Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Students at the Millennium

John Driscoll

“I’ve seen the future. It looks a lot like the present. Only longer.”


The late Dan Quisenberry pitched baseballs and ideas with a quirky elegance. We, who so timorously occupy the past’s future, would do well to keep his aphorism in mind as we embark upon speculations prompted by the millennium. Mr. Quisenberry’s words are especially true for students, who don’t really change much over time. They absorb cultural values and norms, then reflect them back. Frequently, especially in recent years, some adults haven’t liked what they see in our kids and, all too often, have blamed them for our own failures. To blame the mirror for the imperfections it reveals is a folly of self-deception.

I like writing about students—they evoke the vitality and idealism of youth and hope for the future. After 28 years in the classroom, I could use a shot of hope and vigor. My take on the topic is to ask what it means to be coming of age in America at the millennium, and then to explore the implications for contemporary teaching in the social studies.

On the sometimes distorted and disorienting surfaces at the millennium’s gate—surfaces over which our students must find their way—one omnipresent image is that of the individual. Whither the individual? The question is destined to be at least as engaging in the opening decades of the third millennium as it was in the closing decades of the second.

“Individualism” is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s to describe America’s application of Enlightenment ideas about the nature of man to society. The solitary individual as the foundation of society can, in turn, be traced to a way of viewing the physical world called “atomism.” Atomism, which posits that all matter is made up of immutable building blocks, or “atoms,” was a concept originated by Democritus in 350 BC. Two thousand years later, this concept was thrust into modernity as “materialism” by Thomas Hobbes. It was, of course, Hobbes who defined the contract theory of government by which rational individuals form the state for protection. An atomistic view of society was thus born in opposition to antiquity’s organic view, which saw individuals as akin to parts of the body, each with a specific function to be performed for the good of the whole.

The 350 years since Hobbes have witnessed a triumph of the classical liberal view of the nature of man and society, and the origin and purpose of the state. Free, equal, rational, self-interested individuals—possessed of sound minds, free will, and unalienable natural rights—create the social order through a contract. Michael Sandel views the state at the end of the 20th century as having evolved into what he calls a “procedural republic”–a protector of rights, certainly, but neutral on matters of private morality and, in important ways, on defining the common good.1

One outcome of this atomized concept of man, society, and the state can be an emaciated sense of citizenship. If a citizen’s basic obligation is simply to resist trampling the rights of others, if rights end at a neighbor’s nose, then where originates an affirmative duty
to help a neighbor or to join in the community? If a citizen’s obligation, like the state’s, is to remain neutral on matters of morality, where originates the responsibility to intervene if this leads to personal abuse? If the common good is merely a product of interest-group competition, or if the rules demand of public office seekers an unseemly wooing of special interests for support, where originates an “office of citizen” for the solitary individual? Moreover, if the technology we develop isolates us further from one another, where originate democracy’s public spaces? I pose these questions not to argue for a return to an organic view of society, but to suggest that social studies teachers face an enormous barrier to completing their mission of teaching students the values of citizenship.

We need not feel alone. Tocqueville predicted these outcomes 165 years ago in Part II of Democracy in America. I think it’s worth another look, especially for people who are in the “those kids today!” frame of mind:

Individualism...disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.

...Egoism sterilizes the seeds of every virtue; individualism at first only dams the spring of public virtue, but in the long run it attacks and destroys all the others too and finally merges in egoism.

....Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link.

As social equality spreads there are more and more people who...look after their own needs... owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger the he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.2

Nor was Tocqueville the first to offer this kind of warning about the possible outcome of American liberalism. The founders, no strangers to the dangers inherent in their republican project, were profoundly aware that habits of citizenship did not spring naturally from the souls of self-interested individuals. They understood that a successful republic must depend on virtuous citizens, whom they defined as individuals willing to sacrifice self-interest for the common good. From this understanding arose over time the institution of public schools in America, with the teaching of citizenship as a core goal.

Indeed, much of the contemporary debate about public education is a reaction to what my generation of social studies teachers did about citizenship education. We came of age thirty years ago in a time of the romanticized individualism of egalitarian liberals. Not only did some of us hold accepted methods of teaching to be stultifying and inimical to the dignity and worth of the individual, but we believed the standard curriculum was perpetuating a power structure that supported racism, sexism, and imperialism. The hidden curriculum, we were sure, was designed to produce docile workers who could follow schedules and equally docile citizens who would refuse to question authority. We saw teaching as an opportunity to effect change as we served the country.

I have retained a copy of the “textbook” I used thirty years ago in my pre-service social studies methods course, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity.3 The book’s title conveys the sense of mission that young teachers carried with them into the classroom in those days. “The American school system,” exclaimed the dust jacket, “is sick. Its methods are based on fear, coercion, and rote-memory testing.” The book’s chapter titles—“Crap Detecting,” “The Medium is the Message, Of Course,” “The Inquiry Method,” “Pursuing Relevance,” and so on—reveal the values with which we were armed to do battle with the school system’s infections.

My first teaching job was on a 4,000-student campus that dubbed itself “the school for the individual.” My colleagues and I in the social studies department labored strenuously to produce a relevant curriculum that used the inquiry method and individualized instruction, stressed critical thinking, and modeled the values of democratic citizenship. We were determined that each of our students would progress at his or her own pace, be motivated by a love of learning and not by the coercive force of grades, participate in the design of their own individualized course of study, and be skeptical of all illegitimate claims to authority (excluding, perhaps, those of their social studies teachers).

In many ways, the romanticized individualism of the 60s and 70s egalitarian liberals merged seamlessly into the rugged individualism of libertarian liberals in the 80s and 90s. This is not to say that the two movements shared the same goals. While both egalitarians and libertarians wished to expand individual rights, egalitarians were willing to use state institutions and power to achieve equality—even if equality was purchased at the expense of liberty. Egalitarians also internalized a view of the common good, a concept poorly developed among libertarians. Libertarians, recoiling at the egalitarian project, organized a “leave-us-alone coalition” to beat back intrusive state power over sovereign individuals. And, they can boast of much success in recent decades.

America’s 60-year experiment with government protection against some of the vicissitudes of free-market capitalism, for example, has largely ended. As government has been devolved and downsized, we have been left with what Paul Starobin calls a “risky society” in place of FDR’s “governmental paternalism.”4 Mr. Starobin’s “world of risk” may explain much of our diffidence at the dawn of the millennium.

More important to me, libertarians are having an effect on public education and, through it, on our collective conception of citizenship. Some contemporary school reforms celebrate the libertarian ideals of school choice and a free market in education. The intellectual infrastructure for vouchers, merit pay, charter schools, and other pseudo-market schemes for improving schools is built upon ideas from Milton and Rose Friedman’s 1979 book, Free To Choose. “In schooling,” it proclaimed, “the parent and child are the consumers, the teacher and school administrator the producers.”5

The Friedman formulation for schooling has spread throughout the culture, inviting a generation of parents, policymakers, and even some educators, to believe that education is a consumption item. I am amazed at the number of people who embrace this false producer/consumer dichotomy as they simultaneously condemn kids for abandoning responsibility for producing much of their own learning.

Similarly, the idea that schools are a public good and a civic responsibility, and that education is a “product” from which the whole society benefits, has been replaced in many peoples’ minds by the notion that public schools are organized for the private benefit of students and their parents. In light of our founders’ definition of republican virtue, the values transmitted by this privatized view of public education now reflected in many of our kids present a real challenge to social studies teachers who are serious about citizenship.

Another brand of school reform explicitly rejects what some perceive as a thirty-year orgy of egalitarian and libertarian individualism. Its adherents see today’s students as having been left with a world lacking foundational beliefs, where traditional authority is questioned, deviancy is—in the words of Senator Moynihan—“defined down,” and, according to Texas Governor George W. Bush, “moral chaos” reigns. In this world, any sense of the common good has dissipated, and nothing gives meaning to our kids’ lives save bland consumerism, destructive cynicism, moral ambiguity, and deadening anti-intellectualism.

There are several sources for this kind of criticism. Some of it is deep philosophy, some shallow ideology. Some is rooted in strongly-held religious beliefs, some is a product of nostalgia for a “Leave-It-To-Beaver” era or for a lost time of imagined republican virtue. To be candid, some of this criticism also originates with those who see public schools as instruments of egalitarian liberalism and thus unworthy of continued support. Many conservatives and libertarians find common cause in this view, which casts suspicion on many of their public school “reform” proposals. Whatever its motivation, however, a common thread in these reforms is curricular and behavioral renorming of public education. Renorming is an attempt to re-establish norms that critics believe have been lost over the last thirty years.

The clearest manifestation of curricular renorming is found in the movement toward standards and high-stakes assessment. I’m from Virginia, which has advanced the standards-and-assessments agenda further than most states. I have seen few things during the last thirty years more effective at refocusing the attention of classroom teachers and reshaping curriculum and instruction than our Standards of Learning and Standards of Accreditation.

I confess that it saddens me, as I near the end of my teaching career, when I witness young social studies teachers drilling their students on long vocabulary lists in preparation for multiple-choice standardized tests. I suppose it’s not too much to expect that if students are to think critically, they must have something substantive to think about. Even so, it appears to me that the “fear-coercion-rote-memory-testing” pendulum has lurched quite a distance in the last few years.

On the behavioral side, hardly a day goes by without news of a state or local school board adopting some type of code (e.g., dress, speech, honor) to regulate student behavior. In this way, legislating bodies are acting on a felt need to create a moral order within schools and for children that appears to be increasingly unattainable in adult lives. Driven by the same sense of urgency about moral decline, character education is achieving greater visibility and acceptance across the country.

This is an important development, because discipline and academic grades are based on norms established within a framework of “reciprocal power” between teacher and students. Edward Pauly, in his insightful book The Classroom Crucible: What Really Works, What Doesn’t, and Why, coined this term, but anyone who has been in the classroom recognizes the concept of “reciprocal power.” In Pauly’s words, it means that “every person in the classroom is partly controlled by the people he or she aims to control.”6

Reciprocal power may have signaled the death knell for the Age of the Romanticized Individua#151;an age that has been characterized in many schools by a focus on self-esteem and a litigiousness born of efforts to establish additional rights and other legislated or court-ordered mandates. In this context, reciprocal power has meant that behavioral and academic norms are often the product of negotiation between and among the teacher and individual students within each class. But the relativism implied by reciprocal power has led inexorably to a demand for standards. In fact, the movement to renorm student behavior and academic expectations externalizes the process of establishing norms to school boards or other bodies outside the classroom. This external renorming will fundamentally alter classroom dynamics over the next few years.

Since the emphasis of behavioral renorming is on developing ethical citizens, the energy from this effort can reinforce the primary mission of social studies teachers. Tensions will develop as some policies and programs venture close to a tyranny of the majority or cross the lines of constitutional prohibition. It will take courage, for example, to support a student who refuses to be pressured into pledges or prayers that may be instigated by peers or mandated by the community. If adults forget that ethical citizens respect constitutionally protected liberty and diversity, then our students will mirror our forgetfulness.

Another movement that has been gaining force in recent years is service learning, which also complements the citizen-building mission of the social studies. There was a great cartoon in a recent New Yorker showing two young people on a beach. “I’ve decided to go into public service,” the boy says to the girl, “I think I’ll be a banker.” My department has had a community service project as part of its 12th grade curriculum for more than fifteen years. Though it can be difficult to administer, a community service project demonstrates to students that citizenship requires a balance between individual self-interest and community responsibility.

After some initial grumbling about how after-school projects cut into their time for paid work, and a few clever comments insisting that “required volunteering” is an oxymoron, the majority of students find they really like the service requirement. It gives them a sense that they’ve done something useful and important for their community. Our service project has proven to be an especially powerful tool to help students extend their vision beyond themselves.

And so the question, “Whither students at the millennium?” is inextricably tied to “Whither the individual?” in society. While it seems clear that the Age of the Romanticized Individual and the Age of Governmental Paternalism dreamed of by egalitarian liberals is waning, it is not clear whether these will be replaced by the Age of Risk demanded by libertarian liberals, or an Age of Moral Certitude founded on conservative principles, or an Age of Standards and Uniformity, or an Age of Community—or by something else altogether. Truly, this is an unsettled Age to be coming of age.

Students at the millennium will do what all students have done in the past: reflect the prevailing culture and depend upon us, their teachers, to be calm and to offer them a clarity of vision. We know that habits of citizenship are taught, and that if we are to keep our republic—a subject Ben Franklin once wondered about—then, regardless of the ideological turbulence around us, society depends on us to do that job. We also know that, while our students mirror the present, it is through them that we can catch a glimpse of the future. We ought never to forget, though, that it is our image our kids reflect.



1. Michael Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by George Lawrence, edited by J. P. Mayer (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).

3. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).

4. Paul Starobin, “World of Risk,” National Journal (July 9, 1999).

5. Milton and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose (New York: Avon Books, 1979).

6. Edward Pauly, The Classroom Crucible: What Really Works, What Doesn’t, and Why (New York: Basic Books, 1991).


John Driscoll has taught government, economics, and sociology in Fairfax County, Virginia Public Schools since 1971. The photos accompanying this article are of Robinson Secondary School students in Fairfax, Virginia, courtesy of the Yearbook Staff.