Liberty Matters

How Did It Get This Bad? Reflections on Davenport, Trepanier, and Davison Humphries

Lee Trepanier presents a concise and insightful summary of key philosophers of education including the thoughts of John Dewey, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Paul Freire as he traces the decay of interest in promoting traditional civics knowledge. He effectively explains the tension between liberal education and the threat of the state when it comes to civics knowledge.
Rachel Davison Humphries expands our thinking about civic education by explaining a more comprehensive perspective contained within democratic education encompassing skills and dispositions. I especially appreciate the quote from Amy Guttman which states that the core democratic values of “liberty, opportunity and mutual respect are not self-evident or self-perpetuating. They must be carefully taught or else opposing values – authoritarianism, plutocracy, intolerance, bigotry, and hatred – will dominate our societies.” I couldn’t agree more.
Trepanier, Humphries, and I agree with David Davenport’s assessment of the “sad state of civic education today,” Today we are witnessing an even more divided nation, with rising levels of anti-Semitism not seen in this country for decades.
The question arises: how did it get this ugly? A glimpse into the history of the social studies curriculum provides some insight. Up until the early part of the twentieth century, what today is known as social studies was the study of chronological history. History was a fundamental subject in every grade. Elementary students delved into the stories of famous individuals, episodes in history, national holidays, legends, myths, and stories. Most high schools offered courses in ancient history, European history, and American history in a four-year sequence.
So, what changed? The demise of history begins with the 1913 Committee on Social Studies, commonly known as the American Historical Association's Committee on Social Studies. The purpose was to improve the quality of social studies education in schools. The term “social studies” was unknown before this time. The report emphasized the importance of teaching history, geography, and the social sciences to promote critical thinking and civic engagement. It advocated for an integrated approach to social studies. History lost its dominant role in the curriculum.
At the time, history was criticized as being useless and out of touch with the current needs of society. There was growing interest in the emerging social sciences such as sociology. Pressure mounted to eliminate separate subjects from the curriculum. Only the most useful subjects for students should be included. Student-centered teaching approaches were promoted, and teacher-directed instruction was severely criticized, even ridiculed.
The influential 1918 Cardinal Principles report of the National Education Association further marginalized traditional subjects like history, civics, and geography. These subjects were minimized because they did not align with progressive theorists' vision of child-centered education and the creation of a new social order.
James Leming succinctly captures this shift:
By reconceptualizing the social studies curriculum as interdisciplinary and focusing its goals on social change, education theorists of the era hoped they could break the grip of cultural tradition with its emphasis on rugged individualism and ensure that the curriculum would instead serve to advance a more collective social order.”
The emergence of influential progressive views in social studies is evident in Harold Rugg's junior high school textbook series, "Man and Society," developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Rugg, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, aimed to replace traditional courses in history, geography, and civics. The series, which critiqued free markets, unfair income and wealth distribution, class conflict, and imperialism, sold over 600,000 copies and was read by five million students between 1920 and 1940.
From the 1940s onwards, there was pushback against Rugg's work, and numerous movements have influenced the social studies curriculum since. Nevertheless, Rugg's legacy to displace traditional subjects like history, geography, and civics is unmistakable.
David Davenport calls for specific actions to promote better civic education, including actions by state legislatures and local school boards. He also recommends the expansion of NAEP testing in government and history to include more grade levels. Improving teacher training is also critical although it is highly unlikely to happen within existing, highly politicized college and university schools of education.
We have curriculum materials that can be used to improve traditional American civics education. In a report by David Randall for the National Association of Scholars, an evaluation of several prominent resources is provided, including materials from the Bill of Rights Institute, Hillsdale College, Core Knowledge, Jack Miller Center, and others.
Finally, government actions are uncertain, slow, and not nearly effective enough. This presents a significant opportunity for private philanthropy to support organizations that develop civics and history curriculum materials and offer training for teachers. As suggested by Davenport, it is time for "all hands on deck."