Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Standards of Learning

John Bedell

I've been perusing Virginia's new "Standards of Learning," the state's official outline of what students are supposed to learn in social studies classes. (You can read them yourself here.)  On the whole the program seems to me quite ambitious and impressive; any student who learned everything in these standards would know quite a lot.  And that may be the problem; I suspect that to cover all this material teachers will have to rush madly through the centuries, and that their students will just memorize facts and rote answers for their now federally-mandated exams and then quickly forget everything.  Does that matter?  Do we, or does anyone, have ideas about why we want children to learn history and economics that are clear enough to help us judge what is, and what is not, important for them to study?  I think we do not, and that the programs we dream up in our confusion are directed only toward making grown-ups feel that they are doing something right by their children.  Programs like the Standards of Learning are designed to assuage adult moral and political anxieties, not to help children.  I suspect, though, that this is true of all education, and that in the end it matters little what we decide to teach about the past.

The Standards consist of lists of concepts students are supposed to master, events they should be familiar with, exercises they should work through, and a few names they should recognize.  Some of the exercises described for the upper grades are rather sophisticated, like

The student will analyze how certain cultural characteristics can link or divide regions, in terms of language, ethnic heritage, religion, political philosophy, social and economic systems, and shared history (Tenth Grade geography)
The student will explain and give current examples of how political parties, interest groups, the media, and individuals influence the policy agenda and decision making of government institutions (Twelfth Grade civics).
I particularly appreciated the study of famous political speeches, as in this requirement from Sixth Grade US history:
The student will interpret patriotic slogans and excerpts from notable speeches in United States history since 1877 including  "Ask not what your country can do for you, . ."  ". . . December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy," "I have a dream     . . .," and "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
There is quite a bit of legal and constitutional material, from "the process of bringing and resolving criminal and civil cases in Virginia's judicial system" (Seventh Grade civics) to "The student will summarize landmark Supreme Court interpretations of the United States Constitution and its amendments" (Twelfth Grade civics).   The influence of the businessmen on the process shows in the heavy dose of economics.  Some of this material will probably help adult citizens understand our political debates and the like, although I wonder how many Americans of any age can explain "the role of the Federal Reserve System and the impact of monetary policy on the money supply and interest rates" (Seventh Grade civics) and how many fourth graders can really stay awake through "the role of money, banking, saving, and credit in colonial Virginia."

In keeping with the process of political compromise that led to its creation, the program includes traditional and progressive elements.  Eighth Grade world history includes a major unit on the Greeks and the Romans that requires students to learn things like "the social structure, significance of citizenship, and the development of democratic features in the government of the Roman Republic", and the US history course is heavy on the Revolution and the Civil War. On the other hand, the Ninth Grade course on modern world history covers Gandhi and Kenyatta, and there is no glossing over American conflicts over slavery, Civil Rights, or labor unions.  American Indians get quite a lot of attention, and in a rather sophisticated way:

The student will compare the tribes of American Indians in Virginia with nomadic (e.g., Sioux) and settled, agricultural tribes (e.g., Pueblo) in other regions in America (Second Grade geography).
The lists of names and events are, of course, balanced along ethnic, sex, and ideological lines, but I was impressed at how skillfully this was done.  The people named all have some claim on our attention, and it is made clear that they are examples of types rather than the most important that could be chosen.  The First Grade history curriculum includes George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Davy Crockett, while the Third Grade civics section mentions Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  No women have been added to Ancient History just so there are women to set beside Aristotle and Caesar, and no great Africans have been summoned up and stuck into the medieval or Renaissance sections.  In Seventh Grade Civics and Economics students should learn to explain "the basic concepts of free market, as described by Adam Smith, and of communism, as described by Karl Marx," which seems to me a well-balanced requirement that hardly anyone could argue with.  The strangest name on the list is probably tennis player Arthur Ashe, but his presence makes a little more sense when you know about the decade-long struggle over whether to add a statue of Ashe to the parade of Confederate heroes on Richmond's Monument Boulevard.

As with all lists of this kind, the authors seem sometimes to have set their requirements absurdly high, as if sixth graders could learn the answers to questions that have baffled historians for decades or centuries.  If you enjoy savagely vitriolic argument, you should watch political theorists argue about "Machiavelli's theory of government as described in The Prince" (Ninth Grade world history), and if that doesn't strike you as too much of a challenge, try explaining the impact of the Reformation on "the evolution of laws that reflect religious beliefs, cultural values, traditions, and philosophies, including the beginnings of religious toleration and the spread of democracy."  Those Virginia ninth graders must be pretty smart--but are they, or is anybody, smart enough handle this gem: 

The student will explain the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of citizenship in the United States and Virginia.
To come, at last, to the crux of the matter:  why do we want anybody to know any of this stuff?  I thought about this question long and hard when I was teaching Western Civilization to college freshmen, and I finally concluded that there were very few things I wanted my students to take away from my class.

First, I wanted them to know that something happened before they were born.  Don't laugh--in my experience people have a very strong tendency to assume that the world has always been the way it was when they were children.  Even the famous Greek historian Thucycides introduced his book by noting that little of importance had happened before his own time.  My biggest complaint about the ignorance of my American contemporaries is that they seem to think about the past in monolithic terms.  In the olden days, it was like this:  followed by whatever blanket statement suits your fancy, from people were more religious to women were always oppressed.  So I always tried, as a teacher, to emphasize the enormous variety of the human experience, to explain that change is rarely unidirectional and never complete, and to convey that while misery is universal, so is hope.

Second, I tried to be a teacher of reading, writing, and thinking rather than just history.  After all, you can't just think in the abstract:  you have to think about something.  I find some historical problems to be great intellectual fodder, and I try to use them that way.  This, again, is the source of my discomfort with the Standards of Learning:  I would rather a student think long and hard about one item on the list than memorize pat answers to every one for regurgitation on the upcoming standardized test.  I doubt there is much time for teachers to give extra attention to topics that particularly interest them or their students, and to delve deeply enough into any of these subjects to really bring them alive.  Give me a good essay on one person or one idea over a wide-ranging multiple-choice test any day.

Third, I tried to get my students interested in something outside themselves.  I always talked more about the Vikings than the organization of the manor or the growth of common law, and I built up a list of facts about peasant life that made mouths in the back row drop open.  I suppose you could call this "pandering," but why, exactly, does it matter if the average American knows anything about banking in colonial Virginia?  Are there any particular facts about history so important that every child needs to learn them?  I doubt it.  Isn't it better to tell them things they might remember, things that will expand their minds just a little bit, than to stuff their heads with facts some committee has decided are important but that they will be lucky to remember for a month?

History is the human experience, not just the Big Events.  I don't see anything on the Standards of Learning about friendship, romance, marriage, the raising of children, or huge swaths of life that somehow don't constitute important knowledge.  If I were setting up a US history curriculum, I would be sure to put in John and Abigail Adams, so everybody could read about a really great marriage and learn how two completely equal people interacted in a world where male superiority was assumed.  My ancient history course would take a few minutes for Epaminondas and Pelopidas of Thebes, the only two political leaders I know of who are as famous for being great friends as for their successes.  Instead of banking and credit, my economics course would cover what it was like to be a farmer or a mill worker-- what people did, how they learned to do it, what they earned from it, and how they spent what they earned.  It would, in fact, be easy to draw up a serious curriculum that omitted almost everything taken up in the Standards of Learning.  Except perhaps for the Constitution and the mechanics of how to be a citizen, the subjects taken up in these classes are pretty much useless, and their selection is arbitrary.  By all means, let us teach our children something about the past so they have some basis for thinking about the present, but don't pretend that those who learn one set of facts will have some advantage over those who learn another, or even over those who learn very little at all.

June 16, 2001

Virginia Standards of Learning for Social Studies
Basic Outline

Kindergarten - 
Grade Three        Introduction to History and the Social Sciences 

Grade Four          Virginia Studies:  1607 to Present

Grade Five          United States History to 1877

Grade Six            United States History:  1877 to Present

Grade Seven        Civics and Economics

Grade Eight          World History to 1000 A.D.

Grade Nine           World History:  1000 A.D. to Present

Grade Ten            World Geography

Grade Eleven        United States History

Grade Twelve       United States and Virginia Government

From the 
Commonplace Book

The student will identify and explain fundamental concepts of democracy, with emphasis placed on equality of all citizens under the law, the fundamental worth and dignity of the individual, majority rule and minority rights, the necessity of compromise, individual freedom, and the rule of law.

--Virginia Standards
   of Learning, Twelfth
   Grade Civics


Commonplace Book
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Standards of Learning

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