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One and a Half Cheers For the Civics Standards

To the Editor:

One and a half cheers for R. Freeman Butts and his "New 'Text of Civic Instruction"' (related story, 01/18/95 ). Apparently, the new "National Standards for Civics and Government" provide both light and truth in comparison with the new history standards, which are causing endless arguments. What's more, Sens. Claiborne Pell and Mark Hatfield, along with Diane Ravitch and former Chief Justice Warren Burger, agree on the excellence of the civics standards, a quartet that could withstand the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

This letter is to say two things: 1. Our kids are likely to learn more about our history if they can get involved in the argument about what it is than if they are forced to swallow a perfected interpretation created by historical bigwigs. 2. Neither history nor civics learned in the typical mode of school classrooms is likely to do much about students' attitudes, values, behavior, and citizenship. I won't elaborate on the first of these because it is so obvious; the second will be helped by further discussion.

There are many examples of the tenuous relationship between knowledge and behavior. Probably the most obvious is the relatively deep knowledge of criminals about the law. In schools we work hard to influence behavior through the study of health, sex, and motor-vehicle use and misuse, but we succeed only to a limited degree.

If all young Americans mastered completely and could recite accurately all the information in the standards for civics and government, they would be unlikely to be good citizens of their schools and communities. Indeed, many of them would be so bored with and affronted by the punishing processes of such mastery that they would retaliate with negative behavior such as dropping out of school or harassing teachers or you name it.

The most significant lesson that is emerging from our so-called "school-reform movement" is that what students learn and how they learn it are equally important. Some school reformers argue that curriculum is central and others opt for pedagogy, but few if any contend that one or the other can be neglected. Most agree that these building blocks of learning necessarily march together. From where I sit, the national-standards movement has overplayed the curriculum and neglected to some degree both the motivation of students and the subtle and significant relationship of teachers and students in classrooms.

A simple saying attributed to a young Chinese student carries an important message: Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.

The changes required in schools to give reality to that important word "involve" are massive. All the assumptions and routines of the institution will have to be revisited. More importantly, the way the teachers think about their daily work and about how they and their students can become stimulators of each other faces them with a daunting challenge. Moving from telling children what they should know and asking them to parrot it back to joining students in the discovery of ideas and relationships is not easy. Also, it requires time for teachers and classroom settings that many teachers lack. But if we are serious about new levels of learning, we will face up to these needs.

If there ever was an area of learning that offers opportunities to move toward these pedagogical goals, it is civics and government. I don't mean to criticize Freeman Butts. He knows so much more about these matters than I do. I just wish he had chosen to discuss the pedagogy along with the substance. That aspect of learning is standing in the need of prayer these days.

Harold Howe 2nd
Concord, Mass.

To the Editor:

In the Commentary by R. Freeman Butts, I read that he is promoting the civic standards because they will bring the unity of "E pluribus unum." But he destroys that unity message by slanting his own essay in "the ferocious partisanship bickering" that he decries. He refers to "radio squawk-talk." He characterizes the majority of the electorate in the last election as having "surly anger" and a "sour mood." He accuses them of ignorance about "what government is and should do," and says "they need a reinvigorating and re-energizing civic education."

In short, I'd say he's not happy that the people voted out officials with socialistic views of what government should do and voted in officials with contrary views. And when he gets through teaching the electorate what "they need to know about what government is and should do" such an election would not happen.

So now I'm suspicious about what's hidden in the details of the civics standards. Judging by this Commentary, the details include indoctrinating students with socialistic ideas of what government should do. Does Mr. Butts want to bring us to unity around this point?

I should think a civics teacher would find an exciting civics lesson in the recent election. It illustrates very well that people hold the ultimate power in our constitutional government. What a great modern example of an invigorated and energized electorate.

Who's in a sour mood?

Ruth Beechick
Education Services
Golden, Colo.

Bell Curve Reactions: Point and Counterpoint

To the Editor:

It's ironic how preoccupied we educators have become with intelligence when our mission is teaching and learning (related story, 01/11/95 ). The contributors to your Commentary feature make excellent criticisms of Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein's book, but they tacitly accept its basic premise: that there is such a thing as intelligence (or "smarts," as Amitai Etzioni refreshingly put it) and that we can somehow measure it. It's the wrong paradigm.

Arguing with Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein's statistical interpretations is like arguing about how far we can go before we sail off the edge of the earth. The debate could go on for centuries, but no one is going to be any better off for it. Regardless of the numbers, the prevailing paradigm regarding intelligence keeps us bogged down in a no-win debate about inheritance when we could be asking questions about competence--such questions as: What are the skills? Who has those skills? How did they learn those skills? How can we teach those skills? Who wants to learn them?

The answer to the I.Q. debate for whites and minorities is to stop participating in the intelligence conversation altogether. We in education, especially, need to get it: The world is round! It's time for a revolution in the fundamental ways we perceive and think about human achievement. Let's stop talking "60 percent inherited" or "60 percent environmental" and start talking about competence and learning.

Paul Caccia
Chicago, Ill.

To the Editor:

Education Week readers would be aided by a bit of counterpoint to your "Reacting to The Bell Curve."related story, 12/13/94The Wall Street Journal ran under the heading "Mainstream Science on Intelligence" a statement signed by more than 50 recognized experts in mental testing and allied fields, a statement which had its genesis in response to the fact that since the publication of the remarkable book by Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein, "many commentators have offered opinions about human intelligence that misstate current scientific evidence." The statement by acknowledged experts is at troubling variance with much of what appears in your collection of commentaries about this book. Among the expert signatories to the Dec. 13 statement in the Journal are figures well known to many Education Week readers: Alan and Nadeen Kaufman, Julian C. Stanley, Cecil R. Reynolds, Nadine Lambert, Robert M. Thorndike, and Timothy Z. Keith.

William A. Summers
Manhattan, Kan.

To the Editor:

I was dumbfounded by the comments made in "Reacting to The Bell Curve," wherein the book was trashed as nothing more than racist drivel. Did these commentators read the same book I did? Or did they rely on excerpts and reviews to form their opinions rather than reading the entire work? The rage expressed and the invective used to disparage the theories proposed in The Bell Curve remind me of nothing less than the 19th-century fulminations of fundamentalist clergy directed at Darwin and Huxley for daring to suggest that mankind might have evolved from lower animals. It simply couldn't be true. Evolution contradicted the perceived wisdom of the age, offended the sensibilities of educated people, and therefore, a priori, could not even be considered let alone be researched and investigated.

I would hope that those who staff and run our educational institutions would have more open minds. The Bell Curve raises legitimate questions that need to be investigated. Is intelligence definable and measurable? Does intelligence affect one's earning potential, ability to raise (or teach) children, or the willingness to accept the constraints of a society's mores? Is intelligence essentially innate or is it acquired? Can our schools teach intelligence? And yes, is there any relationship between ethnicity and intelligence? The fact that readers may find these questions distasteful is no more a valid reason for dismissing them than for dismissing evolution as unresearchable.

Mr. Herrnstein and Mr. Murray raise legitimate questions that ought to be approached with an open mind, not with the kind of ridicule that pressures researchers to shy away from those issues. If not, the educational establishment of the next century may come to be viewed in the same way we now view the clerical establishment of the last.

Kevin McGonigal
Morristown, N.J.

To the Editor:

It is true that any subset of opinion from the totality of it at times has been characterized as a "sample." To "prove" a predetermined version of an issue, for example, it is customary for propagandists to select an unrefined, non-random sample of opinion that will reflect closely the predecided viewpoint.

Was this the kind of sample of opinion selected in reference to The Bell Curve? The sample of opinion about the book was wholly and uniformly negative. The implication from it is clear: There is no professor, academic-association leader, dean of education, foundation director or fellow, test manufacturer, private school headma~ster~, or school superintendent who is not exceedingly distressed at the appearance of this book. There is no such person who will defend it. All such people opine that it would have been better had the book not been published.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that is correct, that there actually is a consistent, fixed, and absolute rejection of the book in the community sampled by Education Week (a community that obviously largely decides what goes on in schools). What, then, is the profit to its readers of spending four full pages to reinforce in this community the adverse feeling toward the book that it already deeply, intensely, and immutably holds? As a subscriber, I would much rather have the newspaper devote four pages to an issue about which there is true controversy, that is, one on which notable people express different points of view.

Patrick Groff
San Diego, Calif.

Vol. 14, Issue 19

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