The Discussion Continues: Process or Content?
I’ve previously held forth on the importance of a democratic republic’s citizens understanding the philosophy, structures, and procedures of their government under the Constitution. Senate Bill 17 has had good press coverage and a positive public reaction. Not one of my colleagues has disagreed with the bill’s underlying philosophy.
So, the bill will pass this week, right? Well, no. A bill rarely passes as introduced. The legislative process sometimes waters a bill down, but as often it improves it in response to the discussion of opposing factors. The opposing factor in this case is that Vermont already has a civics requirement in its curricular standards. So, having agreed on the basic idea, we move the discussion to a review of those standards. Why, when the state calls for civics education, do so many people not understand our constitutions? How might we improve our standards?
Witnesses before the Senate Education Committee argued that the task is not to “fill students’ brains with information,” but to guide and nurture their ability to research, to think logically, to debate, so as to learn through discovery. They describe programs in which students participate, debate, and actually do democracy. This reflects educational philosophy that has been common for at least a generation, articulated by scholars like Edwin Fenton and Jerome Bruner, when I took my education courses in the 1970s.
I have no argument with the idea of learning through experience, learning how to think rather than being fed information. But this philosophy has also been subject to criticism for many years. E.D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy” met with much vilification in the ’90s, but his thinking has enjoyed a revival of interest recently. He argued – correctly I think – that a curriculum that favors process but neglects contact denies students information they need.
Hirsch argues that there is a body of knowledge everyone needs, and that a society needs a common body of shared knowledge to be socially coherent. This is especially true, I think, regarding citizens’ understanding of the philosophies, structures, and procedures of our government under the Constitution. I’m urging the Senate Education Committee to consider whether our standards are clear and compelling enough to ensure that our students have the information they need to be citizens.
Sen. Dick McCormack