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:
- 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.
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.