2006-02-24 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach


It is a sad fact that in many of the schools in Region Five students are not learning anything about their history or their government and how it works.

Many elementary school students get a minimum number of social studies periods, sometimes only one or two that are most often used as “reading in the concept area” periods. In the sixth grade in many schools, students get no social studies lessons at all because the majority of class time is taken up with Literacy, Mathematics and test-taking skills. The name of the game has changed from “Educate all students to perform in the adult world” to “Pass the standardized tests.”

In Middle school, there was once a state rule that students had to take at least one unit (four periods a week) in social studies. In most schools, students got five or six periods in that subject because the curriculum in the seventh and eighth grades is American History and Government.

Now, however, with the focus on literacy and test-taking, most of those students get only three periods a week and some of those are used as literacy periods. For example, reading a book such as “Johnny Tremaine,” a novel about the Revolutionary War, counts both as social studies and literacy, but the lesson is often geared more to the literacy in the book than the social studies concepts.

How about the three branches of government and the balance of power between them? Forget about that minor stuff, we’re studying important stuff, like how to answer test questions and how to listen carefully.

What that means for democracy, however, is problematic. How can a person be an voter, make decisions in political contests, take part in the political process that is so important to our form of government if he or she knows nothing about how that government works.

Ask 1,000 people about who holds the power in the United States and 999 will tell you that it’s the president that holds the premier spot in our government. The fact is, however, that the president is the head of the Executive Branch, only one of the three co-equal branches that also include the Legislative Branch (Congress) and the Judicial Branch (Supreme Court and lower courts). Our system of “Checks and Balances” is supposed to insure that no one branch is preeminent over the other two.

Of course, one could argue that the Republicans control not only the Executive Branch, but the Legislative Branch as well and are now in the process of “taking over” the Judicial Branch. That fact is transitory and will change with the years and the political winds. The Constitution and the idea of Checks and Balances, our vaunted “Separation of Powers” do not change.

Yet most people do not even know about those Checks and Balances, about the separation of powers in our Constitution. They traditionally learn about them in the seventh and eighth grade and then again in the eleventh grade. With social studies lessons deleted in middle school as well as the chase to pass the Regents in high school, however, education is traded for test scores.

James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy.” He recently wrote an op-ed piece for Newsday. His column began “Ignorance is dragging down democracy. Most Americans are increasingly on automatic pilot, paying less attention to each new war, each new power grab, each new presidential assertion. But citizens need not slavishly follow every public debate in order to tilt the playing field against demagoguery.

“The typical voter fails to comprehend even the basics of government. Most Americans do not know the name of their representative in the House [of Representatives], the length of terms of House or Senate members, of what the Bill of Rights purportedly guarantees, according to a survey by the University of Michigan.”

Boyard said that an American Bar Association poll done last summer found that barely half of the respondents recognized the three branches of government and even fewer knew what separation of powers meant.

He argues that separation of powers “goes to the heart of controversies including the wiretapping program and congressional meddling in the Terri Schiavo Case.”

How can a person who does not know about our government participate as a knowledgeable voter?

That is the question that goes to the heart of what our Mayor and his minions are doing in what I believe is a suicidal drive to improve test scores in our public schools.

They are throwing out social studies education (and Science as well) in a fanatical drive to make it look like the mayor has fulfilled his promise to “improve the school system.” Of course, the only measure of improvement that is viable to our businessman mayor is improved test scores, which, as any teacher will tell you, does not necessarily translate into better education.

You can train a pigeon to push the right lever to get food from a machine. Is the pigeon learning about food and the mechanics of the machine? No, it is simply learning that if you push lever A then food will come. That is much like education in our public schools today.

Blacken in the right space and success is yours. Never mind what happens when you become of voting age and are asked to make some choices between two political candidates. Never mind looking at their records and deciding which fits your political philosophy. In fact, never mind having a political philosophy. Just blacken in the correct space and success will be yours. Unfortunately, the real world does not work that way.

One has to have some information to make a reasoned choice. Our kids today are not getting the background learning that will allow them to sort that information and make an informed vote. The students who are passing through the system during this period of mayoral meddling will not be able to do that.

“Americans must read more about political developments and pay closer attention,” Bovard says. “Especially when politicians raise the stakes with saber-rattling for war or propose sweeping new laws. Reading the Bill of Rights takes less time that watching a Super Bowl halftime show. If people do not know the basic rules of the game, they will be oblivious when the government fouls them.”

Everybody talks about the First Amendment, the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights.

Very few people, students included, really know that that document, the basic framework of our rights, says.

It is important that every American have a basic understanding of the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Unfortunately, our school kids are not learning much about the Bill of Rights.

They are much too busy to do anything that will not get them to color in the right blank space.

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