EMBARGOED UNTIL
September 9, 2003

DEMOCRACY: TEACH IT

Statement endorsed by over 100 prominent Americans, cites shortcomings in education for democracy; calls for strengthened content, in history and civics

WASHINGTON, DC, September 9, 2003 -- What does it mean to be an American? As a new school year begins, and on the eve of the second anniversary of 9/11 what are America’s students learning about our democratic values and institutions, our struggles to overcome inequality, our remarkable capacity for self-correction

Can they explain the basic distinctions between a country premised on individual liberty, representative government and free expression and systems that silence and oppress their people and despise the democratic ideal?

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, urged broad support and dissemination for the statement, Education for Democracy, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute, a nonpartisan public policy organization established by the AFT. “We are arguing for an education that tells our students the truth about the democratic struggle – warts and all. We want knowledgeable students who will end up committed to a system that acknowledges weaknesses and tries to fix them, while valuing democracy and wanting to extend it,” she said.

“As we reach the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our country, America’s students need to understand the continuing threats to democracy,” said Ms. Feldman.,. “At the same time, the recent 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and next year’s 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education remind us of America’s continuing struggle to make the ideals of democracy real for all citizens. It is a moment to rededicate ourselves to the historic, central mission of public education: to school American citizens in the history, principles, and practices of political democracy.”

The statement accompanies an earlier Institute-sponsored study, Educating Democracy, State Standards to Ensure a Civic Core, which makes clear that despite the successes of the standards movement, many states still relegate history and civics standards to a secondary status. These disciplines, often lost in the constant emphasis on reading and math, help students to cultivate a conscience and prepare them to make difficult moral and political choices, thus enriching the democratic life of the nation. (To find out how your state fared, please click www.ashankerinst.org/downloads/gagnon/table.html. To view this report, please click www.ashankerinst.org/downloads/gagnon/contents.html.)

The statement argues that we must also reject moral relativism—an I’m OK, you’re OK version of history in which every idea is deemed equally worthy and the universal longing for democracy is dismissed as an American plot. It argues for a study of history in which objectivity and neutrality should not be confused. “Our students need to learn the history of slavery and about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, as well as the story of individual Americans who fought to expand our notion of freedom, from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln, from Susan B. Anthony to Cesar Chavez. They also need to learn of the breathtaking stand for liberty taken by Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, by Aug San Suu Kyi and a lone Chinese student facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square,” Feldman said.

Education for Democracy calls on our schools “to purposely impart to their students the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society,” and notes that efforts to reach that goal have been undercut by textbooks tilted toward a negative depiction of American history. Education for Democracy cites a 2000 report by the American Textbook Council and a 2003 study by the historian Diane Ravitch, both of which conclude that textbooks present an unduly harsh version of the American story.

“We need to present American history in a way that neither minimizes nor magnifies our failings,” Feldman said. “At the same time we owe our students an honest portrait of dictators who have inflicted massive suffering on their own people and others. We cannot airbrush away the atrocities that have characterized many repressive regimes.”

Feldman also issued the following call for action:

• Urge the education community to read and support Education for Democracy and Educating Democracy: State Standards to Ensure a Civic Core, a companion report by historian Paul Gagnon, calling for more rigorous history and civics standards.

• Use those recommendations to revise course requirements, curriculum, textbooks, and teaching.

• Improve state standards in history and civics by developing a common core of learning, centered on the individuals, ideas, and events that have shaped our democracy, not an unteachable laundry list of dates, people and places.

• Adopt a strong curriculum for the middle and high school grades that requires at least two or three years of U.S. history, at least two years of world history, American government at least in the senior year, and at least one year of world geography.

• Increase and improve the teaching of history, presenting it chronologically so that students can understand the sequence and context of events, and presenting it in more engaging ways through such means as historical biography, first-person narratives, and robust debate over the central ideas that have shaped the struggles for democracy.

• Study other nations as well as our own in an unsentimental way that helps our students eventually make choices about the decisions America faces.

• Undertake a broader, deeper study of the humanities, particularly literature, ideas, and biography, so that student can encounter and comprehend the values upon which democracy depends.

• Urge the Bush Administration to utilize Education for Democracy in designing programs funded under the civic education provisions of No Child Left Behind and other programs it has initiated in history and civics.
 

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The Albert Shanker Institute, named in honor of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to three themes – children’s education, unions as advocates for quality, and freedom of association in the public life of democracies. Its mission is to generate ideas, foster candid exchanges, and promote constructive policy proposals related to these issues.
 

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