The Sun Sets on the West: Today's Social Studies Experts Preach an Anti-Western Ideology

By Burack, Jonathan | Education Next, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Sun Sets on the West: Today's Social Studies Experts Preach an Anti-Western Ideology


Burack, Jonathan, Education Next


The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to a revival of patriotic feelings across the nation. Yet the mood was quite different among prominent experts within the social studies field. In the pages of Social Education (the premier journal of the National Council for the Social Studies) and in rapidly assembled curriculum supplements, a clear effort was made to temper any hint of patriotic excess in the classroom and to stress instead the need for therapeutic healing. The concern for children who may have been traumatized by the televised carnage was of course laudable and necessary, as was the insistence that students be urged to show tolerance toward their Muslim and Arab neighbors. The trouble was that the overwhelming emphasis on these themes crowded out efforts to teach students anything of political or historical relevance.

Moreover, the history curricula promoted by social studies experts insisted that teachers ought to encourage their students to look more critically at U.S. policy in the Middle East in the hopes of understanding the terrorists' motives. This focus shocked many Americans, as was clear from the bad press the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher union, received when some of the curricula posted on its website suggested that teachers avoid attributing blame for the attacks--despite the fact that the attacks were a clear product of a well-organized terrorist group. Yet anyone aware of the global education ideology, which has captivated social studies experts ever since the end of the cold war, was not surprised. This ideology is deeply suspicious of America's institutions, values, and role in the world, while celebrating other nations and cultures without a hint of skepticism. (Of course, it should be noted that many rank-and-file teachers usually soften or ignore the ideology as they cope with the practical tasks of teaching about the world beyond our shores.)

As a general trend, the increasing coverage of nonwestern societies is welcome. Cosmopolitanism has intellectual benefits on its own, and America's expanding role in the world and the steady globalization of both trade and popular culture make knowledge of other nations a necessity. Much less desirable is that a highly dubious ideological agenda is driving this effort. The global education ideology is being pushed by a variety of professional associations, foundations, and professors in schools of education. Perhaps most important, global education's believers exercise a strong degree of influence among textbook publishers, whose teams of multicultural advisors examine curricular materials for hints of bias or cultural insensitivity.

The global education agenda has three core elements:

* Multicultural celebration: An all-pervasive focus on the concept of "cultural diversity" and the need to expose students to as much of it as possible. This does help to counter a traditional overemphasis on western societies and an ethnocentric bias in the treatment of other societies. In recent years, however, textbooks and curricula have gone overboard in correcting for these deficits. Nevertheless, many educators still insist that a pro-western bias infects the teaching of world history and cultures.

* Cultural relativism: Global education's advocates seek to promote respect and understanding across cultures. This is all to the good. However, true respect and sympathy cannot be based on a completely relativistic approach to culture. By discouraging students who might wish to criticize negative aspects of other cultures, teachers seek to suppress an irrepressible human tendency to make moral judgments. Such pressure only generates cynicism and indifference in students, not a true spirit of tolerance.

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* Transnational progressivism: Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte coined this term to refer to a hostility toward the liberal democratic nation-state and its claims to sovereignty.

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