After year of ‘peril’ for democracy, scholars release new framework for history and civics in schools
Kevin Mahnken | March 3, 2021
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2020 was the year that U.S. history, and clashing perspectives on it from left and right, became a campaign issue.
First, President Trump and his fellow Republicans attacked the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, accusing its authors of dishonestly tearing down American ideals in a history curriculum that has been adopted in thousands of K-12 classrooms. That dispute gave way to a chaotic election whose aftermath exposed not only fierce partisan enmity between Trump’s supporters and critics, but also grave doubts on both sides about the credibility of our democracy and its leadership.
Now a group of educators has unveiled a teaching tool that they hope will help lower the temperature. Through a collaboration funded by grants from the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a group of civics and educational institutions spent the last 18 months drafting a new strategy to revamp instruction in American history and civics — and hopefully drain some of the vitriol from our national discourse. The results, released as a report and pedagogical “roadmap” under the title “Educating for American Democracy,” were made available Monday.
When it commenced in 2019, the project’s creators were already concerned about the state of American civic engagement, measured both through dismal performance on knowledge tests of history and government as well as the substantial decline in social and governmental trust that surveys have detected for over 50 years. In a media call laying out the aims of the project last week, scholar Paul Carrese said that the events of the last year illustrated more vividly the need to “rebuild our civic strength.”
“Now we are all pretty convinced that our constitutional democracy is in peril,” said Carrese, the director of Arizona State University’s School of Economic & Civic Thought and Leadership. “We can’t wait. America, we think, is in this bad place, in part because the American education system — not only in schools, but in higher education — has neglected the teaching of civics and of American history.”
The roadmap, the effort’s main pedagogical offering, offers a blueprint of integrated civics and history instruction from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Designed as a model for states and districts to follow rather than a strict set of standards or curricula, the document resulted from the contributions of over300 teachers and academics who participated in a design process convened by civic learning bodies at Arizona State, Harvard, Tufts, and the nonprofit iCivics.
Central to the approach is a reorientation of teaching from breadth to depth. Rather than focusing primarily on discrete events and personalities throughout the American story, the document centers on key themes and inquiries that recur over time: What gives societies their identities? How and why has the U.S. acquired its power and influence in the world? How have the ideologies of American political parties changed over time?
Danielle Allen, a political scientist and director of Harvard’s Edward J. Safra Center for Ethics, said in an interview that by transitioning from the “provision of answers to the asking of questions,” the project was able to draw upon a wide range of authorities to aid in its formation. The roadmap has won the bipartisan approval of six former U.S. secretaries of education, and groups ranging from the right-leaning Bill of Rights Institute to the fervently liberal American Federation of Teachers have helped oversee its creation.
“We have…a broad community of practice that is going to say, ‘Yes, we share some aspirations here; we do think we have to find a way to be honest about the good and the bad in our history simultaneously,’” Allen said. “It’s that fundamental commitment to honesty about the good and the bad that we’re asking for, and I believe that the nation’s community of educators is ready to make a commitment to that. And we will learn through experimentation what it takes to realize that commitment.”
Some level of cross-ideological cooperation may prove necessary if Educating for American Democracy is to find any success. Previous attempts to tweak American history instruction, even when offered as voluntary resources to states, have been dragged into a familiar cycle of hopeful unveiling followed by political backlash. A set of National History Standards, also initiated partly through the assistance of the National Endowment for the Humanities, were met with outrage in the 1990s for their supposedly unpatriotic implications. Just a few years ago, after the College Board revised its AP U.S. History framework, several red states moved to ban its use in classrooms.
The most recent battle in what the media has occasionally dubbed the “history wars” involved the 1619 Project, which earned criticism for suggesting that the American Revolution was fought primarily to preserve the institution of slavery. Allen, one of the principal investigators for Educating for American Democracy, reportedly urged the 1619 team to walk that language back after a prominent group of historians publicly called it into question.
Details in the roadmap’s accompanying report give a picture into the contentious ground that U.S. history education sits on in 2020, with detailed explanations of why previously certain words and phrases — the various uses of the term “citizen,” for example, or describing the country’s political system as that of a “constitutional democracy” — were chosen.
The authors provide a set of recommendations to state and local authorities around implementation. Along with developing curricula and standards aligned to the roadmap’s teaching strategy, they advise that districts develop “civic learning plans” identifying goals and performance metrics for schools. Data from those plans would be added as school performance indicators in existing state accountability regimes, though Allen said the group did not favor new federal mandates around civics or history testing. Instead, federal policymakers should focus on funding research and gathering data on nationwide civics learning, among other responsibilities.
The project sets ambitious goals, aiming to have 100,000 schools equipped with civic learning plans by the end of the decade, along with providing civics-related professional development to a million pre-service and in-service teachers. But along with those specific targets, Allen said that the heart of the project lay in fostering healthy disagreement about our shared history and government, and teaching students how to carry those disagreements into their lives as adult citizens.
“We…have a lot of work to do to reconnect ourselves to each other and to a sense that our constitutional democracy can deliver some good for us. The project of what we need to do to rebuild civic strength goes beyond simple knowledge of facts or how the institutions operate, and is as much about how we engage with each other in the debates that characterize our democratic life as much as anything else.”