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Morrisey Includes Conflicting Descriptions of Civilization in Proposed K-12 Social Studies Standards

The proposed K-12 social studies curriculum standards developed by Hillsdale College emeritus professor William Morrisey and released for public review Monday include this little nugget for sixth graders in their recommended learning about influential ideas from ancient civilizations:

The student identifies the six characteristics of civilizations, which are cities, government, religion, social structures, writing, and art [William Morrisey, proposed South Dakota Social Studies Standard 6.SS.3.A, 2022.08.15].

This small standard declares as fact an arguably reasonable but not universal interpretation of the nature of civilization. Wisconsin social studies teacher Nicole Vurusic lists those six items as among the most important traits of civilizations. In 1886, one Justin A. Smith wrote that religion is “the central and decisive element in civilization….” But National Geographic doesn’t mention religion and says all civilizations have these six characteristics:

  1. large population centers,
  2. monumental architecture and unique art styles,
  3. shared communication strategies,
  4. systems for administering territories,
  5. a complex division of labor, and
  6. the division of people into social and economic classes.

That National Geographic list has some overlap with the list Morrisey gives to sixth graders, but it doesn’t mention religion or, directly, any system of beliefs. There are numerous other ways to list the main characteristics of a civilization. Some include religion (like GRAPES: Geography, Religion, Art/Architecture, Politics, Economics, Social Structures), some do not. Some include writing, some do not.

I’m not sure which list of characteristics of civilizations is correct… and apparently neither is Morrisey. By high school, he is ready to abandon religion and writing and adopt the National Geographic scheme:

The student identifies the six characteristics of civilizations: large population centers, monumental architecture and unique art styles, shared communication strategies, systems for administering territories, a complex division of labor, and the division of people into social and economic classes [Morrisey, Standard 9-12.WH.3.A, 2022.08.15].

We pay good money for coherent standards, and Morrisey can’t settle a a single, unifying definition of civilization, perhaps the central object of social studies? Can we get a refund?

The latter set of characteristics seems superior to the first. Religion is not necessarily an inherent component of a civilization. University of Cambridge professor of Greek culture Tim Whitmarsh says atheism may have flourished in ancient civilizations, particularly in Athens and Rome, to which Hillsdale and Morrisey want first graders to pay such close attention. Complex societies can develop without Yahweh/Allah-style “big Gods”, although beliefs in supernatural punishment systems appear to help people march toward civilization. It seems clear that a civilization or a culture will include some shared set of beliefs, a common worldview, and such a beliefs, be they religious, philosophical, materialistic, scientific, or stark-raving delusional, will certainly distinguish and influence a civilization. Perhaps a civilization will even encompass multiple sets of beliefs, held by members of the civilization who disagree about certain fundamental or abstruse questions about existence and morality but who nonetheless find a way to live together in a city or on a planet under a shared political and economic system (think about that, sixth graders and high schoolers: is Earth now a single civilization? is there now one human civilization with some sub-civilizations defined by differing beliefs, economic practices, or levels of industrial development?). But identifying religion as a defining (or qualifying? Dr. Morrisey, what are you up to here?) characteristic of civilizations without mentioning to the sixth graders other modes of understanding the world seems… parochial. To leap to a different set of characteristics of civilization for high schoolers, a system that doesn’t mention religion or worldviews at all, seems only to invite confusion. Yet to posit the second set of characteristics and omit worldviews entirely seems to miss an important element of civilizations, an element kids of all ages need to recognize so they can at least develop some tolerance for an interest in understanding differing ways of thinking, believing, acting, and evaluating.

The evolving communication components in Morrisey’s standards for civilizations are perhaps less problematic. Writing is certainly common among human civilizations, but it is not a given. The New World civilizations our European ancestors met 500+ years ago had some systems of recording information with hand-scratched symbols, but the previous occupants of this land were mostly talkers, not writers. The Hillsdale/Morrisey standards would tell third graders and seventh graders that the Pueblo and Hopewell people had “civilizations”, even though they weren’t writers. His standards say the same to high schoolers of “various independent tribes”. Morrisey’s proposed standards expect sixth graders to “make arguments about civilizations that left little or no written record….” Morrisey picks a better, broader term when he tells the high schoolers about “shared communication strategies”; he just seems to have forgotten to go back and revise the narrow and potentially misleading term he used with the sixth graders.

Maybe most sixth graders won’t notice and most high schoolers won’t remember. But I guarantee you there will be at least a few high schoolers who hear the high school civilization standard and say, “Wait—back in sixth grade, Mrs. Hagglefester told us civilizations have to have writing and religion. Was she wrong?” And some little scholars in sixth grade will hear the lessons wrapped around the sixth grade civ standard and say, “Hey, so the Lakota people didn’t write, and Jimmy’s family doesn’t to church, so they’re neither one civilized, right?”

The Hillsdale/Morrisey standards have much larger, more alarming, more pedagogically problematic problems than conflicting descriptions of civilization in two little standards. But the existence of these conflicting descriptions of civilization suggests a failure to take an integrated approach to a fundamental social studies concept… or perhaps just sloppiness that might have been resolved by a larger, more attentive and engaged workgroup of educators.


  1. larry kurtz 2022-08-19 13:59

    Invaders always write the history.

    Etched into the rhyolite on Signal Hill in Saguaro National Park about 800 years ago by the ancestors of the modern-day Tohono O’odham are their petroglyphs and rock art which are probably directions to water sources and hunting. Their Nation straddles the US/Mexico border.

    Storied Stone links rock art of the Black Hills and Cave Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming to the rich oral traditions, religious beliefs, and sacred places of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Mandan, and Hidatsa Indians who once lived there.

  2. Donald Pay 2022-08-19 15:18

    I think the conflicting attributes of “civilizations” demonstrates a healthy “divisiveness” among scholars that allows for discussion and debate that moves knowledge forward. My own feeling is that we don’t really see “civilization” without food security, which often requires agriculture (grains, pulses, and domesticated meat or dairy production or fisheries). Agriculture presupposes soils and climate that will sustain production over long periods of time. Food security requires storage of foodstuffs that don’t spoil rapidly. This stored food allows for development of societal wealth, which may be appropriated by an elite or a strongman. When that wealth is appropriated from society, it generally ends up in military pursuits of and monuments for the elite or strongman, and the rest of us take it in the shorts.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-19 16:04

    Good ppint about how food security is crucial to the development of civilization. If people have to spend all of their time hunting, gathering, or growing their own food, they don’t have time or spare resources to create art, monuments, cities, or governments. Hmm… should a list of characteristics of civilization include agriculture?

    More from the National Geographic Society, which explains the concept of civilization to 5th thru 8th graders this way:

    A civilization is a complex human society, usually made up of different cities, with certain characteristics of cultural and technological development. In many parts of the world, early civilizations formed when people began coming together in urban settlements. However, defining what civilization is, and what societies fall under that designation, is a hotly contested argument, even among today’s anthropologists.

    …most anthropologists agree on some criteria to define a society as a civilization. First, civilizations have some kind of urban settlements and are not nomadic. With support from the other people living in the settlement, labor is divided up into specific jobs (called the division of labor), so not everyone has to focus on growing their own food. From this specialization comes class structure and government, both aspects of a civilization. Another criterion for civilization is a surplus of food, which comes from having tools to aid in growing crops. Writing, trading, artwork and monuments, and development of science and technology are all aspects of civilizations.

    However, there are many societies that scholars consider civilizations that do not meet all of the criteria above. For example, the Incan Empire was a large civilization with a government and social hierarchy. It left behind a wealth of art, and had highly developed architecture­­­—but no written language. This is why the concept of “civilization” is hard to define; however, it is still a helpful framework with which to view how humans come together and form a society [National Geographic Society, “Civilizations,” Resource Library, updared 2022.05.20].

    Surplus of food—there’s Donald’s point.

  4. larry kurtz 2022-08-19 16:13

    Indeed. Civilization is a product of the forbidden fruit–agriculture. Cain, the farmer, slew Abel, the hunter-gatherer and, yes, humans’ collective knowledge is pushing us home to the stars whose dust make us who we are. Reproduction is the reason, food is the fuel. Humans are merely Terran tools to go forth and find more…unless or until we kill it before it kills us for taking more than our share.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-19 16:18

    Some scholars will get on our case for using “civilizations”, plural. Prior to the 19th century, the term referred to humanity in general and was always singular. Perhaps that was an expression of colonial Eurocentrism. Dr. Albert Scweitzer appears to have viewed civilization singularly a hundred years ago. The reviser’s note to the 1947 edition of his 1923 The Philosophy of Civilization says Dr. Schweitzer defined civilization as “the sum-total of all progress made by mankind in every sphere of action and from every point of view, in so far as this progress is serviceable for the spiritual perfecting of the individual.” Dr. Schweitzer appears to have used the term normatively, as a state to which we as a species ought to aspire, not just descriptively, as a term for a social state with certain complex characteristics.

  6. O 2022-08-19 20:13

    I would object to “writing” and would prefer language; especially given the rich oral traditions of native cultures.

    Religion is key to understanding how Europeans screwed up the Middle East and SE Asia when carving out arbitrary national boundaries, so I certainly do see that religion does have a role in the discussion of defining civilizations and ignoring that element has peril. Maybe I’m drifting into the civilization versus civilizations discussion?

  7. larry kurtz 2022-08-19 20:30

    One man’s civilization is another’s kingdom.

    The dominion theology mandate proposes that there are seven “mountains” that Christians must control in order to establish a global Christian theocracy and prepare the world for Jesus’ return. Those seven “mountains” are government, education, media, arts and entertainment, religion, family, and business.

  8. All Mammal 2022-08-19 21:31

    I believe civilization includes:
    -Fertility rate greater than mortality rate,
    -Cooperation and communication amongst it’s population, which includes multiple families,
    -A ‘Them’ or what it’s people consider outsiders that don’t belong,
    -Common belief in what makes them superior (otherwise too many people would jump ship to join another civilization),
    -A common belief in what is and isn’t proper and civilized, creating a penal system,
    -A farm,
    -Common creation story,
    -A person or group able to convince its people that he or they know what happens after death.

    Just my guess…for now..

  9. L. Wilson 2022-08-20 00:08

    Civilization is a self-reflective organism of cohesion that relies on a story of a past and present. These underpin an order of appropriateness. There might be multiple cultures and specified regions within a civilization but cultural differences must acknowledge a meta order based on acceptance of a larger functionality coming from the benefits of the civilization. Civilization offers protection from outside threats and has rules to minimize perceived inside threats to the order. Civilizations can fall apart when certain changes undermine the homeostasis of living within an order of how to relate to the accepted order and influences from outside and changing environments as well as innovations. The order encompasses a set of beliefs of appropriate behaviors and rules to maintain them. Communication and acceptance of norms are necessary to maintain a civilization and changes must be agreed upon to maintain cohesion. Civilizations seem to develop hubris over time. Smaller units of human organization are often under-rated by civilizations.

  10. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-08-20 08:59

    All Mammal: on “them”: if a civilization has to have some outgroup to define itself, does that mean humanity as a whole could not form a single global civilization with no outsiders (Martians? Vulcans?) to help define it?

  11. RST Tribal Member 2022-08-20 09:05

    Petroglyph and Winter Counts from time immemorial tells a story of the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions (as stated in the Declaration of Independence) gives sway to civilization according to Nomie and her hired fairy tale writers.

    Hopefully the education community will find the inner fortitude to stand for what needs to be taught to students in South Dakota and not politicized the education of future leaders of the state and tribes.

  12. All Mammal 2022-08-20 12:20

    Mr. H- a ‘them’ I referred to is a way of keeping people from welcoming ETs and empathizing with them because without an external, constant perceived threat, civilization might not endure without that fear. The civilization must itself be the protection and the only protection to provide safety from ‘them’.

    I’m completely unsure of my suggestions but I believe I was fortunate with my classroom teachers in Rapid City’s public schools who thankfully reinforced critical thinking skills. We also were encouraged to engage in many a heated discussion with opposing views. I recall my favorite of those discussions being when we divided the room in halves and arranged the desks to face the opposite half. We actually got to shout all at once to our opponents for the last 30 seconds of the debate. It was girls vs boys, and the girls needed to vent that way. My wise teacher did something controversial. We even had some boys join the girls half. I thought about joining the boys at the beginning just for balance, but am glad I didn’t because getting to let them know how easy I thought they had it was nice. We were in 6th grade. Prime time for those later blues to start rearing it’s head.

    Civilization can be so much better if we kept a balance and didn’t always have to strong arm the feminine out and into the womban role they like to keep us so they won’t be intimidated by the smart and practical ideas brains not constantly focused on sex and war are able to produce. In general. Balance was the norm before weapons of mass destruction and ‘civilization’ became dominant. I’m guessing.

    No wonder our gov, Puss in Boots n em don’t want girls and minorities having access to exceptional education.

  13. larry kurtz 2022-08-20 18:24

    “Puss in Boots:” perfect.

  14. DaveFN 2022-08-21 21:21


    I in no way disparage oral tradition nor their richness. But at the same time I laud those who worked to fix in writing the oral in order that it would be transmitted where oral cultures ultimately are in danger of breakdown.

    My relative Dr. Thoms Bailey Marquis was taught Indian sign language by the Crow. He was thus able to interview Wooden Leg who had fought with the Cheyenne at the Battle of the Little Big Horn when he was 18 years of age and fix in writing his interviews in the book, “Wooden Leg, A Warrior Who Fought Custer.”

    While oral traditions remain forgotten, the written remains as a permanent testimony to the past.

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