Social Education 55(5) pps. 298-299
©1991 National Council for the Social Studies

The Commission Report and Critical Thinking: A Defense

Kevin O'Reilly
George Orwell move over. In the true spirit of "newspeak," the November/December 1990 issue of Social Education presented a "debate" on the Curriculum Task Force report-a debate consisting entirely of opponents to the report!
As a member of the Curriculum Task Force I would like to respond to some of the criticisms leveled against the report in the November/December issue. My interest is in critical thinking (O'Reilly 1984-91, 1985, 1986, 1990), so this article will be confined to responding to the criticisms made by Professors Engle, Nelson, and Cherryholmes in regard to critical thinking in the Curriculum Task Force report.

At the outset, Fay Metcalf and David Jenness (1990, 430) pointed out that the National Commission was not fully funded. We were able to outline a scope and sequence and make some broad recommendations but were not able to delineate specific teaching strategies for specific content areas. Judgments about critical thinking in the Curriculum Task Force report should therefore be confined, in fairness, to the report itself and not to what it did not do because of limited funding. Two broad areas in the report relate to critical thinking. The scope and sequence proposals address the content issue of depth versus coverage. The general recommendations (contained in the characteristics and goals) address broad questions of teaching strategies.

Professor Engle argues (1990) for in-depth study of fewer topics to promote a value-oriented study of history. But in-depth study is exactly the point of the Curriculum Task Force report. Characteristic 10 states: "The core of essential knowledge to be incorporated in the instructional program at every level must be selective enough to provide time for extended in-depth study" (1989, 4). In-depth study, rather than broad coverage, was an area of consensus on the Curriculum Task Force.

The proposed scope and sequence is designed for in-depth study. The Curriculum Task Force changed U.S. history from repetitive one-year survey courses in 5th, 8th, and 11th grades (the dominant sequence in the country) to in-depth study of short portions of U.S. history in each of three years: colonial history in 9th grade; nineteenth century history in 10th grade; and twentieth century history in grade 11 (1989, 14-18).

This change alone would be a great help in promoting critical thinking. Dozens of teachers at workshops I have conducted on teaching critical thinking in history have said they would use a lot more lessons involving problems and thinking skills if they did not have to cover Balboa to Bush in one year.

The one-year world history course is even more ludicrous (covering from Adam to atom). Here again, the Curriculum Task Force report suggests covering only short portions of world history in three separate years (1989, 14-18). These changes in scope are an important step towards critical thinking by promoting in-depth study. We want students to drink at the fountain of knowledge, not gargle it.

The general recommendations of the Curriculum Task Force report also emphasize critical thinking. This emphasis on thinking is quite obvious in the characteristics statements (1989, 3-4):

6. Content knowledge from the social studies should not be treated as received knowledge to be accepted and memorized, but as the means through which open and vital questions may be explored and confronted.
7. Reading, writing, observing, debating, role-play, or simulations, working with statistical data and using appropriate critical thinking skills should be an integral part of social studies instruction. Teaching strategies should help students to become both independent and cooperative learners.
8. Social studies coursework should teach students to evaluate the reliability of all such sources of information and to be aware of the ways in which various media select, shape, and constrain information.
Professor Nelson (1990, 436-437) does not let those statements stand in the way of criticizing the report for a lack of critical thinking. In a classic use of the "straw man" technique he states: "The [Task Force] curriculum calls for students to listen uncritically to specified historical and geographic information for eleven years." Later, he adds that the report "does not engage students in critical study of history and geography, only in the study of sterilized, prescribed mainstream content." Look over the Curriculum Task Force report and see if you think those are reasonable conclusions.

Professor Nelson (1990, 436) also uses the technique of special pleading when he pulls out the worst cases of history education. He argues that many studies show that history education has been used to "convey conformity, ethnocentrism, prejudice, and uncritical acceptance of social control." Many issues of Social Education, other NCSS publications, and publications of other organizations show exciting history programs that convey critical analysis of primary sources, empathy for individuals in different times and cultures, and thoughtful questioning of power structures and decisions. 1 And non-history social studies courses have also been used to convey conformity and uncritical acceptance. The general failure over the past fifty years to change government courses to a genuine problems of democracy approach is well-known. Certain economics courses have also been criticized for drilling a particular ideological orientation into students. You can call a course "Power and Poverty" and teach it didactically and you can teach a history course in a problem-oriented way. What, after all, can you deduce (as Professor Nelson has) about the way a course is taught from its name?

For example, in my 11th grade U.S. history courses for average students last fall, we (1) studied the effects of technology on war (Civil War) and on work, including students' after-school jobs; (2) evaluated three different interpretations of Reconstruction (O'Reilly 1991); (3) examined causes of racism; (4) analyzed the Fourteenth Amendment, with particular attention to its effects on women's rights; (5) debated the philosophies of Social Darwinism and laissez-faire, including the role it played in the 1980s (O'Reilly 1991); (6) staged a simulation on industrialization; (7) evaluated Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for its reliability as a source and (8) discussed the Persian Gulf crisis and the causes of war, among other activities. This course is cleverly entitled, "U.S. History B." By Professor Nelson's standard of measurement it is condemned out-of-hand since it is a history course.

Professor Cherryholmes (1990, 441) acknowledges the references to critical thinking in the report, but criticizes the Curriculum Task Force for not explaining how students are to get from received knowledge to critical understanding. As we have seen, however, the report did not view the curriculum as "received knowledge," and the National Commission did not have the resources to make detailed recommendations on pedagogy in each course.

Professors Engle, Nelson, and Cherryholmes have legitimate concerns that students be engaged in discourse about important social, political, and economic issues. They fail to acknowledge, however, the degree to which the Curriculum Task Force report actually promotes those very goals.

Within the limited resources given us, the Curriculum Task Force made two important steps to promote critical thinking: we made numerous statements advocating it; and we designed the courses to promote in-depth study. To be sure, it emphasizes history in the curriculum, and with no apologies. Orwell and Huxley both point to knowledge of history as the key to thoughtful, questioning citizenship. John McPeck (1981), an authority on thinking in education, argues that complex knowledge is one of the most important components of critical thinking. If problems occur with history instruction, the solution is surely not to throw out history, but to improve the quality of instruction.

We should continue the dialogue on the best types of social studies curricula for students. As the Curriculum Task Force report (1989, 4) states, it should be a curriculum where students are engaged in "debating, role-play[ing]...and using appropriate critical thinking skills," where students will have "time for in-depth study." If we can reach consensus on the goals, we should move on to detail specific strategies in specific content areas to reach those goals.


1 See Magazine of History, Teaching History, The History Teacher, New England Journal of History, and The Social Studies, for examples of outstanding lessons by history teachers.


Cherryholmes, Cleo H. "Social Studies for Which Century?" Social Education 54, (November/December 1990): 438-442.

Downey, Matthew T. Teaching American History: New Directions. Bulletin no. 67. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1982.

Engle, Shirley. "The Commission Report and Citizenship Education." Social Education 54 (November/December 1990): 431-434.

Lockwood, Alan, and David Harris. Reasoning with Democratic Values: Ethical Problems in United States History. 2 vols. New York: Teachers College Press, 1985.

McPeck, John. Critical Thinking and Education. London: St. Martins Press, 1981.

National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools. Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, 1989.

Nelson, Jack L. "Charting a Course Backwards: A Response to the National Commission's Nineteenth Century Social Studies Program." Social Education 54 (November/December 1990): 434-437.

O'Reilly, Kevin. Critical Thinking in American History. 4 vols. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Midwest Publications, 1984-1991. . Decision-Making in the Vietnam War. Computer simulation. South Hamilton, Mass.: Critical Thinking Press, 1990. . "Teaching Critical Thinking in High School U.S. History." Social Education 49 (April 1985): 281-284. . "Teaching the Revisionist Interpretation of the Cold War." OAH Magazine of History (Summer 1986): 21-23.

Rogers, Vincent, Arthur D. Roberts, and Thomas P. Weinland, eds. Teaching Social Studies: Portraits from the Classroom. Bulletin no. 82. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1988.

Kevin O'Reilly is a social studies teacher at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and was 1986 Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year.