In the United States, the notion that public schools should prepare young people for the rights and responsibilities of democratic life is both a platitude and a political lightning rod. Most Americans broadly support the idea of civic education. In a 2020 poll of more than 1000 Americans about prospects for healing national divides, both conservatives and liberals identified civic education as the single most promising solution among a range of possible options. This consensus tends to fall apart, however, when it comes to the specific goals, content and methods of civics instruction, and many efforts to improve civic education are beset by partisan controversy. These challenges are compounded by systematic under-investment: at the federal level, we spend just $0.05 per student per year on civic education, compared to $50 per student on STEM.
In the week since an extremist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and staged a chaotic insurrection that shocked the nation, outrage, concern, and confusion have continued to make headlines. But amid the upheaval, students and teachers have continued to come together in classrooms and virtual learning spaces for daily lessons and instruction. Of course, this isn’t the first time in our history when teachers and students have had to grapple with conflict and fear. If anything, we must acknowledge and underscore that education is often a constant. That fact doesn’t make the events of last week any less serious or any easier to comprehend, but it does illustrate just how foundational our schools are to a functioning society. In the face of civil turmoil, it is critical that classrooms provide safe, responsive spaces for their students to explore the events, gain understanding, and ask questions about what happened and what might come next.
We recently sat down with Dr. Carol Anderson—professor, historian, and National Book Critics Circle Award winner—to discuss the history of the struggle for African Americans' voting rights, as well as its continuing relevance to racial justice and democracy. Dr. Anderson is the author of numerous books including One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. Below are excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Anderson, facilitated by Facing History’s Director of International Strategy, Dr. Karen Murphy.
Guest writer Thomas Simpson offers a review of journalist Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized. Thomas holds a master's degree in History from Georgetown University and is a core member of Facing History's Marketing and Communications team.
The 2020 election has been conspicuously different from past presidential campaigns. Digital party conventions, canceled swing state rallies, and the ongoing fight over mail-in ballots are just some of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the usual quadrennial rituals of American politicking. Yet, Biden voters and Trump voters alike would agree with the sentiment that one trend in American politics has only grown stronger this year: the polarization of the two parties. More to the point, there’s an assumption that such polarization is unambiguously bad - something that poses a grave threat to the fabric of American society. Admittedly, as an avid consumer of political news myself, these are things that I’ve also thought about increasingly over the past decade.
On May 25, 2020, a black Minnesota man, George Floyd, was killed after a white police officer suffocated him while a group of officers looked on. Floyd, like so many black people who have come before him, was stopped by the police while driving and would not make it home that night. Given the innate limitations of virtual instruction, we are currently examining what it would mean to create space for brave and supportive processing of events like this one in virtual classrooms. But even as we thoughtfully expand the tools we offer to meet this moment, we believe that learning, reflection, and action must begin immediately in our personal lives. Pausing to apprehend the gravity of Floyd’s death, the historical and contemporary political contexts in which it occurred, and the tools for self-care and resistance that are available to us is paramount.
During a recent conversation with the Facing History community, acclaimed actor George Takei spoke about his experience surviving Japanese American incarceration and the lessons he subsequently learned from his father about the importance of relentless civic engagement. Takei is the author of the graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy (2019) in which he integrates his childhood experience of incarceration with perspectives gleaned from older survivors to offer readers of all ages an accessible window into his family’s experience.
As the coronavirus pandemic ravages communities across the country, particular communities are being attacked by an equally pernicious force. Its manifestations include the protesters in Michigan who recently stormed the state capital donning swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags as they demanded an end to lockdowns. Or the parallel protest in Illinois where a woman held a sign displaying a German phrase famously emblazoned on Nazi concentration camps. And for many months, Asian Americans continue to be the victims of increased harassment and hate crimes in cities around the country. As medical leaders race to halt the spread of the pandemic, it is clear that we are not only battling a viral assailant. We are witnessing the lethal effects of a political establishment that permits and even perpetuates violence, as well as small but mighty groups of upstanders calling for change. For this dimension of the crisis, cultivating a culture of upstanding is the antidote we most dearly need, and it starts in the classroom.
Guest writer Thomas Simpson offers a review of historian Eric Foner's towering new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. Thomas holds a master's degree in History from Georgetown University and is a core member of Facing History's Marketing and Communications team.
As public presidential impeachment hearings begin in the US House of Representatives, American middle and high school educators face a number of unique challenges. One might ask: How can I address such a polarizing issue in my classroom when my students’ political ideologies are all over the map? How can I ensure that thoughtful discourse prevails over name-calling and hostility, even when emotions are running high? And how can I make this a meaningful opportunity for civic learning?
Language can be alienating. Words with strong associations often force us to take positions of opposition, rather than seek understanding. This has happened recently, when detention centers along the U.S.–Mexico border were termed “concentration camps.” The response was foreseeable: the term has become so strongly associated with Nazi deportations and killing centers that any other use of these words can feel insulting. Used in a contemporary context, the words themselves have the power to cause pain, seeming to diminish the suffering of those who experienced or survived the Holocaust.