Not since the Civil War has the United States been more fractured. I would go so far as to say that the theoretical differences between conservatives and progressives on the governing principles of our country are greater today than they were then.
The battle no longer is over slavery, but between two opposing views of how our country should be governed. One side believes in an unchanging Constitution, and the other envisions a progressive new structure.
Feelings over how we should teach American history are another example of this divide. There are generally two camps that have emerged in recent years. One side advocates for the introduction of curricula like critical race theory, which espouses that U.S. institutions are laced with racism and must be dismantled and rebuilt. The other believes a more traditional approach still serves well, while recognizing that history should not be altogether uncritical.
The rhetoric has reached a fever pitch at school board meetings and has undercut parental trust in teachers.
This divide is made worse by the fact that our nation is functionally illiterate when it comes to how our country works and the reasons behind its design. To our national shame, a 2018 study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only 36% of Americans could pass the citizenship test that is part of the immigration process, a test that 97.5% of immigrants pass.
There are three steps that high schools can take to turn this ship around:
1. Beef up Civics instruction.
While most states require some kind of instruction in civics in order to graduate high school, students tend to do poorly on standardized tests. The average score on the AP U.S. Government exam is just 2.64 out of 5, which is among the lowest of all AP exams.
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How can we possibly have reasoned discussions about our country’s history if we don’t have a fundamental understanding of how our government was founded and why it’s unique? Schools need to recommit to a rigorous civics curriculum that makes the topic relevant to today’s students.
2. Address the whole truth.
Review curricula to ensure that American history is taught in an unbiased, nonpartisan way. This means addressing head-on the unsavory aspects of our history, such as slavery, racism, and discrimination—without indoctrination. Likewise, the successes of the American experiment, such as free markets and immigration, should also be taught without glossing over where we’ve failed. People are hungry for the truth, and our students can handle it.
3. Teach students how to think.
No skill is more crucial to students than knowing how to think. Today’s youths are bombarded with content from multiple sources: social media channels, traditional news, online sites, influencers, groups, and friends. They need to learn how to sift through ideas, search for the facts, and then use their judgment to come to a conclusion.
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Flipped classrooms are especially good at doing this by engaging students in active, dynamic learning with class time reserved for robust discussions. Lectures are replaced by digital “inputs” conducted at home, such as viewing a fact-based video lecture, reading, or listening to an audio clip. These are paired with relevant content like music, paintings, maps, illustrations, podcasts, and video clips from television shows or movies that add depth to the topic and make it current. Students then come to the classroom prepared to discuss the topic respectfully with their peers.
This approach of strengthening our civics education, delivering honest history content, and teaching students how to think will go a long way in raising the next generation of independent thinkers who can share and debate ideas without denigrating others.
We sure could use that.