The Texas School Board has approved controversial new social studies standards. Some on the board appear more intent on immersing students in conservative orthodoxy and teaching Christian triumphalism than producing critical thinkers prepared for an information age where knowledge is power.
Among other revisions, the new standards justify the McCarthyism of the 1950s and warn that international institutions such as the United Nations endanger American sovereignty. References to that pesky founding father Thomas Jefferson were barely saved at the last moment, but students will not be hearing about his thoughts on the separation of church and state. Not to fear. They will learn about "the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association." Even before the vote, a board member offered an opening prayer that described the United States as a "Christian land governed by Christian principles." More than 1,200 historians from across the country signed an open letter calling on the board to delay a final vote until scholars could formally review the changes. The board ignored the request and chose politics over academic integrity.
Teaching about "the common good" is out. The previous standards defined citizenship as "a belief in justice, truth, equality and responsibility for the common good." But the common good does not belong in the standards, board member Don McLeroy told The Wall Street Journal, because it is a "a liberal notion." Despite far-right propaganda that equates the common good with efforts to brainwash us in the ways of Marx and Mao, the concept is deeply rooted in American ideals. John Adams had this to say about it: "Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men." The common good has also been central to the Christian intellectual tradition and philosophy down through the centuries. Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas talked about the common good. Pope Leo XIII, in his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, became the first to make formal use of the concept as the starting point for the Catholic Church's social analysis. According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: "The principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning, stems from the dignity, unity and equality of all people."
What seems to bother some conservatives about appeals to the common good is related to a larger narrative perpetuated by the right over the past several decades. In their well-worn trope, "liberty" and "free markets" are under attack by "big government" controlled by utopian social engineers who redistribute wealth through higher taxes. The Tea Party movement embraces a "Don't-Tread-on-Me" disdain for government and simmers with inchoate anger at an increasingly multicultural society where traditional principles are perceived to be threatened from all sides. Opponents of health-care reform show equal zeal and historical amnesia with signs that read "Keep the Government's Hands Off My Medicare!" Sarah Palin mocks "community organizers." Glenn Beck warns us to leave churches that preach social justice. President Obama is a socialist. This fear and loathing isn't new. Just dust off historian Richard Hofstadter's seminal 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."
Reasonable debates about the size and scope of government -- along with balancing individual fulfillment with our collective obligation to care for the most vulnerable -- are necessary. We've been having these sensible arguments since our nation's founding. But when the "common good" and "social justice" and "community organizer" become ugly epithets spit from the mouths of those who claim to uphold the true values of America, we lose our way down a far darker road.
E.J. Dionne Jr. offers some helpful (and very Catholic) thinking regarding the false choice between individualism and the common good in his important book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right. Dionne emphasizes "the urgency of reforging the link between social and personal responsibility." Building a culture anchored in a commitment to the common good requires a concern for both. Can we move beyond tired ideological debates that pit conservatives who preach the primacy of personal behavior against liberals who point to structural injustice? Can we chart a sensible path between those who caricature "big government" in an endless battle against the "free market?" This isn't easy in a sound-bite world where simplistic extremes define the debate, but it's critical if we hope to have an honest conversation and solve problems.
As for those public school students in Texas being ill served by the school board, let's hope that curious minds and some extracurricular reading help them to embrace a healthy respect for the difference between the pursuit of knowledge and culture-war indoctrination.
John Gehring is Director of Communications for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.