Civic frenemies?

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In case you have a lot of time on your hands and have been following the recent exchange about civics education between the Brown Center team at Brookings and myself, allow me to set the record straight.

Although their rejoinder to my original critique of their 2018 report was polite—suggesting that civilized discourse may still be possible in the rude times in which we live—it was wrong on two counts.

The first is a minor matter of fact. They term their response “brief.” But its 938 words compares with the 659 in my original piece. That wouldn’t deserve mention save for the matter of facts. Facts is what they charge me with being obsessed about. And it’s true that I find in their report, as well as in the C3 social studies framework that undergirds it, a marked lack of enthusiasm for facts. So let me start with the fact that their “brief” response is not, in fact, brief. It’s almost half again longer than what I wrote! What does this say about them—and their grasp on what’s a fact and what’s not?

But enough wordplay. Their second—and major—error is to accuse me of Gradgrind-like worship of facts to the exclusion of all else. They make much of what they declare is my “apparent view that preparing students for civic life is really just about instilling facts.”

That, however, is factually incorrect. Nowhere, but nowhere, did I say that, nor do I believe it, nor have I ever believed it. You can go back as far as Diane Ravitch’s and my 1987 What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? for an extended discussion of the interdependence of “concepts” and “facts,” which we analogized to the mortar and bricks in a sturdy masonry wall. Neither is solid without the other. (We also noted, way back then, that many in the field of social studies were far fonder of concepts than of facts, which is manifestly true of the C3 framework today and also, apparently, of the Brown Center.)

In reviewing their report the other day, I did write about the importance of knowledge, which consists of far more than facts. I’m a long-time devotee of the analyses and conclusions of E.D. Hirsch, beginning with his seminal Cultural Literacy (also 1987) and right up to and including 2016’s Why Knowledge Matters. Knowledge includes factual information, of course, but also a great deal more.

My beef with C3, with contemporary social studies in general, and with the Brown Center isn’t so much their enthusiasm for “skills and dispositions” as their habitual practice of giving those elements of education precedence over knowledge.

Which isn’t to say there’s no possibility for common ground—at least with the Brown Center. Their rejoinder to me goes on to declare that “building a strong foundation of knowledge is essential.” They even say they agree with me about that. So maybe we can be semi-soulmates or frenemies after all.

But I sure wish they’d get their facts straight!

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.