David W. Saxe: At Penn State, an education professor wants to inspire his students to teach America's past the old-fashioned way





David W. Saxe was mixing potato salad for a Fourth of July picnic last summer when he was interrupted by a telephone call from a Pennsylvania legislator. Lawmakers, Mr. Saxe learned, had just approved $500,000 to help him start a new center on civic education and America's founding.

Mr. Saxe, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, was shocked — not just to learn of his good fortune on such a historically important day but because he never expected to get so much money.

Just two months earlier, Mr. Saxe had floated his proposal for the center when he testified before a panel of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The panel held hearings last spring to investigate complaints that professors penalize students who voice conservative views. Lawmakers concerned about political bias in academe believe Mr. Saxe's center could be an antidote.

The Penn State Center for the Study of Free Institutions and Civic Education is one of several fledging programs that have cropped up on campuses in the last few years. Their goal is to inject ideological balance into university teaching, giving students a traditional view of history and Western civilization that can be hard to find on campuses, says Gibson C. Armstrong, a Pennsylvania Republican who led the legislature's effort to support Mr. Saxe's center. (Mr. Armstrong lost his re-election bid last year.)

Since the half-million dollars came through in November, Mr. Saxe has been on a whirlwind tour of some of the country's best-known historic landmarks. He has only a year in which to spend the money and wants to make contacts at places like Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and the National Archives. His center will focus on educating prospective social-studies teachers, creating opportunities for them to visit historic sites and establishing a series of new courses specifically designed for them on Western civilization and America's heritage.

Some faculty members at Penn State, however, are skeptical about the need for the new center. Sally McMurry, who leads Penn State's history department, says professors already teach all the American history that prospective schoolteachers need to know. "Professor Saxe is part of the College of Education here, and he's proposing a history curriculum," says Ms. McMurry. "This is a waste of resources."



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