It’s all about assimilation

Posted: Dec 19, 2006 1:44 PM
It’s all about assimilation

This October, the population of the U.S. reached 300 million. Even more, it's estimated we will top 400 million by the middle of the century. The reaction this benchmark has not been as hysterical as some expected, though there has been hand-wringing a-plenty over diminishing land, limited classrooms, ever scarcer landfills and congested traffic lanes.

Before we leave this benchmark behind, though, one more consideration is in order: How do we assimilate all these people? How do we insure that we all acquire the civic virtue to be Americans? And of what does education for citizenship consist? If we don't get the answer to these questions right, all the landfill space in the world won't help us.

U.S. growth is attributable to our inexplicable preference for dirty diapers and neighborhood soccer games over pâté de foi gras and month-long vacations for two. Immigration is also a factor, of course, especially that of the hispanoablantes who now comprise almost 14% of the population. In 2045 it will be 22%. Those of Asian descent will double to over 8% of the population by mid-century.

The educational implications are several, but what deserves our immediate attention is education for citizenship. And on that front, we are unprepared. What may be worse, in the name of tolerance and multiculturalism, we seem to have lost a sense of what civic preparation even means.

For much of our history, we've understood that critical to our formation as a nation is the proper democratic education of our native-born and naturalized citizens alike. The formation of citizens was arguably uppermost in the minds of the nation's founders, as they thought a proper civic education indispensable for a healthy nation. The letters of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin and others were filled with exchanges over the education most appropriate for the new republic.

Were they able to see the current state of our educational affairs, there is little doubt they themselves would be wringing their hands. Although almost all measurements of education today are disturbing—math scores, reading comprehension and writing—the consistently lowest of all are measures of civic and historical knowledge.

The latest in an incessant train of dismal reports comes from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Their recent extensive survey concludes that graduates of our public schools and our even our universities are spectacularly ignorant of the most basic civic knowledge. We're not talking about abstruse questions over the relative benefits of the common law tradition over the continental Napoleonic code.

The deficiencies in question have to do with, for example, the Declaration of Independence. One question asked students to locate the phrase "We Hold These Truths to Be Self Evident, That All Men Are Created Equal." There were five choices -- the Federalist, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Communist Manifesto, the Declaration of Independence, or the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. More than half the college seniors didn't know the correct answer.

Another question asked, "Which of the following was an alliance to resist Soviet expansion -- United Nations, League of Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Warsaw Pact, or Asian Tigers?" It seems more than half have no apparent knowledge of, nor appreciation of, NATO.

But just ask 'em to identify Snoop Doggy Dog and they are ready to learn.

How did it come to this? It's a multi-part answer but the starting place is the legacy of America's foremost educator, John Dewey, who fashioned himself as heir to Jefferson's civic education mantle. Though Dewey appreciated what the Founders had done, he thought their ideas had become irrelevant at best, misleading at worst. One of his first pedagogical principles is to neglect the past in favor of concentrating on progress in the future. The past is too often a distraction, or so his logic goes.

Dewey, moreover, with his predilection for socialism, had disdain for capitalism because it encourages too much individualism and too little "community." Dewey further deprecated "facts" because the memorization thereof is, in his view, so much rote memorization that stifles "creativity." He argued that learning "facts" is no way to foster "intelligence," or to use the contemporary derivative, "critical thinking."

Thus we have the bizarre situation today in which students are today coached to think "critically"—in the absence of civic and historical knowledge. This means that they have little to think critically about. Anyone who doubts that this is the case need only listen to students—high school or college—debate important current events. They demonstrate plenty of passion, but a dearth of information.

We mustn't be fooled when studies such as IEA Civic Education Study (CivEd), reported a few years back by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), tell us that American students are doing just fine in their citizenship formation. That study measures student's "attitudes" and "beliefs" about democratic values rather than their knowledge thereof, so it tells us little about what students are actually learning other than their stated reluctance to deny another of his rights.

Perhaps most misleading of all in the study is the "finding" that the number of American students who take "civics" or "social studies" compares favorably with their foreign counterparts. This begs the question because it says nothing about what students actually learn in those social studies classes.

Good attitudes are to be prized, but attitudes without historical knowledge and constitutional literacy are subject to manipulation by demagogues. Consequently, the proper civic "attitude," though perhaps a starting point, is an insufficient bulwark against tyranny, whether that tyranny be the tyranny one man or woman, or, as Alexis de Tocqueville warned, a tyranny self-imposed by a self-deluded majority.

Critics are correct, then, when they worry that schools are unprepared for our growing population. What they miss is precisely why schools are unprepared.

Our highways, environment, water supply and neighborhoods can survive a population of 400 million citizens. But a nation of 400 million people with no knowledge of, formation in, nor attachment to, their own country may be the end of us all.