To the Contrary

Students missing out on essential building blocks

One of the most predictable consequences of Miss Teen South Carolina's recent debacle was the attack on public education. But, as they have done so many times in the past, the naysayers and the critics in their haste and their shrill have missed the point. The problem isn't with public education per se, it's with the folks who decide what teachers must teach. Put simply, the wrong people frequently make wrong decisions about how, and what, our children should be taught.

In the quantitative world of high-stakes testing in our public schools, we have often lost the forest for the trees. As a child growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, my public school education was a fairly typical one: The day started with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer. We did that every day, no one objected to either, and we were neither emotionally nor psychologically scarred by it. What then followed was a day in which teaching was only occasionally interrupted by testing, an inevitable, but not necessarily life or death measurement of a student's knowledge. We learned about our nation's heritage, and we learned where countries and states were located on a map. Nobody asked us to declare a "major" or career path in the eighth grade and no one felt the relentless threat of standardized testing.

My son, who is now a sophomore in high school, has known only a world in school where testing is occasionally interrupted by teaching. Teachers are so hamstrung today by so many state and federally mandated standards and tests to which they teach that what learning occurs in the classroom is truly in spite of all those impediments put into place by those who are making the rules. Quite frankly, along the way we have forgotten some pretty important elements about what constitutes an educated person.

Where is civics class?

Because of this, we have become a nation that today sees public education in bottom-line terms that minimize some of the truly cardinal building blocks of knowledge. Policy and law makers now believe that courses such as history, civics, geography and the like are not as important as those courses that are more career-oriented like math, science, and technology. Just witness some of the troubling discussions in Columbia. There are many school districts in this country, and fortunately we are not among them, where this attitude is clearly -- and daily -- manifested. And it is an attitude that transcends K-12. No less an institution than Harvard University recently did away with any required history or geography courses for their students to graduate and that saddens me tremendously. Far too many other schools have followed suit.

This year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, an event that changed the world. Jamestown was the beginning of America's representative government, the rule of law, free enterprise, and what has now become one of the most culturally diverse societies on earth.

But there is a larger purpose in commemorating the founding of Jamestown -- a purpose that goes to the heart of how we maintain our democracy in today's world and build for the future. Jamestown has something to say about how we educate our children as well. This is an ideal opportunity for us to recognize the importance of promoting civic learning: Teaching our young people about our history, our geography, our culture, and the responsibilities of our citizenship. The better we understand the genesis of the American republic and how it works (let alone where it is located), the more likely we will be able to live cooperatively and successfully in today's challenging world.

Founding traditions

America persevered because passionate, civic-minded citizens understood the importance of this country's founding traditions and were willing to take a stand in their defense. But these historic lessons are not passed on to new generations through the family album or through the DNA. They must, as they often are in Rock Hill, be taught in our schools.

Teaching civic responsibility involves connecting a child's life to the greater community and showing them where it is located! This is tangible; it is real. And it is important.

Over the past 40 years, the number of civics courses taught in our schools has declined significantly. In far too many places, classes that once encouraged debate on current issues, fostered creative thinking and rewarded civic involvement and public service have given way to technical instruction designed to prepare students for the current demands of the workforce. While preparation for employment is indeed crucial to assuring students their opportunities in a competitive world, it is not sufficient in and by itself. More emphasis must be placed on civic learning to ensure that America's future generations are ready to meet their responsibility not only in the workplace but outside of it as well.

We must look to the past and to a globe to understand better how we became the people we are, the adversity that had to be overcome, the courage of our ancestors, their achievements, and, yes, their mistakes and their failings. We must also make time to look to the future. Jamestown's 400th birthday provides a wonderful occasion for emphasizing the importance of civics education to be taught in the context of our nation's history and geography. Maintaining our democratic republic requires that we renew our commitment to that objective and to the fundamental building blocks of an education.

America's next 400 years depend upon it; and so does the next Miss Teen South Carolina.

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