Stress Values in Teaching, Schools Told

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WASHINGTON--Schools should reject "value neutral'' instruction and stress to students the importance of moral and civic responsibility, speakers representing a wide range of viewpoints agreed at a conference here.

"Our democratic way of life depends on the willingness of large numbers of individuals to behave according to high ethical and moral standards,'' Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, told the April 3 meeting sponsored by People for the American Way.

And while many of the speakers denounced the efforts of some fundamentalist Christians to ban school textbooks and to return prayer to the public schools, they conceded that such activities reflect an increasing concern over values among Americans of differing political and religious persuasions.

"For all our alarm, it is clear that the religious right is responding to a real hunger in our society ... a deep-seated yearning for stable values,'' said Norman Lear, the television producer who founded People for the American Way, a civil-liberties group that has been active on church-state issues.

In conjunction with its conference on "Values, Pluralism, and Public Education,'' the group released a report that sharply criticizes the quality of textbooks on American government and civics.

The study of 18 top-selling texts concluded that most overemphasized discrete facts, avoided controversial issues, and failed to urge students to "use what they learn.''

"If these books are representative of how government is being taught, then government is a dead subject,'' wrote James D. Carroll, a senior staff member of the Center for Public Policy Education at the Brookings Institution and chairman of the six-member panel that reviewed the books.

Civic Values

The generally poor quality of civics courses is partly attributable to declining moral standards, argued John Buchanan, a Southern Baptist minister and a former U.S. Representative from Alabama who is chairman of People for the American Way.

He added: "If our grade in civics is measured by our voter turnouts; if our grade in civics is measured by how well we know the Constitution; if our grade in civics is measured by the ethical standards of public officials, then we might all be lucky to get an 'incomplete.'''

Several speakers, including Mr. Honig and former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, said efforts to enhance "values education'' must be tied to better instruction in the democratic values set out in the U.S. Constitution.

In addition, several participants stressed, lessons in morality should be included throughout the curriculum, rather being taught in a separate course on the subject.

"Morality should be implicit in whatever subject a teacher is teaching,'' said Gary L. Bauer, President Reagan's chief domestic-policy adviser.

On the issue of determining specific values to be taught, Mr. Bell said there are many virtues that Americans agree are important, such as honesty, compassion, and tolerance. Yet he acknowledged that it is often difficult to teach morality in specific situations.

For example, Mr. Bell said, teachers should take a strong position in some morally ambiguous situations, such as whether to turn in a friend for stealing.

But on deeply divisive issues such as abortion, he said, teachers should not impose their beliefs on students.

'Intellectually Dull'

On the subject of preparing students to be active, informed citizens, the group's report concludes that high-school and junior-high government and civics books are doing a poor job.

The goal of the 56-page study, "We the People: A Review of U.S. Government and Civics Textbooks,'' was to find out how books are imparting to students "the knowledge and skills necessary for democratic citizenship, as well as a lively enthusiasm for participation,'' Mr. Carroll wrote in his introduction.

The study pointed out that only 38 percent of the country's eligible voters went to the polls last year, and that only 7 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots.

In light of such apathy, textbooks have failed to encourage young people to uphold their rights, argued Anthony T. Podesta, president of the group. "What emerges [from these books] is a portrait of government as lifeless institutions and mechanical processes, remote from politics and citizens,'' he said.

The review panel found that the books were thorough, current, and well illustrated, but that they were "intellectually and pedagogically dull tools'' that chiefly asked students to memorize facts.

The overemphasis on facts causes the books to fail to challenge students to think critically or to grapple with controversial issues, the report contends. For example, it notes, most of the books reviewed barely mentioned the Watergate scandal.

Although the books covered constitutional principles, they did not "sufficiently emphasize the values and processes that have emerged from this document to shape our society,'' the study found.

Only two of the texts examined deserved a grade of A, the reviewers said. They were Civics: Citizens in Action, published by Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, and We Are One, from Coronado Publishers Inc.


Among other recommendations, the report urges that:

  • The overall approach to teaching government in high schools be changed from merely imparting information to more broadly preparing students to become concerned, active citizens.
  • The U.S. Constitution--and particularly the Bill of Rights--be explained early in the text and used throughout as a context for discussion. Greater emphasis should be placed on constitutional values through the use of case studies, profiles of individuals, and Supreme Court cases, the report urges.
  • Controversial issues and events be discussed fairly and explicitly.
  • A work-study or internship program be a component of American government courses to give students an opportunity to "practice'' aspects of responsible citizenship and observe firsthand the workings of politics and government.

The textbook reviewers, besides Mr. Carroll, were: Walter D. Broadnax, professor of public policy at Harvard University; Gloria Contreras, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin; Thomas E. Mann, executive director of the American Political Science Association; Norman J. Ornstein, research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and Judith Stiehm, professor of political science and vice provost at the University of Southern California.

Copies of the report may be obtained for $8.95 each from People for the American Way, 1424 16th St., N.W., Suite 601, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Vol. 06, Issue 29

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