Anti-Conservative Civics

In the recent exchange here at American Greatness between John Fonte and Danielle Allen over Educating for American Democracy, Allen makes an opening statement that should warn any astute conservative to stay away from this project—far away. It’s not an overt expression of progressive politics that she makes. Allen doesn’t knock conservative views or persons, nor does she highlight identity goals or hail social justice and the like. Instead, we have a pedagogical assertion, an approach to teaching that appears apolitical and disciplinary, but steers a decided turn to the left. 

The statement is this: 

. . . a commitment to honest inquiry is at the heart of our work, and one of our goals is to help members of the teaching profession become comfortable at open-ended, inquiry-based pedagogy, where the answers are not obvious in advance. Our hope has been that our questions would foster serious discussion of important themes in American history and civic practice.

That’s the “heart” of the EAD civics plan, to turn the classroom into a site of questioning, where hard truths may be acknowledged and open discussion encouraged. Who could object? 

An inquiry-based instruction asks students to reflect upon words and ideas, not just regurgitate them. It produces critical thinkers, not rote memorizers. It understands that history is always an interpretation, ever subject to revision. Traditional conceptions of things should not be taken as set and true, or else we risk sliding into complacency and letting false notions prevail. The opposite of honesty is dishonesty, the opposite of inquiry, proselytizing. 

“Serious discussion” is serious, and it’s exactly what civics education needs in light of the dreadful civics and history scores that came out this month. 

So announces Professor Allen, whose leadership of the EAD project has been masterful. It is, indeed, a clever response to Fonte’s initial essay on the political bias of the initiative. The language of inquiry, questioning, and honesty doesn’t signal an explicit partisan bent. It steps back and raises us up, opens the marketplace of ideas, weighs the facts judiciously, and admits opinions from the Right, Left, and center. That’s the promise. 

Students can praise George Washington as the heroic father of our country just as they can censure him as a slaveholder who deserves no reverence. The Constitution of 1789 may be a breakthrough for world liberty or a guarantee of plantation society. Let the debate begin, let it flow. Allen stands back, a neutral referee who promotes knowledge and skill, not an agenda. She doesn’t identify the answers to such critical questions. She doesn’t have to. In making interrogation the general method of the civics classroom, she has rigged the game in a progressive, anti-conservative direction. 

The turn comes down to an attitude toward the past. Conservatism regards the past as a source of wisdom and achievement, moral instruction, and great art. Progressivism treats it as inferior and unjust, a time in need of reform. It adopts, as a matter of principle, the questioning mode in the classroom, which holds old stuff as something to interrogate.

One resource for teachers in the Roadmap chooses an indicative word in the title to describe how one should study the past, and what posture to assume: “Teaching with Integrity: Confronting a Nation’s Past.” Yes, the past must be “confronted,” old conceptions dismantled, new ones assembled. Longstanding ideas come up for examination, the more fundamental, the better.  

Here is one “guiding question” in the EAD Roadmap for K-2 classrooms: 

What makes a community fair?  

The question pushes 7-year-olds to define fairness and, then, to determine how a community ensures it. Does anyone really believe that children this young can engage in such an “inquiry,” and that, as they fumble, the teacher will not lead them toward a set conclusion that will have a progressivist slant? Fair here is a loaded term, loaded to the Left. Here we have the strategy in miniature: under the guise of “serious discussion” and critical inquiry, students are handed an issue that they haven’t the equipment to manage, which allows the indoctrination to start. 

Here is another question for K-2 students: “What constitutes a family?” Can anyone say with a straight face that this question does not have a predetermined, nontraditional answer, or that the topic will not cause some discomfort among the 6-year-olds that the teacher will have to relieve by posing an “inclusive” answer? 

If you have any doubts about the leftward heading of the instruction, look over all the recommended questions and note how many underscore the prime goal of progressivism: social change. Here are just a few of them. 

  • What are stories of when/how people have changed the community for the better? 
  • Who has the power to make changes in my community? 
  • What have people done from positions of disempowerment to achieve change? 
  • Why might we want to make changes at local, state, or national levels? How can we promote change in an effective way? 
  • How can I analyze power and understand the different methods people have for challenging power? 
  • How can I connect with policymakers at the local, state, or federal level to implement long-term solutions to compelling problems/issues? 
  • When and why did Americans in the past challenge obligations they thought were unjust? 
  • What pathways of participation can I choose in order to exert positive influence? 

The bias is clear. The language of progress is everywhere.

Those questions come under the category of “Civic Participation.” Other categories include “Our Changing Landscape” and “Institutional & Social Transformation.” Throughout the Roadmap, we find “change-makers,” “coalitions,” “people without full political rights,” “people take action to solve problems,” “make our community better,” “Who has power to make changes?,” “specific moments of political and social change that constitute refoundings,” “moments of changes as examples of refounding the United States.” (For a commentary on the leftist term refounding, see here.) 

The truth is that the Educating for American Democracy approach to instruction is not at all the open-ended, free inquiry that Allen presents. It is not a neutral inquisition out of which a conservative understanding might emerge just as easily as a progressive understanding. It is, instead, a pedagogical version of progressive policy. It makes students into skeptics and doubters, zealots for social change. 

Conservatism depends on loyalty to nation and humility toward forebears. It accepts change reluctantly and slowly. Progressivism—and EAD—shatters those fidelities and idolizes change and change-agents. The advocates for EAD have smartly put a nonpartisan-looking pedagogy at the center of the project, but it doesn’t take a Marx or Foucault to discern the vigorous politics embedded in the method. 

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