Credit: John Fensterwald/EdSource Today
Oakland Unified history teacher Jennifer Brouhard asks 5th grader Sequori Cross about her perceptions of women at work in the Richmond shipyards during World War II.

Among the major divisions in the electorate last year (by gender, ethnicity and geography) was the gap between those who were college educated and those who were not. That was widely interpreted as an indicator of a broader socioeconomic split, as it surely was.

Peter Schrag

Credit: Patricia Ternahan

Peter Schrag

But given widespread acceptance by a large part of the electorate of Trumpian Newspeak, “alternative facts” and gargantuan falsehoods about urban crime, immigration, the economy, climate change, the Russian connection and a long list of other matters, both during the campaign and since, was it also a measure of educational failure, plain and simple, and particularly of education in history, government and economics?

Nate Silver in his widely respected FiveThirtyEight blog, among others, leaves no doubt that it was far more a measure of education than of income.

Hillary Clinton, he showed in a post-election analysis, did better in the nation’s 50 “most educated counties,” those with the highest percentage of college graduates, than Barack Obama had done in 2012, and worse in the 50 “least educated counties.” Conversely, Donald Trump “improved on (Mitt) Romney’s performance in 23 of 30 counties where median incomes are $70,000 or higher but less than 35 percent of the population have college degrees and the majority of the population is white.”

While Silver acknowledges that there could have been other factors at play, he argued that “education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump… The education gap is carving up the American electorate and toppling political coalitions that had been in place for many years.”

But what is it about education that made a difference? College graduates, as Silver pointed out, have probably been exposed to a broader diversity of people from different backgrounds than they encountered in their home communities. That they chose to go to college at all (or that their parents encouraged them to go) may have predisposed them to be more liberal.

For similar reasons, it’s also likely that in the process they became increasingly isolated from and ignorant about, if not contemptuous toward, people with less education – the academic losers they’d left behind, a different class in every sense of that word. The fact that much of academia tilts left could only have reinforced those biases.

But could it also have been that those who never went beyond high school were exposed – and limited – to history and civics courses reflecting what Frances FitzGerald in America Revised, her sweeping criticism of American textbooks, published in 1979, called the “lowest common denominator of American tastes”?

The books deprived students, in the words of historian C. Vann Woodward, “of any real sense of history or their place or the place of their country in history; why they do not see that the past has any influence over the future and assume (quoting FitzGerald) ‘that today peels away from yesterday like a decal.’”  The books’ passive writing style produced a lifeless mush.

FitzGerald’s book came out just as the largest cohorts of today’s voters were starting high school, and just at the beginning of yet another “back to basics” movement, which really didn’t fizzle out until the launching of the Common Core standards in 2009 and which probably still drives the curricula in many American schools.

“Back to basics,” in FitzGerald’s words, was “conservative, pessimistic, nostalgic – a quest for certainty in an uncertain world.” It was heavy on rote, and light on analysis, problem solving and what in ed-speak often goes under the heading of “critical thinking.” Most important, it reflected and reinforced – and rarely enlarged or challenged – the predilections and beliefs of the local community.

Today’s glossy texts, though often laid out with “windows” like web pages, are almost certainly better, more conscious of the diversity of American society, of our sharp historical conflicts, more useful in raising searching questions when teachers are willing to ask them. But how many Americans still don’t know in what century Abraham Lincoln was president or which came first, the American Revolution or the Civil War?

We’ve long had our battles about school curricula and policy: phonics vs. look-say, more homework vs. less homework or no homework, testing, school prayer, sex education – the list goes on. But while the reading wars seem to have been (more or less) resolved, and while there seems to be agreement that basic skills in math are essential, the same isn’t true in biology, evolution especially (and often in much other science as well) and emphatically not in history and government. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were fierce curricular conflicts, with school board recalls, over the treatment of everything from free market economics, the depiction of slavery, Eurocentrism, Christopher Columbus and native Americans, to the United Nations (now also a target of President Donald Trump).

In the early and mid-1990s, there was a nasty battle about a proposed U.S. history program developed under the aegis of the National Endowment for the Humanities. After threats from the U.S. Senate, it was revised to be more acceptable to its critics, chief among them Lynn Cheney, who as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, had been an early sponsor of new standards.

The schools have taken the rap for no end of political, social and economic problems, and have often been charged with the job of fixing them. After the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, there were dire warnings from major national figures in business and government that if our schools didn’t shape up (in math, reading and science), the Russians would win the Cold War. In 1983, the report “A Nation at Risk” warned that if the schools didn’t shape up, the Germans and Japanese would beat our economic brains out.

Neither happened, though both spurred all manner of education reform, much of it since discredited and abandoned. But while we’ve had any number of surveys going back generations showing widespread public ignorance of the provisions of the Bill of Rights and lack of support for it, there has never been a similarly loud set of warnings about civic literacy or the schools’ failure to equip students to read critically about, or develop any sense of, history.

Now, again there’s talk about creating programs to immunize students against fake news and other Orwellian assaults. On that score, we can hope that Common Core will foster a little of the critical thinking and problem solving that it’s supposed to teach – without at the same time reinforcing the nihilism and distrust of even the most reliable evidence that are poisoning our democracy. But at best, it will take at least another generation before it could possibly make a difference – if indeed it survives at all.

No, the schools can’t by themselves mold a more engaged and thoughtful citizenry or restore the communitarian ethic that animated the nation through the Depression and World War II anymore than they were able to end alcoholism or drug abuse or any of the long list of other evils they were supposed to stop. The decline of the great labor unions, once among the most successful engines of American citizenship, makes the task particularly difficult.

Nor is America alone in declining public respect for democratic institutions. Under the pressure of immigration, globalization and rapid technological change, something very similar is happening in Europe. But our rich history makes the insularity and sharp divisions between the formally educated and those who aren’t even more shocking. At the same time, it should provide hope that with the right leadership and effort they can eventually be assuaged and narrowed. We have done it before.

•••

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future,” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press).

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