April 11, 2012
by Bruce Cole
Education reform seems an unlikely issue for the Council on Foreign Relations to tackle. But its recent report, "U.S. Education Reform and National Security," makes a persuasive case for a link between the health of our education system and national security.
The report was generated by a committee co-chaired by Condoleezza Rice and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. It argues that we need to dramatically improve our schools to foster a thriving, innovative economy, to compete globally, and to ensure that our national defense and intelligence apparatuses are staffed properly.
The CFR report surveys educational attainment rates, the Department of Education's National Assessment of Education Progress (a periodic evaluation of student knowledge in various subjects) and other relevant metrics. Almost all the results present cause for alarm, especially when compared with other countries' performance. We are, in short, falling behind our competitors.
To address these failings, the CFR report offers a series of remedies, including more school choice and better and stricter evaluation of teachers and schools. It also calls for the implementation of a set of standards developed by the National Governors Association to be implemented by the states -- all but five have agreed to accept them, something that might induce heartburn in those who still believe in educational federalism and local control of curriculum.
A discussion of the importance of civics knowledge figures prominently in the CFR report. The NAEP's civics test scores are lamentable: only a quarter of students tested were proficient or better. Traditionally, civics education has been a priority; to be effective citizens we need to know, for example, what's in the founding documents, the definition of judicial review by the Supreme Court (something particularly timely), how to get an ordinance passed in the city council, and other information necessary to exercise our rights and responsibilities.
Traditionally, this knowledge has been taught in civics courses. But these are declining in number, often replaced with service learning, community activism and a host of other perhaps well-intentioned but beside-the-point activities.
But civics courses on the structure and process of government are not enough for the training of informed citizens. Without knowledge of our past, we are like trees without roots. As important as it is to know what's in the Bill of Rights, it's equally important to understand why it was written by our founders and preserved through bloody conflicts -- and why it must be safeguarded still. We cannot defend what we don't know.
Our schools are doing a poor job teaching our history. Studies indicate that students leave high school with little knowledge of their past (over 50 percent of high school seniors scored below basic on the latest NAEP test), and they often leave college, where mandatory courses in American history are rare, with even less knowledge than they had when they entered four years earlier.
We are fast becoming a nation of historical amnesiacs.
Unfortunately, the CFR report ignores the need for the teaching of American history as necessary for national security. The report recommends study of the history and language of other countries, but is woefully silent about the enormous knowledge deficit in history education, thereby tacitly endorsing the status quo. It's a missed opportunity.
Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow in 2012.
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