Attending school in the middle of a cornfield only intensified my childhood feelings of isolation as a gay, brown kid born to Indian immigrant parents. In every way that matters to a child, I felt alien.
My civics education in school exacerbated those feelings. It consisted primarily of rote daily recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance and a watered-down history of European immigration through Ellis Island. Stories like my family’s were noticeably absent, signaling to me that loyalty and conformity were my only choices to feel a sense of belonging.
When I entered the field of education, I was eager to understand the many ways schools shape our understanding of community and citizenship. I quickly learned that my personal experience was part of a broader history. Schools have long played a prominent—and often disturbing—role in defining what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to be an American. I was reminded of this history when the legislature in my home state of Iowa recently instituted new civics learning and testing requirements for high school graduation.
Over the past several years, many states have taken steps to strengthen civics education requirements in public schools. The bipartisan support for improved civics education is unsurprising considering our country’s intensifying political polarization (and the fact that only 47 percent of Americans can name the country’s three branches of government).
Nonetheless, how we choose to implement these new requirements matters. By examining and learning from the history of civics education in the United States, we can avoid repeating our public education system’s most troubling past mistakes. And we can help today’s young people develop new ways to engage as citizens, safeguarding our democratic institutions from authoritarianism and contributing to a more resilient, freer society in the process.
Civics first emerged as a distinct academic discipline in response to America’s foreign policy exploits and significant demographic, political, and economic shifts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. School officials at the time worried openly about the threats posed to the nation’s health and moral character if children of families deemed too “foreign” weren’t taught to outright reject their cultures and embrace loyalty, conformity, and “100 percent Americanism.” Government policy choices—ranging from California’s Japanese language school ban to loyalty oaths for New York City teachers to American Indian boarding schools—reflected these fears and left deep scars that remain with us today.
This shameful history serves as clear evidence that civics education in the United States has often had political aims. A substantive teaching of history—including how and why a formal civics curriculum first came to American public schools generations ago—must be part of any effective civics curriculum today.
Schools have long played a prominent—and often disturbing—role in defining what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to be an American.
Historical accounting helps us practice what theologian and ethicist Donald Shriver called “honest patriotism,” or “loving a country enough to remember its misdeeds.” Honest patriotism invites us to comprehend and (when necessary) take responsibility for past and present suffering while also asking each of us to decide what is, today, worth celebrating about our democracy. With this framing, we can make new choices about how to foster in students the knowledge, skills, mindsets, and relationships that will help them contribute to a thriving democracy.
What does this look like in practice?
First, be skeptical about any civics curriculum that relies heavily on memorization or a tidy, whitewashed single story of our nation’s history. Both stifle curiosity about our complex country’s past and present, leaving less openness to explore the wide range of personal and ancestral experiences represented in most American classrooms today. There isn’t—and never was—one way to be an American, and our civics curriculum and pedagogy should reflect that.
In their recent evaluation of Massachusetts’ new civics curriculum, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University found that an inquiry-based approach showed notable promise in improving student engagement and enjoyment.
Imagine if my middle school social studies teacher taught her prescribed lesson about European immigration through Ellis Island and then assigned students to map and share their own trajectory to Iowa, depending on each person’s ancestral identities. I would have been asked to interview my parents and discovered—decades earlier than I did in reality—about my paternal grandparents’ migration from a rural village to Mumbai in search of work, about the devastating impact that the partition of India had on my mother’s family, and how changing American immigration laws (partly a response to Cold War politics) permitted each of my parents to immigrate to this country in the 1960s.
A modern civics education should also emphasize individual reflective practice. Identity development is critical for young people to make a successful transition into adulthood, and national identity must be integrated alongside race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and other differences that make a difference in the lives of Americans today.
Helping students understand themselves as complex people living in a complex world is a mindset necessary for any subject, but it will be particularly helpful in supporting their ability to understand exactly how their experiences relate to content covered in their civics courses.
Equipping civics teachers with inquiry-based learning strategies—mirroring what STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and ELA teachers have increasingly done—may involve rethinking how we train and develop them. In the meantime, organizations like CIRCLE or the Right Question Institute—which provides practical techniques for teachers and students to ask more critical questions—offer research and tools that help classrooms become our new laboratories of democracy.
This fall, students will return to classrooms in several states where a new civics education requirement has been enacted. I imagine there will be another lonely Indian boy in a rural school who agonizes about how to reconcile his personal and ancestral identities with his national one. When he does, my hope is that his teacher welcomes that conversation and has the civics education curriculum and professional learning to foster his sense of belonging without incentivizing conformity.
We need that child to see the world as it is but also as he needs it to be, imagining himself not as an outsider—as I once did—but as an essential member of American society.