Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Who Needs the Peace Corps?

The person who posted this meme commented, "Did you know?"

I still don't know.  Civics was still a required class when I took it in high school, along with everybody else.  That was 1965 to 1969; in those days (as now, probably) when Americans were shown the text of the Bill of Rights, they repudiated it as Communist propaganda.  We had a very good teacher, well-liked and knowledgeable.  My fellow students who are now on Facebook evidently forgot everything he taught them, or never learned it.  That goes for those who are now liberal, as well as for those who are now right-wing Republicans.

Is it surprising?  Of course not.  People who lament the ignorance of Kids Today are always ignorant themselves, if not wilfully misinformed.  (I'm inclined to put Zappa in the latter category.)  Kids have always been ignorant.  The first research on students' knowledge of "history" (defined as their ability to regurgitate discrete "facts" on a questionnaire), done in 1917, produced the same results, and the same denunciation of public education, as it does today.*  This was, as it happens, about the same time that Social Studies was first formulated by professional educators; as it's now defined, Social Studies is
"the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence." Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. In essence, social studies promotes knowledge of and involvement in civic affairs. And because civic issues--such as health care, crime, and foreign policy--are multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them require multidisciplinary education. These characteristics are the key defining aspects of social studies.
Zappa's claim that Social Studies had something to do with "all the student rebellions in the 60s" is raving bullshit.  The way he expressed his point puts him in the same crank box as people who whine that children aren't pledging allegiance to Our Flag these days. His history is false, like theirs. One, if Civics is no longer being taught, it's not because of the student rebellions of the 60s, which were about actually implementing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It doesn't matter what the class is called, but Social Studies was what History class was called when I was in 6th grade, in 1961-2 in a backwater Hoosier school, before the student rebellions of the 60s had happened.  As I recall it, it had all the limitations one would expect from an elementary-school American history, but our teacher did go into some depth on questions like religious freedom and its role (or lack of it) in the early English settlements.

Of course Zappa also ignored the difficulty of teaching history and Civics correctly, thanks to reactionaries who (like him? I don't really know his politics) want students taught propaganda, not accurate history or Civics.  It's so much easier and safer to inculcate flag worship and to regard the Constitution as Holy Writ than to teach the complexities of American history and the controversies over the meaning of the Constitution.

I was relieved to see that numerous commenters on the previous post of this meme pointed out and corrected Zappa's distortions.  The person who'd posted it, who claims to be a former teacher and got it from a group called "Worldwide Hippies," rejected these corrections and defended the distortions.  (Evidently he's unaware that Zappa hated hippies.)

I respect Zappa as a tireless advocate of civil liberties, though in his case that mainly seemed to mean the freedom to say "Fuck" on stage and on records.  I honor him for attacking Tipper and Al Gore's campaign to censor pop music.  But that doesn't make him an authority on American history and political systems, or on the history of American education.  Whether he liked it or not, his struggle to do so was part of the same cultural and political movements he despised and misrepresented.

*See Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Temple, 2001), pp 32ff.