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In the first grade of a rural public school in western Tennessee, I was a chatterbox who would not pay attention. One day, as I continued to act like a space cadet way before the Sputnik era, my teacher lightly slapped my face to let me know my classroom behavior was unacceptable.
Lord knows what draconian penalty would befall a teacher today for administering that gentle tap of corporal punishment. But it worked; I started learning my letters and sounds and numbers. To this day, Miss Sowell is one teacher I remember with respect for that wake-up call.
When I entered Washington and Lee University, I was confident I would ace freshman English. After all, I had been a youth correspondent for my hometown paper throughout high school, and I was working for two newspapers to help pay my way through college. When I received my initial essay back, I was shocked. It was bright red with corrections. Professor Sidney M.B. Coulling let me know that I had much to learn; any “A” grades had to be earned. Today, I revere him as one of my finest teachers.
While researching the latest progressive fad called action civics (AC), I was saddened to learn that today’s strict teachers — those like Miss Sowell and Dr. Coulling — might stand accused of some psychobabble failing called “adultism.” The Chicago-based National Action Civics Collaborative defines that supposed affliction as “the power and practices that adults have and use over the lives of young people.” (Note that parents can fall into that category as readily as teachers.)
The Collaborative elaborates as follows:
Adultist attitudes are characterized by assumptions that young people are not capable, have limited knowledge about the world, and generally lack the tools to be respected and productive members of society. Attitudes of adultism prevail in our society and must be dismantled to meaningfully engage youth in their schools, communities, and cities.
With regard to teaching children about how our republic governs itself, the Collaborative asserts that “traditional civics is boring and ineffective, focusing on the basics of our political system without developing students’ abilities to participate in and improve the system.”
In essence the argument is that, before even having basic civic knowledge, students should be encouraged to become social activists, empowered to radically transform a society they do not yet understand. The Collaborative also argues that teachers and scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of government and law — as well as parents who insist their children read books about the founders — are guilty of adultism, because they dare to believe young people have much to learn before becoming leaders.
The ideology behind adultism is completely false. Far from exhibiting any sort of bias or malice, teachers and parents are simply showing their respect for youngsters’ capacity to grow intellectually.
Action civics is not alone among child-centered fads, nor is it new. AC has its roots in the “project method,” which was introduced to the education world 100 years ago by Columbia University professor William Heard Kilpatrick. His idea was that children should engage in projects of their own devising, rather than be subjected to a knowledge-based curriculum.
The project-based fad has come and gone and come back again, while other student-centered enthusiasms have tagged along. We have constructivist math, where students construct their own mathematical meaning, and invented spelling, which discourages teachers from correcting misspelled words, instead letting the kids make up their own and marveling at the cuteness.
Our country will not long endure if adults continue to forfeit their responsibility to guide young people along paths of wisdom, reason, and respect for precedent. As education historian Diane Ravitch has written, “We do not restart the world anew in each generation. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”
[Originally Published at RealClearEducation]