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Social Studies Opinion

Searching for Common Ground: What the Russian Invasion Means for Teaching Civics

By Rick Hess — March 23, 2022 5 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Today, Pedro and I discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what it means for classroom discussions of current events and civics.


Rick: Pedro, today, we’re talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s continuing atrocities against Ukrainian citizens, and how educators should teach about what’s going on. How should the conflict inform classroom conversations, especially when kids are going to see it if they’re anywhere near a television or open device?

Pedro: This is a critical topic. I’ve been wondering, how do you get people to understand the history behind the war? You can’t really understand this war unless you understand how the Soviet Union fell apart. What is the historic relationship between Ukraine and Russia? What does NATO, if anything, have to do with this? This history is essential for understanding the current conflict, and a lot of American kids lack this background. Sadly, many Americans don’t know this history, either. Many Americans don’t understand geography well and might have trouble locating Ukraine on a map. Many people may not even know that Russia took Crimea several years ago and they have been fighting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine for years now. For the teachers who are watching this conflict unfold and who seek to discuss it with their students as a part of current events, it will be important to contextualize and to historicize what is going on.

Rick: We were both social studies teachers once upon a time. So a lot of these conversations always land very practically for both of us. One of the things I taught in Louisiana, way back in the day, was world geography. And I was always struck by how few high schoolers could find Japan or Ireland on a map or knew what countries actually made up Europe or Africa. We talk about essential knowledge and whether it matters in an era when it’s so easy for someone to say, “Facts don’t matter. They can just Google them.” But to make sense of the Russian invasion, you need to understand the geography of the old Soviet Union, what the 15 republics were, and the Russian relationship to nations like Georgia or Kazakhstan or Belarus. You need to know these things, and they need to be physical representations on a map. You need to understand the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and why the Poles are right to look at Russian expansion with such trepidation. You can’t Google that. This goes to the heart of some of what we discussed in our book. Is it important that students know facts, dates, and countries? It really is. That’s not all students need to know, but you have to know that stuff or you’ll be staring at bombs falling on a screen and be completely at sea.

Pedro: I agree entirely. At a certain level, if you don’t know this, you are almost illiterate. You can’t make sense of what’s going on around you, and you certainly can’t understand this war. My daughter, who is just about to turn 10, was kind of aware of what is going on—partially because she can’t help but hear me listening to the news. She recently asked me: “Do we have to worry about a nuclear war?” I said, “Well, possibly, because Russia has nuclear weapons, and this war could escalate.” I also told her that I thought it is unlikely the Russians will use nuclear weapons because the fallout could affect them as well. I was glad she was curious. Once we have their attention, there is an opportunity to deepen understanding, because—like you—I agree that the content of what is going on really does matter. You can’t make sense of these events as they unfold simply by watching the news every now and then. You have to actually open a book and understand the geography and history behind this conflict.

Rick: For me, this is a limit of the “current events” mindset. I’m all for schools tackling current events in thoughtful ways, but if you’ve never heard of Ukraine or Russia and don’t know any of the background or history, then the discussing is mostly going to be about emoting and empathizing rather than learning. And it seems to me like schools have to be in the learning business. That means kids need some architecture on which to lay the video they’re seeing or the terms they’re hearing. If the first time you’re hearing about Russia, Ukraine, or the Cold War is when you are having a current events conversation about the invasion that happened, in some sense, it’s too late—because kids don’t have any of the framing they need to make sense of it. The debates about relevance, action civics, and engagement have put a lot of emphasis on the method of instruction, and that risks shortchanging the what. That’s a problem.

Pedro: For many kids, especially younger ones, it’s helpful to learn about events like this war through the eyes of another child. Sadly, many children have already been killed in this conflict. Kids get it right away when they know that children like them are dying and being forced to flee their homes. That’s why a book like The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is so powerful. A lot of kids can relate to Anne as a child who was forced to live in hiding during World War II. Through her words, they understand the fear she and others experienced about being sent to the concentration camps. When they learn that this ultimately happens to Anne, they understand at a profound level how war, racism, and intolerance affect the lives of people, including kids. One of my graduate students at USC sent us photographs from a teacher in Ukraine of kids who are living in bunkers right now. Sharing images like those with kids makes it possible for them to imagine what it must be like to be there now. When we can make a human connection to a conflict like this it becomes more meaningful.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 10 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Ukraine, Russia, and civics education.”

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