How to fix a deepening crisis in history and civics education

'Young people are losing confidence in our form of government and their ability to participate in civil society
By: | March 3, 2021

Civics and history education at every grade level must be rebuilt, say a group of scholars who have developed extensive inquiry-based, social studies guidelines for a diverse and democratic society.

The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap and Report was commissioned by National Endowment for the Humanities in response to decreased investments in social studies instruction and the increasingly acrimonious polarization in American society and politics.

The Jan. 6 attack and riot at the U.S. Capitol only heightened the urgency to ensure students do more than memorize facts as they learn how a representative democracy works and how they can remain engaged productively, the authors of the roadmap said in a webinar Tuesday.

“What I love about this project is its commitment to inquiry, and understanding history not as a grab bag of facts but as a method of humanistic inquiry as way to get to the bottom of things, a way to find out what’s true and what’s not,” Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University, said during a livestream release of the report Tuesday.

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State standards covering the American Revolution too often focus on having students memorize names and dates. These new guidelines would help teachers blend in the perspectives of indigenous people, free African Americans and enslaved African Americans, said Danielle Allen, director of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

“The roadmap really asks  that learners have a chance to shift from breadth to depth, to purse lines of inquiry,” Allen says “We shift to questions, rather than trying to deliver answers from on high. Learner will have the chance to engage with primary sources, to wrestle with evidence, to debate the answers to questions.”

The guidelines will also help teachers lead productive debate when classes have differing viewpoints about a topic, she says.

“We’ve also worked to make sure educators can deal effectively with fundamental tensions,” Allen says. “Lots of time educators are afraid to teach civics because they worry it will take them into controversial territory.”

Democracy in peril?

Research has shown the the U.S. invests about $50 per student in STEM subjects but only 5 cents per student in social studies, says Jane Kamensky, a professor of American history at Harvard University.

“We have every sign that our constitutional democracy is in peril,” Kamensky says. “Years of polarization have deeply divided us and crucially, young people are losing confidence in our form of government and their ability to participate in civil society.”

The roadmap, however, is not a set of standards or a curriculum, but a guide for states and districts to beef up their own social studies standards. The report could help states and district develop new civics learning plans that cover the inquiry-driven civics and history skills students will need to graduate high school.

This gives states room for emphasize local and regional history, says Tammy Waller, director of K-12 social studies and world languages in the Arizona Department of Education.

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In Arizona, that would mean a focus on indigenous people while Massachusetts would emphasize Colonial history, Waller said.

These plans would also include professional development and perhaps a system of badges students would earn in certain grades when they meet certain civics benchmarks.

“It is a support mechanism for existing content and curriculum, a set of guiding principles about the what, why and how of o teaching American history and civid to sustain our constitutional democracy,” says Shelly C. Lowe, a National Endowment for the Humanities council member. “This Educating for American Democracy Project stresses the crucial ways humanities can be a central force for bringing country together over common ground.”