Documentation: America, the World, and Our Schools

Does the larger world have a place in American education, in education for democratic citizenship? I believe that it does. In fact, it always has. To cite a great 19th-century educator by the name of Abraham Lincoln, every American’s schooling should equip him “to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.”

Even then, Americans were taught the most important lesson of international politics — what their own system of government meant, as opposed to most of the systems of government they saw overseas. From the first, Americans hoped that their particular experiment in self-rule would ultimately affect the political lives of all men, everywhere in the world. “The institutions of the United States,” wrote Lord Bryce in 1888, “. . . are believed to disclose and display the type of institutions towards which, as by a law of fate, the rest of civilized mankind are forced to move, some with swifter, others with slower, but all with unresting feet.”

Some of this hope has been rewarded. But not everyone has followed our lead. Today the continent of Europe is divided between examples left by the unresting feet of democracy, and examples stamped by the rougher boots of occupying armies and regimes hostile to free institutions. In such a world there is conflict. And nowadays we are a global power. We have global responsibilities, and international politics have a more pressing claim on our attention than ever before. We need to know — and pass on to our children — as much about the world as we possibly can. How are we doing?

On first inspection, perhaps, not altogether badly. Of course, technology has assisted with the task. When a movement for democracy took hold in the Philippines last February, Americans (and American children) saw its leaders interviewed on television — even before their victory had been secured. And our children see summit meetings and Ayatollahs and hostages and Soviet tanks rumbling through Afghanistan

There is evidence of more formal effort as well. For secondary schools, men and women mindful of the need for an American electorate knowledgeable about foreign policy are developing new social studies curricula. In higher education, the subject has come into its own as a distinctive discipline. In one recent year (1976) American universities awarded as many Ph.D.s in international studies as they had in the first forty years of this century combined.

But this evidence is deceptive. It may not point toward real knowledge. Relatively few Americans will ever earn a Ph.D. in international studies. And I have found that there is no guarantee that those who do will see the world as it truly is, in its fundamental aspects. So how much do most American students know about the world we live in? How well do Americans understand the fundamental character of international politics today — that our republican government stands for certain things in the world, and that other regimes stand against us?

Do they understand that the United States represents something more than the interests of a big power in global competition? That our international posture embodies our founding principles? That we stand as a free, self-governing society in defense of those ideas which together make for freedom and self-government? Respect for the individual. Religious freedom. The rule of law. Limited government. Private property. The freely given, uncoerced consent of the governed. Rights to dissent: freedoms of speech, press, association, and assembly. Majority rule. And do they understand that these ideas are not yet shared universally, throughout the world? That in some places only lip service is paid to them; that they are honored in words, dishonored in practice?

In the present international arrangement, there exists another idea. It is an idea backed by incredible armed strength. It is an aggressive idea that does not shrink from the use of that strength. And it is an idea of nearly illimitable darkness. In the territories to which it has spread not a single ideal that Americans believe universal and good and beyond dispute still shines. Except, of course, in the hearts of its bravest victims.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall. After all these years, men and women are still willing to risk death to cross over it, from East to West, to breathe the air of freedom. They do not often succeed. Just two weeks ago, a young man attempting to escape to the West reached the top of the wall, only to be cut down in a hail of machine gun bullets. Witnesses then heard an East German border guard yell “I got you, you swine” at the young man’s corpse. Which led another East German guard, unable to countenance the murder, to shout at his colleagues in disgust. The protesting guard was quickly disarmed and led away, God knows where.

Are we teaching young Americans to understand the Berlin Wall — its history and its significance? Are there course units on it in America? Please tell me about them. When a communist dictator like Erich Honecker of East Germany calls the wall an “anti-fascist protective rampart,” are students able to hear his doublespeak for what it is? Do they know what dictatorship of the proletariat means? Can they grasp the significance of a totalitarian state, which recognizes no inviolable individual rights? Are they familiar with calculated liquidations? With terror as an instrument of state policy? With the NKVD and KGB? With planned famine, purges, show trials, a pact with Hitler, a gulag? Do Americans recall the fate of Cambodia? Are they aware of current developments in Ethiopia? And can they therefore see why free men and women resist the expansion of communism around the world?

There is reason to doubt that we are successfully educating Americans about the world. Two weeks ago in Atlanta, the Southern Governors Association issued a report which documented the “international illiteracy” in America’s schools. Twenty percent of sixth-grade students surveyed could not locate the United States on a map. And there is evidence of similar ignorance among secondary school students. A 1985 survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that American eleventh graders knew astonishingly little of their own history. Two-thirds of them could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. One-third of them failed the same test for the Declaration of Independence, for Columbus, and for World War I. Nearly a third could not say which two nations were our principal enemies in World War II. And to half of them the names Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin were unfamiliar.

If half our students, in a casual conversation, could conceivably hear Stalin’s crimes attributed to Winston Churchill and not know the difference, then they do not understand what they need to understand about contemporary international politics. Then they are, in Professor Paul Gagnon’s words, “unarmed for public discourse.”

Am I criticizing our children? I am not. If they do not know these things, it is in most cases not their fault. Blame for this situation falls on all of us whose job it is to educate American children. And responsibility for making good the failure is ours as well. I commend the participants in this conference for their willingness to face the task.

How to do it? Emphasize facts, for one thing. There is now in our secondary schools no shortage of curricula for the teaching of international politics. But in general I’d say they don’t pay much attention to facts. Far from it. Sometimes their basic premises are non-factual. Consider the various “nuclear age” or “peace” curricula. These begin with the assumption that American children are terrified by the prospect of nuclear annihilation. As it happens, there is no reliable polling evidence for this claim — in fact, students are much more worried about drugs than nuclear war — but to the advocates of such curricula this just proves the depth of children’s terror, which, they say, has been completely repressed.

As “therapy,” the curricula attempt to bring the fear and horror out in the open. Students are made to watch graphic films of victims from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. They play games in which they contemplate their own deaths. They draw concentric circles on maps of their own neighborhoods, simulating the geography of destruction a local nuclear explosion might create.

Does fear foster prevention? Does panic foster knowledge? Will the vision of apocalyptic war usher in an age of utopian peace? Is this the sort of education in international politics our students deserve? No. It is not the business of American pedagogy to base its curricula on what are imagined to be its students’ fears. And it is not the business of American education to encourage unreasoning fear of any kind.

Nor is it proper to use American classrooms for “creating a grassroots network of educator activists,” as Educators for Social Responsibility, one of the most aggressive advocates of peace curricula, has described its goal. In an educational system with a limited but difficult mission — to teach basic knowledge, basic skills, and the values necessary for democratic citizenship — there is no room for the intrusion of propaganda or political activism of any sort, on any side. For the most part, peace studies are the creation of a political movement that seeks at least a nuclear freeze, at most unilateral disarmament. This movement has designed lesson plans calling for students to petition their elected representatives about the threat of nuclear war. It has urged that our schools institute “infusion workshops” in which teachers set aside entire days “to grow in enthusiasm for justice and peace education.” This is not education; this is indoctrination. And much of it is just what it sounds like — a perfectly preserved fossil of 1960s-style political activism. Get it out.

Another legacy from the Age of Aquarius that has been enshrined in too many of our social studies curricula is a disturbing anti-rational bias. Curriculum guides for what is known as “global education” are shot through with calls for “raised consciousness,” for students and teachers to view themselves “as passengers on a small cosmic spaceship,” for classroom activities involving “intuiting,” “imaging,” or “visioning” a “preferred future.” Two proponents of such curricula have offered a candid caution: “These exercises may seem dangerous to your logical thought patterns. For best results, suspend your judging skills and prepare to accept ideas that seem silly and/or impractical.” If we’re going to give up critical judgment, we’d better give up the game of education altogether.

Then there is the grandest shibboleth of them all — the idea that we must never judge other societies or other political systems. Indeed, the habit of making such judgments is alleged to be a major failing of the old way of teaching about the world. As guidelines published by the National Council for the Social Studies put it, the traditional social studies curriculum “reflected the biases of the white middle class” and distorted non-Western cultures. American teaching, these guidelines complain, “concealed the diversity of the social world . . . [and] reinforced cultural bias and ethnocentricity.”

But it is this society, after all, in its freedom, its scholarship, and its tolerance, that has established a matchless record for the willingness to provide an open and sympathetic hearing for diverse ideas. It is this country, is it not, that sends open-minded social scientists and cultural anthropologists to study even exceedingly close-minded, ethnocentric societies abroad? We have profited from those studies; we are committed to learning from the customs and the values of other cultures and other societies. And we have an historically unprecedented appetite for self-scrutiny and self-criticism.

Now, I happen to believe that a rational, realistic, and open-minded approach to international politics is possible for American high schools. But we do not have to teach this subject as diluted cultural anthropology, arguing in effect that all the world’s governments are the same because all their people drink water and breathe air, and no society’s practices are better than any other’s. To put the matter succinctly: you can’t fit liberal democracy and communism together on any map of the world’s moral landscape. Wishes will not replace the fact that American citizens share almost nothing of their political life with the subjects of a totalitarian government.

That American textbooks should eschew xenophobia is obvious. They should, clearly and factually, teach our children what they need to know about other countries and their cultures. But openness and honesty require, as well, the acknowledgment that not all systems are humane, decent, or legitimate. It is not ethnocentrism but — to the contrary — an honest commitment to universal criteria of judgment that requires us to discriminate among the societies of the world. All men are created equal; but all political and social systems are not. By universal criteria, some are simply awful: their people live in misery, oppressed by their governments, and denied their dignity. Just as we do not shrink from telling the truth about American slavery, let us tell the horrible truth about the extermination of tens of millions in Stalin’s Russia. Let us, in short, tell the whole truth.

The central fact of today’s political world is the defensive opposition of the United States and its democratic allies to the Soviet Union and its empire. If I urge our schools to communicate this fact to our students, am I urging that they be “indoctrinated”? By no means. Let me emphasize — I do not care whether school textbook publishers or teachers approve or disapprove of particular American foreign policies. They’re free citizens — it’s a free country. They’re entitled to their opinions. But as educators, their obligation is to tell the truth and the facts.

Americans instinctively abhor governments that attempt to enforce intellectual conformity on their people. But we know certain things for sure. And we cannot abdicate our responsibility to inform our children about the world around us only that communism is an ideology that preaches common ownership of property and wealth, that Communist nations like the Soviet Union have reduced illiteracy, and that, as one American textbook asserts, “equality for women in the USSR is a reality. . . . They may marry or vote when they are 18.” Vote? Vote for what?

How should our high school students be taught international politics? What is “global education,” properly understood? Students should learn geography and foreign languages, some foreign literature, and a lot of European history. They should be familiar with Western civilization’s religious traditions, and with the central place of religion in the lives of its peoples. They should also be aware of totalitarianism’s ghastly contempt for the triumph of religious liberty in the West, and of the unnatural supersedure of God by man and state under communism.

Students should learn about the Greeks, and about the Romans; about feudalism, the Magna Charta, the Enlightenment, and the Renaissance; about the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Russian Revolution; about World War I and World War II.

Our children should know first about themselves. About American literature and American history. And American democracy. What are its basic elements, its fundamental ideas? The values necessary to sustain it, and the conditions for its success or failure? And then they should know about totalitarian regimes. What are their ideological roots? How have they acted in the past? And how do they act in the present, toward their own people and toward other nations? And of course our students should know about the gradations of social, political, and economic arrangements in today’s world between the few islands of the free and democratic and the vast encroaching ocean of the unfree and the despotic.

Finally, our high school students should learn about the key events of the last 40 years that have made relations between the United States and the Soviet Union what they are. What happened at Yalta? Why was Churchill so agitated? What was the Marshall Plan? What is containment? What happened in East Germany and Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Cuba? What is happening in Poland and Afghanistan and Nicaragua today? And, yes, what was Vietnam?

What do human rights mean? In 1982 the National Council for the Social Studies published a booklet entitled “International Human Rights, Society, and the Schools.” It was designed to help social studies teachers teach about human rights, as they should. But the booklet was written on “a small cosmic spaceship” called global education — a place, as we have seen, where judgment is suspended. It said there was more than one human rights tradition: “In Western Europe and the United States” — I am quoting — “civil and political rights such as freedom of speech, voting, and due process are of prime concern.” But “in Eastern European countries, economic rights such as the right to work, to form trade unions, to strike, and to take vacations are considered essential. . . . The rights which are deemed most important depend upon the social, economic, legal, and political traditions of the people.” Ask Lane Kirkland about workers’ rights in Eastern Europe. Ask Lech Walesa.

This won’t do, and not just because Eastern European rights to form unions and strike are an hallucination. The Soviet Constitution grants its citizens a long list of rights; the trouble is they cannot be exercised. But when our children read about the Soviet Constitution, they should be struck by more than the difference between paper and reality; every society falls short of its noblest ambitions. But are the ambitions themselves real, or are they hypocritical — are they a lie?

In short, I am suggesting that the best global education for American students is the truth — the truth about ourselves, our political culture, and our intellectual legacy. And the truth about the world, in all its friendly and hostile aspects, for all its good and all its evil. Though our scholars and our statesmen are forever adding to its finer contours, we are, most of us, agreed on what the bulk of that truth looks like. It is high time, I think, that we begin making sure our children can see it, too.

In this society, and in other free societies, we urge that our students be told the truth. And we urge it in good faith —as I do today, the Secretary of Education of the United States. Think about that. It is an important measure of the state of the world as I have been addressing it. Can my counterparts from unfree societies urge the truth for students, in good faith? Ask them. You will hear the silence.

William J. Bennett’s remarks were originally delivered in December at a conference on “Teaching International Politics in High Schools,” sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


  • William J. Bennett

    William J. Bennett is an American conservative pundit, politician, and political theorist. He served as United States Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. He also held the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H. W. Bush. In 2000, he co-founded K12, a for-profit online education corporation which is publicly traded.

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