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Senate Vote to Create Teaching Academies Is a Study in Civics

Concerned by a lack of knowledge of history and government, lawmakers aim to help by educating students and their instructors.

June 21, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Quick, what does the Senate do?

It passes legislation, as it did Friday to set up academies to improve students' knowledge of American history and civics and hone educators' skills in teaching the subjects.

The measure, the American History and Civics Education Act, also has wide support in the House.

It was prompted by growing concerns about students' spotty understanding of history and civics.

"We need this legislation because our children are not learning what it means to be an American," said the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who was secretary of Education in the administration of the first President Bush.

The measure was approved unanimously.

President Bush also has lamented students' lack of even basic knowledge about their nation's history.

He cites studies showing that 1 in 5 high school seniors thought Germany was a U.S. ally during World War II and 1 in 4 eighth-graders didn't know why the Civil War was fought.

Bush last year proposed a $100-million initiative to promote American history and civic education through such programs as grants for developing better curricula and teacher training.

"This is more than academic failure," he said at the time. "Ignorance of American history and civics weakens our sense of citizenship."

Alexander's bill calls for spending an additional $100 million over the next four years to establish two kinds of academies -- one that would teach educators of kindergarten through 12th-grade students how to better teach civics and history, and another that would help high school students broaden their knowledge of the subjects.

Up to a dozen academies for each group would be established around the country, most likely at colleges.

They would be funded through grant competitions conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"Students would certainly be the winners if their teachers return excited about new ways to teach history and bring it to life," said Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor of education.

Alexander said that children are not learning American history and civics because "they are not being taught it, or at least they are not being taught it well."

About half of the states don't require high school students to take a class in American government or civics.

The legislation would not require schools to offer such classes, but lawmakers said they hope it would encourage the practice.

"This is important because, in order for a democracy to survive and to succeed, its values and principles must be passed on from one generation to the next," said Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The endowment lists on its Web site evidence of "America's historic amnesia."

For instance, almost a third of all Americans think that the president may suspend the Bill of Rights in wartime.

Almost two-thirds think Karl Marx's dogma, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," either was or may have been included in the Constitution.

Alexander complained that American history has been "watered down" and that "textbooks are dull."

"Because of politically correct attitudes from the left and right," Alexander said, "teachers are afraid to teach the great controversies and struggles that are the essence of American history."

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