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Back to October Ed Reporter
Education Reporter
NUMBER 213 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS OCTOBER 2003

Group Calls For Teaching About America's Greatness 
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Schools should do a better job of teaching American history and the United States' remarkably successful form of government, according to a report by the Albert Shanker Institute released September 9.

The report argues that students receive a distorted view of their country from textbooks that focus on the nation's flaws and fail to provide meaningful comparisons to repressive societies around the world. A broad spectrum of political and educational opinion leaders co-signed the report, entitled "Education for Democracy."

The Albert Shanker Institute is a non-partisan, non-profit organization supported by the American Federation of Teachers. Albert Shanker, the union's late president, once observed, "If a youngster has to take a wild guess that Stalin is either an Olympic athlete or a Renaissance painter, he can't have much of a grasp of the terrors of a totalitarian society as a basis for comparison to his own life."

In calling on schools to impart "the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society," the report endorses factual knowledge and rejects current education theory that emphasizes "learning skills" over content.

It quotes a number of experts on the negative bias of history textbooks, such as the following statement by historian Peter Gibbon: "There is much in these texts now about income inequality, environmental degradation, the horrors of immigration, and the hardships of the Western frontier. Strikes, massacres, and lynchings are vividly described. Contemporary history books cover in detail the Vietnam War and our shameful treatment of Native Americans. Little mention is made in them, however, of genius or heroism.. From many of our textbooks, one would not know that in the span of human history, the United States has stood for peace, wealth, and accomplishment and has made possible millions of quiet and contented lives. . . . Concentrating on the dark side can lead young people to conclude that the world is a hopeless place."

Diane Ravitch's study The Language Police likewise notes the distortion in a dozen world history texts she examined: "The textbooks published in the late 1990s [tell] a story of cultural equivalence: All of the world's civilizations were great and glorious, all produced grand artistic, cultural and material achievements, and how the world is growing more global and interconnected. . The textbooks sugarcoat practices in non-Western cultures that they would condemn if done by Europeans or Americans. . Some texts present Mao as a friendly, inclusive leader who listened to the peasants and won their support, just like our politicians."

In addition to urging teaching about American freedom and what life is like in non-free countries, the report scores moral relativism in the classroom: "If there is only opinion - yours, mine, Osama bin Laden's - only personal perspective or preference or conditioning, then on what basis do we pass judgment on Hitler's gas chambers or Hussein's torture chambers? Objectivity does not require neutrality or blind tolerance." The report advocates biographies of exceptional men and women as a valuable educational tool to develop the virtues essential to a healthy democracy.

Conservatives have complained for years that history textbooks are slanted against the United States and preach multiculturalism. What makes the Albert Shanker Institute report unusual is that its signatories include such dyed-in-the-wool liberals as Bill Clinton, Donna Brazile, Kweisi Mfume, Donna Shalala, Ralph Neas and Bill Bradley as well as conservatives such as Linda Chavez, Ben Wattenberg and Midge Decter.

The report comes at a time of increasing historical illiteracy. On a 2001 U.S. history test given to a sample of the nation's twelfth graders, 52% did not know the Soviet Union was a World War II ally of the United States.


 
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