Before they begin school, most American kids learn how to think about our
society and economy. Through various means, the American way of life is
linked to images of freedom and justice. Once in school, they learn how our
socio-economic system is supposed to work for the betterment of all.
Significantly, they don’t study how the system actually works. Consider one
example of this curricular blind spot that my daughter experienced at a
school known for its strong academic standards.
One day during social studies, her class started to learn about work. The
lesson was about people’s different occupations. My daughter’s teacher was
a kind and well-intentioned person who wanted her students to achieve. The
long hours she worked preparing, teaching and evaluating curriculum were
proof of that.
Later that night, my daughter’s homework assignment was to read a chapter
from the textbook, then answer a series of questions. She asked me a
question about the reading, and I tried to answer it after browsing through
the pages. Work is something everybody does every day, I found. Cheery
illustrations showed workers of all backgrounds delivering goods, treating
patients, typing letters and so forth. However, I answered her question
based not on the reading but my life experience.
Why? My work life and those of fellow workers has included precarious
employment and tyrannical bosses. Such information was absent in her book.
Admittedly, my daughter’s assignment was a simplification. But to be so
utterly unlike the real world?
Plus there was no hint on the pages that finding a job is a challenge. Nor
was there a clue that keeping a job is perhaps a bigger challenge. The
not-so-subtle message was that a job is a job—a ticket to the good life.
One would never know from my daughter’s textbook that our socioeconomic
system doesn’t provide jobs for all who want to work. Never has, in fact,
provided full employment. Insignificant details?
In my daughter’s text, employers appeared generous and humane. They were in
harmony with workers. One large and laughing family at work. Compare this
mythic depiction with the realistic situation most people live most of the
time under bosses that could charitably be called benevolent dictators.
People spend a third of their lives working.
Okay, you say, but aren’t such ideas a bit much to teach elementary school
kids? Aren’t they’re too young? Well, I think elementary school is a fine
time for students (tomorrow’s workers) to begin thinking critically about
the class system. Working for others is a central part of life that deserves
to be dealt with openly and honestly.
Interestingly, the social studies my daughter was exposed to resembled what
I learned during the late 1960s. Then, the counterculture was supposedly
felling the walls of traditional education. Standards were sliding.
American society was suffering. So the story is spun to this day by those
with the money to tell such fables to a wide audience, perhaps unaware of
Cut to today. Elites discuss and debate academic standards around America.
It’s more than a cottage industry. Students’ standardized test scores are
front-page news. The stakes are high, but not in the sense intended. Let me
I think that the focus on test scores is misplaced. Testing is one way to
prevent the public from questioning classroom curriculum. Why and how does
it assume what needs to be explained? Such questions that shine light on
the conventional wisdom need to be voiced by parents, students and teachers.
We owe it to our children, politically powerless and thoroughly
vulnerable, to support classroom curriculum that encourages critical
Education or indoctrination? The choice is ours. We have the power.
Seth Sandronsky is an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramentos
progressive newspaper. He can be reached at email@example.com.