The Poverty of Political Discussion Explained, In One Lesson

by Lisa VanDamme

“What was considered a good education 50 years ago…is no longer enough for success in college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century.” So says the National Education Association. Their interviews with “leaders of all kinds” yielded the now omnipresent wisdom that the most important skills for K-12 education are the 4 C’s: Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity.

What does this mean in practice? You will think I am guilty of hyperbole when I describe a very typical project my daughter Lana was assigned as part of her World History class at a prestigious Orange County public high school. I’m not.

First, let us consider that this was “World History” – a convenient 32 chapters to be taught over a school year of 32 weeks. And by “world” they meant world. This class endeavored to cover the whole of human history, beginning with prehistoric man and extending to every corner of the globe he ever inhabited. So, one week each was allotted to such periods as “Ancient Greece, 1900–133 B.C,” “African Civilizations, 2000 B.C.–A.D. 1500,” and “Revolution And Enlightenment, 1550–1800.” (I think of the class as THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD – THE DISNEYLAND RIDE! But my kids would protest, because Disneyland rides are fun.)

Before I get to the project, let me describe the typical, day-to-day assignment. It consisted of reading the blur of vastly overgeneralized, impossible-to-grasp-or-retain information in the textbook, and then, filling out the dreaded worksheet. These, at least, became a source of comedy in my household.

One worksheet featured a chart with three columns, the first with a list of historic terms Lana had never encountered, the second with spaces for her to fill in web-searched definitions of those terms, and the third with a space for her to draw them. Yes, that’s right: draw pictures of them. Among the terms to be drawn was “The Truman Doctrine.”

Another featured, again, three columns, the first with a new list of unfamiliar terms, the second with a space for definitions, and the third with a space for…antonyms. She was to name an antonym for “Creole: a person of mixed European and black descent, especially in the Caribbean.” A person not of mixed European and black descent, not in the Caribbean? Is there a word for that?

And now, the pinnacle project of the World History course. This project would occupy the week or so devoted to “The French Revolution And Napoleon 1789–1815,” which, incidentally, meant there was no time for the teacher to actually teach them anything about either the French Revolution or Napoleon. They would need the full week for the monumental task at hand: a trial of Napoleon, in which it was to be decided whether he was, A) a Bloodthirsty Tyrant, or B) A Great General. (Yes, those were the only two possibilities.)

Stage one of this project involved the teacher randomly assigning each student a figure of the Napoleonic Era, either a real, historic person, or a “type” of the time. Lana was assigned the role of “a French officer.”

Next, they were to write a fictional account of an encounter their character had with Napoleon. They were to do research to give some amount of plausible reality to their character, but the specific events and circumstances were theirs to fabricate from scratch. They handed in their stories, and the teacher “graded them,” which meant, checked to see that they had been done.

Then, it was time for the trial. Each student told his or her story of the [made-up] character’s direct encounter with Napoleon, including [made-up] evidence of his fundamentally “great” or “tyrannical” nature, while the rest of the class took notes. At the conclusion of the presentations, the students were to reflect on their notes of this “evidence,” and to declare in an essay their considered judgment of Napoleon.

Now, by the standards of the 4 C’s, this project surely rates an A. Did it involve Communication? Yes, all of the students had to assume the stage and share their stories. Collaboration? After all, this was a group effort of experiences consolidated to yield a fair judgment. Creativity? (Can’t quite discuss this one with a straight face.) Well, yes, since their storieswere works of fiction. And Critical Thinking? If the synthesis of pseudo-facts generated by your historically-ignorant peers with the goal of coming to an overly simplistic conclusion can be called “critical thinking,” then, certainly, it involved that too.

But what have they really learned about Napoleon? And what could they have learned? Maybe most important of all, what have they learned about what it is to learn?

What if instead they had been taught, by a passionate and knowledgeable historian, one who understood the significance of the Napoleonic Era to the progress of civilization, and who believed that an understanding of that significance would help inform their judgment of the modern world? They could have learned what is was about the French Revolution that caused France’s decay into terror and chaos, and left it vulnerable to a new tyrant. They could have learned about the commonalities among Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great, and Napoleon, and the reasons for the inevitable failure of empires established by conquest. They could have learned what positive legacy of law and order even a despot can leave in his wake. My goodness, I wish I had had such a teacher.

Perhaps you were one of the lucky few who had a real history teacher, one who taught history – who presented history as a captivating story of epic figures, engaged in world-changing events, with monumental consequences that imply profound lessons about life. Probably not, since such teachers vanished from most American schools many decades ago.

It was just over 50 years ago that critic of public education Arthur Bestor bore witness to a decline in educational standards that current educators are bringing to its reductio ad absurdum. In Educational Wastelands, he wrote about the advent of “social studies,” which was taking the place of true history:

“The ‘social studies’ purported to throw light on contemporary problems, but the course signally failed, for it offered no perspective on the issues it raised, no basis for careful analysis, no encouragement to ordered thinking. There was plenty of discussion, but it was hardly responsible discussion. Quick and superficial opinions, not balanced and critical judgment, were at a premium. Freedom to think was elbowed aside by freedom not to think, and undisguised indoctrination loomed ahead.”

If you have been troubled by the nature of the discussion that surrounds current events and politics – by the superficiality, the simpleminded polarity, the uninformed opinion-spouting – and you want to understand where it comes from, look no further than American public schools. Shockingly, you will find that the problem lies both in what is not being taught, and what is.