Can We Teach Our Way Out Of Political Polarization?Historians in the News
tags: civics, teaching history
“You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation,” former President Donald Trump told the collection of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and would-be instigators of a second civil war who rallied with him in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. The crowd cheered at the idea that people like them — mostly white, mostly male — were the true heroes of American history. Then they ransacked the Capitol.
Most Americans were appalled. But many were not, and they agreed with the rhetoric motivating the crowd. In Arizona, Tara Immen, who joined a protest against the election results at the state capitol, told The Washington Post that she thought it was “fantastic” to see a mob storming through D.C. “I personally love it because you know what? It’s how this country was built, the way our Founding Fathers stormed the British Empire.”
High school social studies teachers and scholars of American history don’t deny that the nation’s story is full of mobs, civil unrest and violence. White supremacists and xenophobes have often wielded force to suppress the votes and voices of others, and to keep power and wealth for themselves.
Many educators were dismayed that so many Americans see that history as heroic and believe violence is acceptable in a constitutional democracy. Teachers took to social media to agonize about whether the attacks this month and the growing political extremism of the last several years could be traced back to the failings of their profession.
“Each person knocking down those doors once sat in a classroom,” wrote sixth grade teacher Christie Nold in a Tweet that prompted hundreds of responses. Author Andrea Gabor called the violence a “Sputnik moment for teaching civics.”
As Americans survey the damage to our democracy, how much can we blame schools for the vast divide between how different groups understand our shared history? Should we expect schools to develop engaged and responsible democratic citizens? And what happens when we don’t? How much of the polarization, lost faith in our electoral system and rise of political extremism can we attribute to what students learned — or didn’t learn — in school?
According to political scientists, historians and educators themselves, it’s complicated.
“I wouldn’t say it’s only the schools, nor would I blame the schools,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. Other institutions, along with a lack of leadership, have played a role in the current crisis, he said. A solution for America’s political crisis isn’t possible if citizens don’t have a firm grasp of what’s causing the problem. “The pathology is white supremacy,” he said. “It’s baked into institutions. It’s baked into aspects of our culture.” Public schools must teach students about democratic struggles over suffrage and civil rights and the nation’s history of white supremacy. “You can’t heal a disease until you understand the pathology,” Grossman said.
Whether schools have the time and resources to fit all of this into the school day is another matter. “You can’t blame the teachers and starve the teachers at the same time,” said Grossman. “We’ve starved our public schools, so you can’t say it’s the fault of the public schools unless you say it’s the fault of the American public for refusing to pay the taxes required to support an effective educational system.”
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