Why teach social studies?
"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787
For many students, the typical US civics course is a now dull, routine part of the American public school experience. Whether it is due to teacher quality, bureaucratic constraints or the need to push memorization of content to pass a state-mandated test, providing students with a rigorous civics education does not seem to be a priority in our schools. Though the reasons vary, major polls reveal that Americans are dissatisfied with the quality of public education, in general, from kindergarten through grade twelve.
Beyond public education, Americans are highly dissatisfied with government.
“Harvard's poll showed millennials, which the pollsters defined as peopled aged 18 to 29, have lost trust in a variety of different major public institutions including the President, the military, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the federal government as a whole.” –Hunter Walker, Business Insider (2014)
The free press is supposed to stand as a bulwark to government tyranny by informing the people of abuses in the hope for a correction; yet, trust in mainstream media diminishes year after year. Compounding this problem, many of our Congressional leaders are calling for further restrictions on the press. For many people, mistrust of government has evolved into outright fear of government tyranny.
“Perhaps in part that’s because 54% consider the federal government today a threat to individual liberty rather than a protector. Just 22% see the government as a protector of individual rights, and that’s down from 30% last November.”-Rasmussen Reports (2014)
Thomas Jefferson once noted, "When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."
The totality of this data suggests a particularly sad reality for the “land of the free”; the majority of the American public truly fears their government and questions the purpose of our institutions, and the motives of our elected leaders in both parties in office.
While the statistics may appear to show that the odds are stacked against the free individual, we must remember the power of one person in the era of the internet and harness this opportunity as educators and public servants who embrace the philosophy of liberty. If the people we serve perceive that our society is descending into tyranny, then clearly, there is a need for educators to commit to providing an authentic civics experience to students.
Furthermore, given the technological advancements of our time, never has the average individual wielded so much power in terms of acquiring and sharing knowledge. Anyone with a computer and the internet can access an unprecedented amount of information. One person can send a powerful message to millions, potentially impacting the public discourse on a range of issues-these are truly historic times in which we live.
Today’s social studies classroom should be a location where authentic learning, civic discourse, and real creativity can thrive. Whether or not they are of voting age, students can contribute to the political conversation. Recently, a viral video of a teenager asking Nancy Pelosi a tough question on the NSA spying scandal circulated among the alternative news community. Many viewers found her answer to be low-quality and remarked at the ability of the youngster to stump a seasoned politician. I’m confident his social studies teacher was impressed (or should have been!)
My students, too, have contributed to the public dialogue with their town-hall interview with Congressman Pete Sessions. They asked him some tough questions and were featured in several hews stories here, here, and here (To see a complete list, check out my CSPAN/Town Hall Interview PBL lesson plan). Another student group received national recognition and prize money for their CSPAN documentary, “Saving the Free Market.” Not only did my students perform excellent journalism, many of them received college credit upon passing the AP exam.
I have created and implemented several cross-curricular and multidisciplinary civics projects, like the CSPAN with Town Hall Interview PBL mentioned above. They engage students in social studies content while providing them with opportunities to sharpen their citizenship skills and showcase their learning authentically.
As a social studies educator, I thoroughly enjoy being a part of the learning process with my students. Bringing in a Congressman for your class to interview is very exciting! I am committed to facilitating authentic student learning and hope your creativity and passion is stirred! Feel free to use any of my political cartoons or lesson plans for your classroom needs.