Blame Woodrow Wilson for Americans’ Lack of Historical Literacy

When we think of President Woodrow Wilson, we think of a multitude of historical events: the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and other progressive legislation at home; idealistic internationalism, a world war to “keep the world safe for democracy,” and promotion of the League of Nations abroad. Lately, we think of the Princeton University students protesting against him. In mid-November, they were agitating for the former university president’s name to be removed from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs over his legacy of white supremacy.

But there’s another reason conservatives should revisit Woodrow Wilson.

We need to hold him responsible for the fact that many Americans don’t know the timeline of world or American history and don’t know much about how constitutional government works in the United States: One hundred years ago, in 1916, the Wilson administration put the clout of the federal government behind a new curricular development – social studies.

In this project, the Wilson administration worked with a prominent figure from the world of philanthropy, Thomas Jesse Jones. A well-known progressive educator, Jones, who was white, had spent time teaching and developing the curriculum at the Hampton Institute, a vocationally oriented, historically black college in Virginia. While at Hampton, Jones created the social-studies curriculum.

Jones was responsible for popularizing the term “social studies” for this new conglomeration of subject matter. In fact, Jones headed the panel that wrote an influential 1916 federal report on social studies, a report that set the course for the new field and is widely acknowledged as still influential to this day.

Because Jones was a federal education official at the time, the social-studies report — although created by a non-federal group, the Committee on Social Studies — was issued as a bulletin of the U.S. Bureau of Education. In the report, the federal education agency generously offered to act as a center for disseminating information on textbooks that took the new “social studies” approach.

“Social studies” is a cross-disciplinary K–12 curriculum of history, civics, geography, and related subjects — but, crucially, the curriculum is focused not on chronology or governmental structure and processes; the report proposed that social-studies teachers should focus on “concrete problems” that are “of vital importance to society.”

The new curriculum prescribed that any history taught in school should be studied because it is practical or functional: Ancient Athens was studied not as part of the political and intellectual development of Western civilization, but rather in connection with the contemporary problems of city planning. The report quotes Syracuse University professor William Mace, a member of the social-studies committee, as proposing that students study the similarities between the policies of the Gracchi in ancient Rome (price controls on grain, limits on land holdings), the then-recent measures installed by Prime Minister David Lloyd George in Britain, and those proposed in the 1912 Progressive party platform in America. These historical examples help make history a “practical subject,” Mace said, and are “richly suggestive in the lessons they teach.”

(As a side note, the report is also misleading in drawing such comparisons. Probably because of the unpopularity of Germany in America during World War I, the report neglects to mention the more exact similarities between Lloyd George’s measures and the policies of Bismarck’s Germany — from which Lloyd George’s welfare-state measures were in fact copied. The report also omits mention of the similarities between the 1912 platform of America’s Progressive party and Bismarck’s policies.)

The Progressive era worshipped a cult of efficiency and kowtowed before scientific management. In this vein, the social-studies report concluded that the “key note of modern education” is “social efficiency.” It postulated that whatever the value of social studies in terms of the development of the intellectual knowledge and personal potential of the individual, the social-studies curriculum would “fail” in its “most important function” unless it contributed “directly” to “the cultivation of social efficiency on the part of the pupil.” Students should be taught to look at their own future jobs in terms of overall workforce planning and should take a job based on the service the job “rendered” to “the community” and which jobs were “most necessary,” rather than choosing a job based on remuneration and the job market.

As citizens, we need to understand history because the present comes at the end of a long chain of cause and effect stretching back into the past. Instead of recommending that students study the social sciences in order to form an independent mind knowledgeable about the past, the 1916 social-studies report effectively encouraged students to conform and adjust to prevailing views. Ever since this paradigm change, social studies has been bedeviled by fads, fashions, and indoctrination in the name of relevance. Unfortunately, many Americans educated by our public schools don’t know what happened or when in American history. Nor do they understand federalism and our system of checks and balances. For this calamity, we can place much of the blame on the Wilson administration’s intervention in the school curriculum. It gave us the abomination we call social studies.

– Williamson M. Evers

Williamson M. Evers is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was an assistant U.S. secretary of education for planning, evaluation, and policy development from 2007 to 2009, during the George W. Bush administration.

This first appeared on National Review Online.

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