of the rest of the program.
Is it not evident that American schools have an important responsibility to impart a knowledge and appreciation of our civilization's moral and political foundations and our country's unique contributions to the progress of human rights and constitutional democracy? Equipped with such an education, we can intelligently debate our culture's failings and imperfections. The kind of "civic education" that is championed by too many teacher educators, however, subordinates our common humanity and our shared citizenship to racial, economic, and sexual "identities," and subsumes them under two simple human types: victims and victimizers. Far from an education in citizenship and civility, this shallow approach is a recipe for bitterness, hostility, and a nagging sense of grievance against the past and the present. It poisons the wells of democratic citizenship.
I am pleased to say that the dean of CU-Boulder's School of Education resigned in the wake of our exposure of the reeducation camp he was running. That's a start. No attempt at education reform is likely to succeed, however, as long as radical ideological commitments and pedagogies are permitted to trump common sense and common values in teacher training programs. The ed schools know this and, wed to their ideologies, choose the path of obstruction. Let's bring their agenda into the open and see if it can stand the light of day.
Bradford P. Wilson is the executive director of the National Association of Scholars and a lecturer in politics at Princeton University. This article is reprinted with permission from the newsletter of the National Association of Scholars.
This article was originally published in the June 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.