European Upheaval Sparks Curriculum Debate

By Peter Schmidt — January 10, 1990 11 min read
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At a time when minority educators are pushing hard for a less “Eurocentric” world view in school curricula, the tumult in Eastern Europe--and U.S. students’ failure to grasp its significance--has convinced some that social-studies reform should include more, not less, about modern European history.

Across the country, teachers trying to use the upheaval in the Eastern Bloc as an instant history lesson have reported that their students have a surprisingly poor background for understanding the momentous events.

“Teachers said, ‘I could not tell my kids about it without crying, and my kids were looking at me with a glazed expression,”’ said Francie M. Alexander, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the California Department of Education.

Denny L. Schillings, a teacher of European history at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, Ill., said that while honors and advanced-placement students were “real excited” about the Eastern Bloc developments, “the other classes just kind of acknowledged it” with little enthusiasm.

The Washington Post, which stationed reporters in high schools in five U.S. cities during December to observe class discussions on Eastern Europe, reported that many students were ill-informed about the nature of post-World War II European politics, with some not even certain what the term “satellite” meant in reference to Communist states.

Educators attribute this unexpected level of indifference and misinformation to causes as diverse as textbook inadequacies, narrow graduation requirements, the underpreparation of teachers, and limited space in the curriculum for developing modern historical themes.

But they warn that Europe’s increasingly central role in the world economy will make such ignorance of the historical forces at work there a poor omen for future U.S. competitiveness.

“We do a fairly decent job of teaching about Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment, but we tend to skip much about modern Europe,” explained Fay D. Metcalf, executive director of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools.

Yet, she and others point out, the economic prowess of the European Community, which is set in 1992 to bolster its competitive position worldwide by removing trade barriers between member nations and perhaps adopting a common currency, will make such knowledge an increasingly important educational commodity here.

“This is a critical problem in the social-studies curriculum right now,” said Jan L. Tucker, a professor of social studies at Florida International University.

“But it is part of a larger problem that needs to be recognized,” he stressed. “We need in the curriculum a lot more emphasis on contemporary world politics and economics.”

Although critics of the curriculum in the United States often charge that it is too “Eurocentric,” or biased toward European culture and values, most students actually spend very little time learning about Europe in the 20th century, experts report.

Fewer than half of all U.S. high-school students take courses in world history or Western civilization, the most common contexts for teaching about modern Europe.

According to Paul A. Gagnon, scholar-in-residence at the Center for History in the Schools, operated by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of California at Los Angeles, most secondary students learn about European history only in U.S.-history classes, which often cover the subject only in the context of American involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

Courses in Western civilization or world history are offered in virtually all states, but fewer than half of the states specifically require students to take at least a semester of one or the other of these courses to graduate, according to data provided by the Council of State Social Studies Specialists.

Carl H. Haag, senior program director for the Educational Testing Service, said about 1,800 of the nation’s 21,000 secondary schools offer College Board Advanced Placement courses in European history. About 5,000 schools offer advanced-placement courses in U.S. history.

“My understanding is that this [European history] is a course that teachers have to work to get into the curriculum in a number of places,” Mr. Haag said. “I also sense that there may not be the same amount of academic training on the part of the teachers, so there are fewer around.”

Mounting charges of a cultural bias in U.S. education toward Europe, others point out, may operate against any efforts to increase the amount of classroom attention to contemporary European events.

A controversy currently raging in New York State illustrates the tensions that cloud the curricular debate.

New York has been ahead of many other states in its efforts to offer more curricular options focusing on modern Europe. As part of a two-year “global studies” program adopted in 1986 for 9th and 10th graders, for example, students may spend 15 weeks or more on a unit devoted exclusively to Western Europe and covering contemporary issues, according to Kenneth E. Wade, chief of the state’s bureau of social-studies education.

But last July, a panel convened by Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol, the Task Force on Minorities: Equity and Excellence, issued a scathing report called “A Curriculum of Inclusion.” In what some commentators have characterized as highly inflammatory rhetoric, the report charged that blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans “have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression.”

The state education department’s curricular materials, it said, “are contributing to the miseducation of all young people through a systematic bias toward European culture and its derivatives.”

Similar views have been espoused elsewhere by advocates of multicultural education and the so-called “Afro-centric infusion” curriculum model. That model, adopted by school systems in Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Portland, Ore., seeks to rectify what proponents call the distortions of history that have downplayed contributions of Africans and African-Americans. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1989.)

Others, however, defend the European influences of the traditional social-studies curriculum.

“We have too many sentimentalists in the schools who won’t even realize that most of the third world is trying to Europeanize,” said Raymond English, a former curriculum specialist and currently visiting 8scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

Robert B. Woyach, a senior faculty associate at the Mershon Center for Research and Education in National Security and Public Policy at Ohio State University, supports the development of curricula that will teach students more about the European Community. But he also agreed that “our traditional Europe-centered curriculum” may not serve students well in a changing world.

“We do not help students understand that people who look different than them, who have radically different cultures from them, can be entrepreneurs and play leadership roles in the world community,” Mr. Woyach charged.

He also advised that “to increase attention to Europe right now, if it is done at the expense of Japan, China, etc., is a no-win situation.”

“The next century,” he noted, “has been called the Pacific century.”

One problem, Mr. Gagnon of the Center for History in the Schools pointed out, is the time constraints social-studies teachers are often working under.

While he supports the inclusion of more non-Western content in the curriculum, Mr. Gagnon stressed that “our whole ideas of government and civic virtue and moral choice are Western.”

“To put the Western first is only natural,” he said. “We don’t have much chance of understanding others until we understand ourselves and our past.”

Other specialists in social-studies curricula noted that the neglect of modern European history may be occurring precisely because it is recent.

Almost all history curricula, they explained, are taught chronologically, and many teachers find by the end of the year that they do not have time left to teach events falling beyond World War II.

Where schools in Denmark, for example, are required to devote 20 percent of each history course to the period following World War II, history teachers in the U.S. often say they feel lucky if they can teach events occurring after the year 1900.

“We used to yell out the door, ‘The United States won World War II!’ as students left the 11th grade,” said Ms. Alexander of California.

“If you use a traditional, chronological approach, there is no question that you are going to run into some bind getting to the contemporary world,” agreed Mr. Woyach of Ohio State. “One has to exercise a tremendous amount of discipline and have very clear-cut goals in dealing with past history. That is not easy.”

Some say that, chronology problems notwithstanding, the Cold War itself may have had a chilling effect on instruction in modern European history.

As Donald H. Bragaw, associate professor of education at East Carolina University and co-chairman of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, explained: “The Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries have been looked upon as enemies for so long that they have been judged as not worthy of being studied. Hated, yes, but not studied.”

But for many, the chief culprit is the textbook industry. Some critics accuse publishers of watering down their treatment of contemporary European events in a rush to mention every topic of possible interest to a state adoption committee. Others charge that the industry has adopted an overly conciliatory stance toward Communist countries in the “glasnost” era that threatens to distort history.

Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, has undertaken an evaluation of how textbooks treat Communism and recent European history. “I can generalize already,” he said, “that the treatment is inadequate.”

A preliminary review shows, said Mr. Sewall, that “the texts, especially at the elementary level, deal very badly with the reality of the totalitarian state.”

“They slide around the actuality of centrally planned economies and their psychological impact on citizens,” he said.

A similar observation has been made in a different context by Andre Ryerson, a former professor of French and humanities at Amherst College. He reviewed 28 popular texts on China and concluded, in an article published in the fall issue of American Educator, that only six of the texts did a fair job of of addressing the issues of democracy and human rights.

Even when textbooks do deal adequately with such Cold War issues, they may understate the importance of modern developments, others note.

The Atlantic Council of the Netherlands, for example, recently hosted an international conference to assess what students in member countries were learning about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in textbooks. Representatives from the participating nations--the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, West Germany, and the Netherlands--found that coverage of nato in each country was inadequate.

“The explanations were the same for all of the countries,” said Ms. Metcalf of the commission on social studies. “There are so many items that are required to be covered in textbooks, that all they could do was mention it. Some of their books gave as few as 10 lines in a 750-page book to nato.”

To Mr. Tucker of Florida International University, this lack of emphasis on the now should be the most worrisome element for teachers. The multicultural-versus-Eurocentric debate, he said, merely “deflects our thinking away from the major issue, which is knowing more about contemporary world history.”

He and other educators argue that the best route to satisfying the many demands being made by current events on the social-studies curriculum is to require that students take more coursework in world history.

Such an approach has been advocated by the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, which in November issued a report recommending that high schools teach a three-year sequence combining U.S. and world history and geography.

A three-year U.S.- and world-history curriculum is being implemented in California schools under the curriculum framework adopted there in 1987.

Until more world-history instruction is mandated in other states, Mr. Tucker suggested, teachers can provide more instruction on modern Europe by teaching the last chapters of their history books first, bringing newspapers and magazines into the classrooms, or teaching history thematically.

A group of 50 educators assembled by the Atlantic Council of the United States has urged, in addition, that colleges and universities require that all students take courses on international relations after World War II.

Some teachers, noting that the cataclysmic social changes sweeping Eastern Europe have been generated in part by the activism of the young, see in these developments a golden opportunity for renewing student interest in world affairs.

“This may change their whole view of the future,” Alan Jones, a professor of history at Grinnell College in Iowa, told the Associated Press. “For years now, the future has not been perceived in a very hopeful way. The best students have said that since there’s a bleak future, I might as well take care of myself; that’s all I have control over.’'

The events in Eastern Europe, he said, “should make a lot of people optimistic that fundamental change is possible.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as European Upheaval Sparks Curriculum Debate


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