Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Social Studies"

This article calling for the abolition of Social Studies classes is fascinating for multiple reasons.

On the one hand I have a deep suspicion of anything approaching "character education" in our public schools, though mostly due to a fear that such programs would be successful at instilling the driving systems of belief and the the touchstones of American culture into students. I mean, first off, what could be worse than that? And besides that, don't we already have television?

Despite the tone of Beran's article, this is not just a paranoid fever-dream of an ultra-conservative faced with the inevitable breakdown of white-supremacist culture. This is also a real question facing schools.

How much of grades address what students know and can do? How much of grades reflect character traits such as hard work and punctuality? How do we measure those traits? Should we measure those traits? Do schools--already shouldering the vast majority of what were once considered parental responsibilities--have a responsibility to teach students to be decent people? And who precisely decides what that means?

Mostly, Beran's article is a beautiful illustration of two important ideas:

One: Elementary education has to be a political high-wire act, for the basic values that are needed for a classroom to even function (e.g. sharing, community, cooperation) can be seen as emblematic of a whole left-wing conspiracy to undermine American values. And honestly, they do. Beran's cult of the individual is shaken at its foundations when we talk about community.

Two: Education is always political. The wish for an unbiased, apolitical pedagogy is itself a political stance, and probably a dangerous one.

In the end, I wish Beran well, knowing that he needn't wory too much. In reality, there's nothing more inherently conserative than public education. He's fighting a battle he's already one.

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