E.D.'s First Major History, Civics Conference Sparks Political Debate

By Debra Viadero — October 16, 1991 4 min read

WASHINGTON The political and curricular debates that have riven the social-studies field in recent years were in evidence here last week during the Education Department’s first major conference on history and civics.

Participants at the two-day event argued over the extent to which school social-studies programs should reflect the contributions of minority groups and non-Western cultures. And they debated whether history should be the core of those programs to the possible exclusion of other subjects, such as political science, economics, and civics.

In some of the most heated discussion, numerous participants contended that the conference itself was colored by politics. They said the meeting was designed to emphasize one view of what to teach children in social-studies classes over all others.

“This was not an open forum,” said Daniel Gregg, a consultant to the Connecticut Department of Education who spoke at the meeting. “This was a meeting to come to Washington and be informed, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”

Participants said they came away with the impression that the federal department favored social-studies teaching that was, in the words of Frances Powell, the social-studies curriculum director for District of Columbia schools, more “history-focused, more traditional, and less multicultural.”

The critics charged that this underlying bias came through in the makeup of the panels invited to lead the discussions, the titles given to the discussions, and the programs selected for presentation. To a large extent, they said, the views echoed opinions already expressed on some of those topics by Diane S. Ravitch, the department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement and a longtime leader in social-studies reform.

In remarks to the more than 300 conference-goers, Ms. Ravitch acknowledged some of the criticism about the one-sided nature of some of the panels.

“I can tell you in the future we will try to do better to ensure that a full range of controversial views be represented,” she said. “Any time you get into history and civics, it’s bound to be controversial.”

Predominance of History

Participants pointed out that two of the nine conference sessions focused on the history and social-science framework developed to guide teaching in the California public schools. The state framework, written by Ms. Ravitch and others before Ms. Ravitch assumed the assistant secretary’s post, greatly expanded the amount of history taught to school-children in that state and began that instruction in earlier grades.

Another session was called “History, Geography, and Civics as the Core of the Social Studies"---a title that was criticized for not mentioning other key subject areas that make up the social studies. The panel did, however, include a political scientist, who spoke for the inclusion of political science in social-studies classes; another panelist, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said that economics and political science were vital to such studies.

Louis Grigar, director of social studies for the Texas Education Agency, said: “This is too important not to be more inclusive, not to be more carefully presented.”

Panel on Brookline Dispute

In the view of Mr. Grigar and some other participants, the clearest example of departmental bias came in a panel discussion on efforts in Brookline, Mass., to restore an Advanced Placement European History course that had been eliminated from the local high-school curriculum.

The panel included parents and citizens who led a successful battle last year to reinstate the course and the teacher who taught it. They charged that an attempt to get rid of the course had reflected long-running “anti-Western biases” in the highschool social-studies department.

“This was Brookline’s version of ‘political correctness,’” said Ronni Gordon Stillman, a parent who led the reinstatement effort.

A number of audience members-including the newly appointed chairman of the Brookline High School social-studies department-said the presentation was one-sided. They chastised federal education officials for not inviting representatives of opposing viewpoints in the dispute.

“I find the construction of the panel reprehensible and unsupportable,” said Jon Sills, the Brookline department chairman. “Where are the other 16 teachers who have divergent views on this issue, including some U.S.-history teachers? Where are the other parents who supperted the curriculum?”

Mr. Sills said he had been invited to join the panel five minutes before it began.

John Fonte, who coordinated the conference for the Education Department, said the omission was his fault. “I didn’t do my homework,"he said.

Reflection of National Goals

Mr. Fonte said some of the criticism directed at the structuring of the conference would be better directed at President Bush’s America 2000 education plan and the national education goals set by the President and the governors last year. Those efforts include a focus on history, geography, and, to a lesser extent, civics, but do not mention other subjects that fall under the social-studies rubric.

The purpose of the conference, which was planned before Ms. Ravitch became assistant secretary, was to advance the goals.

Conference-goers also said that efforts nationwide to infuse multicultural perspectives into social-studies curricula were not, in the words of one panelist, “aired as amply as they might’ve been.”

Ms. Powell of the District of Columbia schools, who described her school system’s efforts to create an African-centered education program, was the only representative of that viewpoint speaking at the event.

New York State’s more moderate, and widely publicized, efforts to infuse multicultural perspectives throughout the social-studies curriculum were also not discussed.

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as E.D.'s 1st Major History, Civics Conference Sparks Political Debate