In a society divided by race and ethnicity and gender, I am often moved by the fact that high school and college classrooms contain a broader cross section of people engaged in common work—and often doing it with civility, media-fueled ‘political correctness’ wars notwithstanding—than one can find in many settings. As we reweave our tattered civic fabric, educational institutions are among our most important looms.
But the civic model also contains a subtle threat to education’s core mission. In a civic society, we deal with differences through the classic mechanisms of democratic politics—negotiation, bargaining, compromise. These are honorable arts in the civic arena, where the goal is the greatest good for the greatest number. But what is noble in a quest for the common good may be ignoble in a quest for truth: truth is not determined by democratic means. …
We need to know the current conclusions [about the objects of study] in order to get in on the conversation. But it is not our knowledge of conclusions that keeps us in the truth. It is our commitment to the conversation itself, our willingness to put forward our observations and interpretations for testing by the community and to return the favor to others. To be in the truth, we must know how to observe and reflect and speak and listen, with passion and with discipline, in the circle gathered around a given subject. …
The firmest foundation of all our knowledge is the community of truth itself. This community can never offer us ultimate certainty—not because its process is flawed but because certainty is beyond the grasp of finite hearts and minds. Yet this community can do much to rescue us from ignorance, bias, and self-deception if we are willing to submit our assumptions, our observations, our theories—indeed, ourselves—to its scrutiny.— Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 92 and 104
A Democratic Rationale for Public Higher Education
It is not enough to see to it that education is not actively used as an instrument to make easier the exploitation of one class by another. School facilities must be secured of such amplitude and efficiency as will in fact and not simply in name discount the effects of economic inequalities, and secure to all the wards of the nation equality of equipment for their future careers. Accomplishment of this end demands not only adequate administrative provision of school facilities, and such supplementation of family resources as will enable youth to take advantage of them, but also such modification of traditional ideals of culture, traditional subjects of study and traditional methods of teaching and discipline as will retain all the youth under educational influences until they are equipped to be masters of their own economic and social careers.— John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 114
Who Supports Teaching U.S. History in Public Schools?
In the Washington Post yesterday, the data journalist Philip Bump highlighted some results of a March 2022 edition of the Grinnell College National Poll. His article focuses on respondents’ views of what should be taught in American public schools.
The poll shows that Republicans and Democrats differ significantly in their level of expressed support for (in particular) sex education and attempts to instill patriotism—though clear majorities in both parties actually say they support both. Thus, the current headline, “Democrats want to teach kids sex education. Republicans want to teach them patriotism”—is misleading, though it’s grounded in truth.
What caught my eye was the entry for history.
Unsurprisingly, strong majorities in both major parties believe that public schools should teach history. But I couldn’t help noticing that support for teaching history was ever-so-slightly lower among Democratic respondents.
That’s consistent with what another major survey found in 2020: American conservatives were more likely than liberals (92% to 84%) to say that teaching U.S. history to children is very important, and they’re also more likely (44% to 30%) to say they wish they’d had more American history courses in school.
Curious, I dug up the new Grinnell poll’s topline results.
I found that this poll, too, actually asked about American history, not history in general. And interestingly, although there was slightly lower expressed support for teaching U.S. history among Democrats than among Republicans, there wasn’t any significant difference between 2020 Trump and Biden voters.
What conclusions should we draw from this? I really have no idea. Probably, we shouldn’t draw any conclusions at all. Anyway, all the potent debates of our moment are about what should be taught in public schools as American history, not whether American history should be taught.
But I know that if I ever see support for teaching U.S. history in public schools drop significantly, among either Democrats or Republicans, I’ll have a new big thing to worry about.
Schools That Forge a Public
Every student deserves to be introduced to American literature and history, as well as such subjects as math, science, and civics. Few Americans get this at home, whether they be native or foreign born. An integrative approach respects students’ diverse backgrounds while preparing all young people to be fluent, competent, and empowered citizens. …
The public schools are public. Their mission is to forge a public. They should help young people to move beyond their pre-existing identities to see themselves as part of the nation. In a country so divided that we no longer consider each other fellow citizens, reviving the democratic mission of public schools has never been more essential.—Johann Neem, “Restoring the Democratic Promise of Public Schools: An Integration Agenda for the Biden Administration”
Describing a Democratic Approach to History Education
Edit, Aug. 26, 2019: Since I posted this, my plans for Fall 2019 have changed. I will not teach the course described below at RCBC, but I will teach a different course at Rowan University, which is also a public institution.
Earlier this month, I posted a draft syllabus statement for my new courses at La Salle University. It explains how my approach to history may fit into the “Lasallian” tradition—that is, the tradition of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the 300-year-old Catholic teaching order that sponsors that university.
Now I’d like to present a draft syllabus statement for a different kind of college. This fall, I’ll be teaching a course in the history of western civilization at Rowan College at Burlington County (formerly Burlington County College), a community college with a main campus in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. It’s my first time working at a community college, which has long been a goal of mine.
Here’s my initial attempt to explain what I think a history education should offer students at a public two-year college. I welcome criticism, especially from instructors who have worked in similar institutions.
As a community college, RCBC invites Burlington County to learn together, making a college education something for all of us, “in an accessible and diverse environment,” rather than a privilege for the few. This opens doors to greater personal prosperity and further educational opportunities. But it also strengthens our democratic society in two ways.
First, education helps you become a more responsible part of a free community. In the ancient Greek city of Athens, young citizens reportedly had to recite an oath when they reached adulthood. They swore to uphold their democratic society’s traditions in order to defend its freedom. Modern schools and colleges have sometimes adapted that oath in their commencement ceremonies to describe the ideal educated person:
We will never bring disgrace to this our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks. We will fight for our ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect in those above us who are prone to annul them and set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this city not only not less but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.
At the same time, “higher” education (or education beyond high school) should prepare adults to question tradition, criticize their society’s existing values and institutions, and create new forms of knowledge and wisdom. College should expand our freedom as well as preserve it. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, who helped establish one of America’s first public universities, we should “follow truth wherever it may lead,” enjoying “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”
A college education in history, especially at a public college like RCBC, should do both of these things at once. Carefully studying the past will help you think for yourself—using resources provided by the people of Burlington County—while inspiring you to cooperate with others in making your society freer, wiser, and more beautiful in the years to come.
You may find some irony in my posting this now, right after questioning how reliably a formal humanities education improves the health of a democracy. All I can say is that this syllabus statement is aspirational and normative, not necessarily descriptive. I am setting forth what I hope my history course will help students accomplish. The eventual outcome will depend not only upon what I do during the semester, but also what my students do—both individually and together.