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The facts, ma'am, just the facts...
By Charles Lewis

February 4, 2004

In a January 4, 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press piece, ("Protest is basic to social studies") Joe Nathan, Director of the Center for School Change of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, roundly criticized Minnesota's proposed standards in social studies. Mr. Nathan faulted the standards for not stressing social activism (in the form of "protesting" or "questioning government policies"), and for promoting a form of citizenship that he characterizes as "passive, quiet."

He lamented the fact that "examples [of good citizenship] offered do not include protesting or questioning government policies." He further bemoans the requirement, under the proposed norms, that students master a wide range of factual information in areas such as economics, geography, and agriculture. He feels such dreary endeavors rob time from more essential issues, such as "approaches governments use to regulate companies" and "research[ing]/debat[ing] the wisest policy of taxation."

The "passive" qualities that, accordingly to Mr. Nathan, wrongly take precedence over activism are (quoting him) "hard work, generosity, self-reliance, love of America, gentleness, even temper, friendliness...responsibility, courage, self-reliance, trustworthiness, accountability, generosity, honesty, courtesy, cooperation, patience, patriotism [and] self-restraint." (He also pans the emphasis on "inherent rights" and "responsibilities of citizenship.")

As a veteran teacher and school administrator, I assert that students well grounded in the above areas (as well as in core academic areas in which good grounding is being systematically denied in most American schools) will automatically question government mis-actions - they will not have to be goaded into a protestor mentality through codified mandates (as Mr. Nathan seems to want). Conversely, those without solid foundations in those areas are scarcely the sort of people one would want protesting policies (although that, of late, is often the type one gets).

I have perused the social studies standards of the old Minnesota Profile of Learning. They fit Mr. Nathan's perspective quite well - long on favored activist themes like globalism, cultural relativism, and environmentalism, and very short in terms of the assimilation of factual matter. These are the standards that the voters of Minnesota have recently rebuffed, via (as I understand it) the election of a governor who made their elimination a pivotal platform plank.

I recall as far back as my youth (pretty far back) perceiving the absurdity of TV or radio shows where adolescents were asked their opinions on public policy issues. I still recall the assurance with which they would parrot the views of their teachers or whatever "hip" media outlet they listened to. I doubt that they retain such frivolous views today.

It is only life experience and a strong background in facts and in the qualities Mr. Nathan denigrates that enable one to make one's own intelligent decisions on whether (or what) to protest - as an adult. If the seductive concept of protest is introduced before youngsters reach the stage where they have accrued such essentials, these youths are mere patsies for whatever political agenda whatever manipulative teacher (or textbook author) wants to push. Worse, they are pushovers for hidden agendas of that very government that Mr. Nathan wants them primed to protest against (government-impelled "protestors" in Cuba and Iran know all about such things).

I am most alarmed when I read Nathan's reference to the "violence" of the American Revolution, followed by his complaint that the proposed standards "don't seem to praise or promote this type of activism." One must conclude that - unless Nathan has chosen his words very poorly - he is an advocate of violent revolution here and now.

The people of Minnesota have forcefully rejected the type of agenda-driven, indoctrination-based approach Mr. Nathan espouses, and insisted it be replaced by the presentation of the knowledge and facts that students will need to formulate their own opinions at junctures where that is required of them. Nathan's commentary appears to be part of an attempt by the old social engineering guard to hijack this movement and cagily guide it into a U-turn. Minnesota, one gathers, has come too far for that. Reform-minded non- Minnesotans (like myself) hope the state stays the course.

Charles Lewis
Former Director of Studies
World Public Charter School
Washington, DC


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