With few hours to prepare and little guidance, in 2021, teachers across the country were asked to talk with students about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol: Contextualize the horned-helmet regalia of the insurrectionists, the bashed-in windows, the hateful slogans waved on flags, the violent chaos, and the chants to hang a sitting vice president. Explain to students in the classroom, to those frightened at home using video conferencing to maintain a semblance of school life, and to children learning from home because of compromised health. In so doing, try to bridge the partisan divide—after a pandemic, a year of social isolation, and a nationwide mental health crisis.
Teachers asked ourselves: Should we talk about the protective shield of checks and balances? Perhaps how the separation of powers is a bulwark against tyrants? Or maybe we could speak to the founders’ fears of the passions of the masses—of mob rule?
The truisms of traditional civics rang hollow for me on that Jan. 7. Instead of the textbook, I turned to my students—young teens—to find wisdom, community, and perspective. It was a scary moment in our nation’s history—that was clear. Each person had seen and heard different things about the events at the Capitol. Each took the time to hear from the others and to find a common understanding.
Yet, that morning we shared more than impressions and facts; in a time of great uncertainty, we shared concern for one another. Our conversation was an answer to the ugliness of the insurrection and the cynicism pervading our country.
In our own small way, we were working toward providing a counter example to James Madison’s contention in Federalist No. 55 that: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
That day, I felt as if I could say, with respect, Madison didn’t know my class. And he likely didn’t hold children in high regard. The empathy of students in our discussions was an assertion of the promise of America—a civic promise that can only be fulfilled by securing resources for our schools and reaffirming public commitment to our highest ideals.
Since the travesty of January 2021, not enough has been done to address chronic underfunding of our public schools, the growing educator shortage, and how the combination of these and other factors are making it more difficult to provide children with safe schools staffed by experienced educators. Educators around the country carry the weight of the challenges facing students each day. Now, we need backup in addressing the widening partisan gap among our citizens before it becomes an uncrossable chasm.
High-quality civic education can help to rebuild communities by bringing us back to a place of shared interest and purpose.
As social studies teachers, we know the importance of making our materials stretch because the supply closet has been empty all too often when it comes to providing our students with the resources they need. But the federal government may at last be helping in a significant way.
The omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2023 that President Joe Biden signed into law at the end of December saw investment in civic education headed in the right direction. Of the Department of Education’s $79.6 billion in discretionary appropriations, the bill includes $23 million for American history and civics, which is $15 million more than what was provided in fiscal 2022.
This is a victory for students and for teachers who have been calling for federal investment in social studies for years. While the money may be a drop in the bucket of a $1.7 trillion budget, it is more than triple the spending of previous years for our important work. Expanding and sustaining investments in civics are key for reinvigorating democratic life that benefits all.
Federal investment is a welcome signal, but citizens of conscience must match it with their own active participation in local public life.
Civic education is related to the general health of our democracy. This is the civic learning paradox: When we are most aware of the need for civics, we are most divided and dysfunctional. Alternatively, when things are running smoothly and society has relative cohesion, urgency declines, and civics slips down society’s to-do list. As Jan. 6 demonstrated, we can no longer afford to delay providing young people with opportunities to develop citizenship skills and dispositions.
High-quality civic education can help to rebuild communities by bringing us back to a place of shared interest and purpose. To be clear, I am talking about a civics of empathy, not a proposal to simply distribute more textbooks, though reliable and credible texts are important. This will require professional development building teachers’ capacity to lead productive discussions that match the needs of their communities. We must be able to have tough conversations based on facts. This is what will make us be able to bounce back from difficult times and inoculate us against extremism.
It can feel some days as if the nation is coming apart—and yet there is hope. There is hope because we have seen an intractable Congress move to increase funding for civics. There is hope because teachers in New Hampshire and elsewhere continue to stand up to laws meant to silence classroom debate. And there is hope because teachers across America continue to trust in one another and in our students. We know there is still a great deal of work to be done, and there are more challenges to come, but we have been through so much. So, take heart in what we have accomplished in Washington, in our states, and most of all, in our classrooms. We can’t stop now.
Together we can elevate compassion and reason to improve civic learning and life. Our students depend on it.