Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Civics Test may not capture what we're hoping for

Well, more data...this time that our students are pathetic in civics, too.

I wondered, so I wandered through the "report card" web site.

I came across this sample question.

The following question refers to the statement below.

The Second World War marked the most substantial change ever in the context in which United States foreign policy is made. The world that emerged after the war had fundamentally changed in economic, political, and military ways. These changes made the world a more dangerous place, and altered the demands placed on foreign policy.

The statement calls the world after the Second World War "a more dangerous place." What specific change could one cite to support this claim?

  1. The rise of the European Union (EU)
  2. The signing of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT)
  3. The decline of German military power
  4. The development and spread of nuclear weapons

The real difficulty here is that depending on your conceptual and philosophical views you might argue any of these. This is why my graduate political science advisor joked that the social sciences are the really hard sciences.

1. One could argue, for instance, that the EU only exists because of the American security umbrella over it, and the EU's rapid rise reorganized Western Europe into a potent power faster than it would otherwise have done, thereby threatening the Soviet Union, and making the world a less safe place.

2. Some might also argue that the increase in free trade (GATT) actually makes collaboration among the big and dominant economies easier, thereby making the world less safe for those smaller, developing countries. Indeed, dozens of millions of Third Worlders were killed in the years after WWII, so their world was less safe.

3. In slightly different contexts, some have indeed argued that a country of Germany's stature needs to have the military capacity commensurate with its size and importance. To withhold that from them risks their anger, not unlike the 1920s.

I'm not persuaded by the first and the third. The second is true.

4. But so is the fourth (in this case) anti-argument. Many analysts argue that the presence of nuclear weapons actually made the world more stable--the dominant powers were much more cautious with each other because of their ability to mutually destroy each other, though they were perfectly willing to undertake violence in the developing world.

So, what's the 'right' answer? I know they're looking for #4, but I'm looking for a student who can sophisticatedly render and evaluate the competing claims, not just one who reasons the same way as the test authors.

By the way, I saw plenty of questions that generated the same concern, to my mind.

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