Courage or Timidity?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote an article for Social Studies educators titled: The Social Studies are Essential to a Well-Rounded Education

This response was written by Michael Hartoonian:

Do you ever wonder about the amount of courage it takes to say that social studies is important in a journal for social studies teachers?  I’m just saying.

As one concerned about the general atrophy of content in the preK-12 curriculum, it was heartening to read (Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan’s claim of the importance of social studies content.  It was further implied that other disciplines of the Liberal Arts might also be important.  What is reviling, however, is the tacit assumption that there exists some kind of content taxonomy that places one field above another.  In some cases, a non-content field – reading – is given the top rung, even though it is not a content field, but a process.

I am continually stunned by the elites of our nation and their abandonment of first principles when it comes to public education.  The issue is not how important a field like social studies is to the education of children; the first question is how important public education is to the survival of the republic.

Under the Minnesota constitution, as with all other state constitutions, the state has the duty to insure an adequate education for all of our children.

The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a through and efficient system of public schools throughout the state. (Article 13, Section 1)

The principle is simple – the constitutional mandate makes clear that it is essential to a functioning democracy that citizens are capable of making informed decision in the interest of the common good as well as in their own self interest; and understand the connections between.   

The role of the school is to develop loving critics of our society.  These are individuals who can love the principles of democratic government and free, ethical markets, and still have the intellectual and moral power to question and change our culture when it forgets its way.  The purpose of the public school is to serve the republic – through civic debate – and continue to improve our material and ethical infrastructure so wealth creation is enhanced and individuals, families, and the nation can flourish.  In this process the primary role of social studies is obvious.

Education – specifically common or public education – should be seen as insurance against the cultural disasters of economic panics, unethical relationships among people, and corrupt businesspeople and politicians who think more of their ideology than their country.  This insurance policy was written by our ancestors.  Like it or not, we are related, dependent, and enhanced through reciprocal relationships and duty.  The continuation of the republic depends on our ability to understand E Pluribus Unum, and this knowledge rests most emphatically on the way the American people value public education – its purpose and integrity.  Our leadership, across education, government, business, and media should work to establish the essential purpose of public education. Whether we call it human capital, civic responsibility, or meaningful living, one thing that is altogether true is the fact that excellence and wealth can only be created by people who believe in a unifying narrative of civic virtue.  We must know that the republic is insured not by any people, but by people who are educated to their responsibilities of self, family, community, and nation.  These people understand their identity as citizens.  The rest are just subjects.

When you don’t know who you are, people can mess with you, because you can’t be responsible.  Because American public schools have not understood their identity, nor have they grasped the nature of their purpose, they have been dragged into defending indefensible positions.

Our present schools, in their desire to be “relevant” or pay uncommon attention to contemporary pop-culture, believe that they can “bond” with their communities.  But, in this flawed purpose, they create many more dysfunctional citizens.  In their soliciting, schools give-up their responsibility to teach and question the culture and, are thus, no longer public.  They are private in the sense that they believe they have customers – students and parents.  And the school’s job is to serve their customers’ needs, even when the child and parent have little understanding of those needs.

At a basic level educators should know that in the average community across the United States only 20% of the households have children to send to school.  Thus, because of the fixation on the child, public schools have stopped serving the common good.  We have it backwards.  The child should serve.  The child should take seriously the questions: what can I do for my family?  My school?  My community?  The child should come to school asking, “May I study here?”  And the parent(s) must do everything in his or her power to respect as well as question the authority of teaching and learning.  If the parent takes on the true identity of parent, then he or she will behave responsibly.  If the child takes on the identity of student, then he or she will behave responsibly.  As teaching is the responsibility of the teacher, learning is the responsibility of the student.  It is something that neither teachers nor parents can do for students.  Public schools by definition, must serve a public good – they are responsible for critically passing the republic on to the next generation.  It is the generational covenant we have with our ancestors and our children.

The words we need to hear and the actions we need to see from our leaders is in support of the first principle of the republic – the general education of all of our children to be loving critics of this great country.  It is their duty, indeed, the duty of us all, to know and act on this principle.  The purpose of public education is to serve the common goal of developing students who can hold the office of citizen – the highest office in the land. Without a conception of the public good, public school makes no sense. And without that conception, social studies in particular, will be delegated to a lesser position – as it currently is, Secretary Duncan, notwithstanding.

H. Michael Hartoonian is Scholar in Residence at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN and former Professor and Senior Fellow and Director of the Institute for Democratic Capitalism, in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota.  Michael is a former president of NCSS.  He can be reached via email at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s