What if educators approached the curriculum as if the survival of our democracy depended on it? Believe it or not, they once did.
Between World War I and the civil rights era, American educators lived in the shadow of the ideological, political, cultural, and existential threat of totalitarianism. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1949) warned, the rise of totalitarianism in Europe represented “more than an internal crisis for democratic society.” It represented “an internal crisis for democratic man” because there was potentially “a Hitler, a Stalin in every breast.”
Totalitarian leaders used propaganda, intolerance, and indoctrination to distort facts and convey an official state ideology. Consequently, totalitarian teachers taught students to be docile, obedient, and compliant. In contrast, democratic teachers deliberately avoided propaganda and indoctrination by teaching students to be open-minded, tolerant, balanced, and critical.
If “democracy as a way of life is to have a fighting chance for survival,” Alan Griffin (1942) insisted, then “the task of the democratic school is to make the student intelligent about his culture, rather than to win his adherence to a predetermined course of action.” Two decades later, social studies educators Donald Oliver and James Shaver (1966) noted: “the success of Fascist regimes . . . as well as the Russian Revolution marked the beginning of a serious new challenge to modern democratic government.” This challenge redirected democratic education in a more student-centered direction, focused on the cognitive processes of reflective thinking. As I demonstrate in my article, “The Origins of Classroom Deliberation: Democratic Education in the Shadow of Totalitarianism, 1938–1960,”
this challenge gave the social studies curriculum an overall sense of unity and purpose that has largely been missing since the 1960s.
Without the concrete examples of totalitarian regimes to serve as foils to democratic life, the civic function of education today has been diverted and subsumed in the current emphasis on college and career readiness. The threat of totalitarianism may have been detrimental to the political, psychological, financial, and cultural health of the nation, but it appears to have been beneficial to educators seeking to place thoughtful civic education at the center of the curriculum. Can educators fully retrieve the civic function of education, or was the major focus on civic education just a contingency of a bygone era? Does the current focus on college and career readiness betray the long-standing role of schools in the preservation of democratic life?
Griffin, A. (1942). A philosophical approach to the subject matter preparation of teachers of history
(p. 97) (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Ohio State University, Columbus.
Oliver, D., & Shaver, J. (1966). Teaching public issues in the high school
(p. 16). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Schlesinger, A., Jr. (1949). The vital center
(p. 250). New York: Riverside Press.