Category: 4QM Teaching

“Why Are We Doing This?”

One of my favorite moments in any class is when a student interrupts the lesson (always politely) and asks, “Mr, Bassett, why are we doing this?”

In social studies there is a pretty broad consensus that students should do certain things. At the top of the list, if not the very top, is “read primary sources.” Unfortunately, it seems like most people who want students to read primary sources don’t have a very good idea of why they want that. And when we plan lessons around an activity rather than a clear learning goal, we end up with disjointed lessons that have a pretty weak answer to the student’s question of why we’re doing this.

We recently got an example of this kind of lesson planning in the 4QM Teaching email in-box, from a curriculum organization we subscribe to. There was a google slide deck dedicated to “Planning With Primary Sources,” which guided teachers through the steps to planning a lesson that uses a primary source document. The first step in the process is to find a “compelling question.” They included a helpful list that you can browse; examples include “To what extent should there be limits on the powers of leaders?” and “Who is responsible for securing world peace?” Once you’ve chosen your compelling question, the next step was to go to a standards document to choose a “content specification.” The slide after that offered some specific primary sources a teacher could choose to use in the lesson; there were about thirty or so, including Hammurabi’s Code and the Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III of 1793. Then, at slide number six, the teacher is asked to decide why students will read the primary source: to answer a compelling question, or to practice for a state examination. What follows are fifty more slides about how students could go about reading the primary source. 

This whole exercise struck me as a compelling example (pun intended) of backward thinking about lesson planning. It starts with questions that cannot be answered outside of a specific time and place (“Who is responsible for securing world peace?”), offers a list of primary sources that seem to have been chosen for their link-ability and lack of copyright protection, and devotes most of its energy to an enormous infrastructure around how to use them in class. I can hear it now: “Mr. Bassett, why are we doing this?”

At 4QM Teaching, we believe that learning goals should dictate pedagogy, not the other way around. We also believe that there are four possible learning goals in history/social studies classes. Students are always trying to find out what happened (Question One), what someone was thinking (Question Two), why something happened when and where it did (Question Three), or what we think about that (Question Four). And our mantra is “Story First!”, because kids don’t get interested in Questions Two, Three, or Four until they’ve answered Question One. 

Here’s how we might arrive at the choice to use one of the  primary sources mentioned above in a lesson: The Qianlong Emperor’s letter to George III. We’d start with a story. In the 1700s Great Britain became the world’s first industrial power, and built a massive navy that they used to project their economic might around the globe. They were especially interested in selling their manufactured products in China, which was then as now an enormous market and very tempting. They repeatedly asked for the right to trade freely in China, and were repeatedly refused. Eventually the British began selling opium (a highly addictive drug) in China, and in the early 1800s fought several wars to force the country open to foreign trade. Thus began the time period that the Chinese government today calls “the century of humiliation” — China’s one hundred years of domination by foreign powers. 

Part of this story is the Qianlong Emperor’s refusal to allow the British to trade in his Empire, which refusal was delivered in a letter to the British King George III in 1793. We know how the story ended, and it looks to us like the Emperor may have made a catastrophic blunder — wouldn’t he have been better off allowing the British to trade, and thus avoiding the opium wars that came almost fifty years later? We’re now primed and ready to dive into a Question Two: What was he thinking??

When we set up a lesson this way, students have a reason to care about the primary source we’ll give them to interpret. Maybe the Emperor’s “blunder” won’t seem so foolish once we understand the thinking behind it, or maybe it will seem even worse than we thought. Either way, we’ll have a much better understanding of events once we’ve taken the time to dig into the source and develop some historical empathy for the Emperor — once we’ve tried to see the world as he saw it in 1793. 

Primary source interpretation is our go-to pedagogy for answering Question Two. The documents and artifacts historical figures leave behind them are rich mines of data, and we’ve got a straightforward and effective way to lead students through the kind of thinking they need to do when they interpret them. 

The other three Questions have good pedagogy matches as well, although we like to emphasize that we’re pedagogical pragmatists, not rigid ideologues — teachers should use techniques that match their learning goals and their students. But wherever we end up in our planning, we should start by defining our Question. And remember, Story First! If you follow those rules, we’re much more likely to be ready when someone interrupts to ask, “Why are we doing this?”

J.B.

 

Classroom Debates: For and Against

I think I’ve finally reconciled myself to debate. I came by my skepticism honestly. Way back as a TA in grad school I remember reading a paper by a student in a political theory class that was chock full of arguments, good, bad, and indifferent. The sheer density of claims, with a half-hearted defense tacked on to each one, struck me as wildly counterproductive. Even the good arguments sound bad when they arrive in a swarm of weak ones. 

That student, it turns out, was a skilled debater. Apparently the volume approach was standard practice at his competitions. For me, it became a hazard to warn against. 

When I first started out as a high school teacher, I ran debates often enough. I did whatever lessons I was given or could scrounge up. I would not describe what I did as “excellent debate lessons,” but I do remember animated sessions with occasionally illuminating moments. Debate really does work to get students talking, arguing, and collaborating. Good-natured competition encourages focus and team spirit. 

The latter, the team spirit, is what worried me. When we debriefed after a debate, I noticed that students were overwhelmingly convinced by the arguments on their side, whatever views they held beforehand and, frankly, whichever reasons seemed most compelling to me. I worried, and still do, that team spirit was transforming into calcified groupthink. 

I should have overcome my antipathy to debate much earlier than now. As a supervisor, I’ve observed excellent debate lessons numerous times, in a variety of styles. I’ve watched students prepare for and execute very compelling Oxford-style debates on important topics in world history. I’ve heard, in their debriefings, a thoughtfulness I often struggled to achieve in the ones I ran. 

I’ve also seen students debate in clever formats designed to thwart the problem I had with mine, premature entrenchment in a view. For example, in “Murphy pods” — called that, affectionately, by students of a teacher in my department — students have short, repeated arguments against changing opponents, switching positions as they go. I particularly like that format because it requires exploration. When you hear someone contradict your claim in a forceful way, you remember it. That argument is now available to you in the next round. A few rounds later, and the better arguments have typically gotten elaborated and the worse ones attenuated. 

Debate Is Not The Same As Judgement

What finally brought me around, though, wasn’t teaching or observing. It was drafting the chapter of our 4QM book on judgment, Question Four (What do we think about that?). What I figured out about judgment as I sat patiently and mulled slowly is that the skillful thinking we call judgment requires exactly that — patient, slow thinking. Debate is quick, hot, and noisy. Ultimately, figuring out consistent core values and general principles has to be slow, quiet, and reflective (like writing a book in semi-quarantine). 

That doesn’t mean that debate is a bad idea. On the contrary, I now see that debate is an awesome brainstorming technique for judgment thinking. Debate generates claims — lots of them. Without that activation, you can’t really think through a real-life decision or dilemma. Part of the exercise of good judgment is canvassing your options thoroughly. Failure to do that accounts for a lot of my own poor judgment to date.

But that’s just stage one. After you consider the problem broadly and creatively (and noisily), then you need to slow down and get quiet. This, too, requires a structured activity, a parallel to debate. This is what I was missing when I started out. I’d run a noisy activity and then be surprised that students were stuck wherever they stopped. We didn’t have the follow-on activity that would have compelled them to sort through their findings and say which can be fixed to values and principles that they can articulate, apply, and ultimately live with. I missed the pedagogy of the reflective generalization stage.

Interestingly, I once knew this, sort of. My first year as a high school teacher was pretty miserable, mostly because I was so bad at it. At the end of the year, my boss (now my 4QM partner, Jon) told me he’d give me a senior Ethics elective to teach the following year. He could see I needed a course a bit more in my wheelhouse so that I could rebuild my confidence. 

In any case, Ethics worked for me. It wasn’t a history class, but we did always start with a case study or a scenario. And we always worked from our reactions to that scenario to general principles, which, at the time, I taught directly: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and so on. 

Question Four is, in a way, the translation of that enterprise into the history curriculum. Our case studies and scenarios are now drawn from true stories. And our instruction in principled ethical thinking is more inductive. Still, Question Four is a lot like the course that might have saved me for high school teaching almost two decades ago. We work from cases to principles and back again. 

Interestingly, I don’t recall that we ever debated in that Ethics class. We just talked. They were seniors who’d opted in, and running a philosophical discussion was one of my very few classroom competencies. So just talking turned out to be enough. 

Now I know: debate is great. It’s the generative stage of practice for the thinking skill we call judgment. It helps us to answer Question Four by forcing us to think through a wide range of claims and possibilities. So make noise and raise the temperature. Then, slow down, get cool and quiet, and reflect. Which of these warm-to-the-touch choices of action in a real-life situation are consistent with the core values and consistent principles we will use to guide our future choices? When the din dies down and the teams dissolve, where does our judgment settle? That’s the part we take home.

G.S.

Student Judgment in the Classroom

Social studies teachers love a lively student discussion: “The kids were really into that discussion about whether or not we should have school uniforms!” But I suspect that most of us don’t do a great job of letting students know if their lively discussion was actually backed with clear and rigorous thinking. Too often we let an exciting activity be an end in itself, rather than a practice session for historical thinking skills. 

In the Four Question Method, exciting discussions are often focused on Question Four, “What do we think about that?” With this question we are explicitly asking students for their own judgments about something from the past, usually a decision that someone (or some group of people) made. Did President Truman do the right thing when he ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was Martin Luther King’s non-violent Christian movement the best way to achieve racial justice? But if we’re going to teach students to give us more than “hot takes,” we need to define the thinking skills that make up responsible judgments and teach students how to demonstrate them.

Last week Gary wrote a blog post that identifies two elements of responsible judgment: articulateness and application. “Articulateness” means that students can clearly explain their reasons for their judgments, and “Application” means that students can consistently apply their principles to a different case. As it happens, I led two discussions today about a classic judgment question, and I’d like to use my experience to illustrate how these two thinking skills can be applied in the classroom.

Today’s class was about the Versailles Treaty, and the judgment question I asked students was, “Was the war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty fair?” The Versailles Treaty was the peace treaty that ended World War One, and the “war guilt clause” was the part of the treaty that stated that Germany was solely responsible for causing the war, and thus would be held responsible for paying damages (“reparations”) to Britain and France. My students knew the story of the pre-war era, the war itself, and the story of the treaty negotiations. They had studied, in other words, Question One (“What happened?”), and Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) for all the key players of the story. We had also done a Question Three (“Why then and there?”) puzzle about the start of the war. They were ready to render their judgments.

Articulateness

In my first class, the majority of students started out by saying that the war guilt clause was not fair. “Articulateness” requires them to be able to explain their reasons, and they did pretty well. The student leaders of this position argued that first, the real cause of the war was the unwillingness of Britain and her allies to face the reality of growing German power. From here they argued that Britain and her allies were being unreasonable in their opposition to Germany, since the Kaiser’s demands for empire and an increased share of world trade were entirely in line with his country’s size and economic might. They saw the specifics of the outbreak of war in summer 1914 as less relevant than this underlying conflict, and thus considered placing all the blame on Germany to be unjust. There were several students who said that in fact Britain bore primary responsibility for the war, because she did not accommodate Germany’s rise peacefully.

The opposing side in that first class was more strongly represented in my second class of the day: there the majority started out by saying that the war guilt clause was fair. These students argued that Germany had been unreasonably aggressive in its rise, and that it was perfectly reasonable to expect Great Britain to try to prevent Germany from threatening its top spot in the world economy and geopolitical balance. These students emphasized the German invasion of France (through neutral Belgium!) as evidence of Germany’s untoward aggression, and thus considered placing all of the blame on Germany to be just. There was even one student who argued that Britain’s major error had been in not attacking Germany first and earlier, before she got so strong!

There were proponents of both positions in both classes, so the discussion was lively. And there were also students who articulated a position based almost entirely on the events of the summer of 1914; these students cared less about the contextual conflict between Britain and Germany, and more about the fact that Germany had invaded France without provocation. They saw the war guilt clause as fair.

Application

In the last few minutes of each class I pressed students to apply the principles they had articulated to a different case. I suggested that the United States today is similar to Britain in 1914, a dominant economic and military power, and that China is similar to Germany, as a rising economic and military power. Would the students who suggested that Britain should have accommodated Germany’s rise agree that the U.S. should accommodate China? And would those who suggested that Germany was unduly aggressive and had earned a harsh response from Britain and her allies feel the same way about China and the U.S.?

Unfortunately I didn’t have the time I needed to play this out very far in either class. But the student who had suggested that Britain should have attacked Germany earlier did actually say that he would not support war against China today, and he saw immediately that this was a contradiction to his earlier position. He then publicly changed his mind and said that he was now going to have to reconsider his entire position on the war guilt clause. 

I praised that student for doing what we hope all of our students will do every day: thinking. Knowing the two elements of judgment thinking made it easier for me to plan a discussion class that pushed students to do both. 

J.B. 

Components of Judgment (Defining Question Four Thinking)

In our introductory 4QM workshops, we say that every unit in history class is a practicum in judgment. Question Four, our judgment question — “What do we think about that?” — is the ultimate payoff for all the hard work we do when we teach and learn Questions One, Two, and Three. Our students will inherit the world (of trouble) we ourselves inherited and contributed to. They’ll have to figure out what they think of it and then what to do about it. The goal of Question Four in particular, and of social studies in general, is to get them ready for that awesome and daunting task. 

You’d think, after all that build-up, we’d have had more to say about Question Four in this blog space. I’ve found two posts that make more-than-passing references to it, one from Jon and one from me. We’ve had plenty to say about the other questions. Question Four, not so much. 

I don’t think that’s accidental. Question Four appears more straightforward than it is. Asking students what they think about things — what could be more easy and obvious? The tricky thing about Question Four is that you can make it look like it’s working even when it isn’t. Ask a contentious question, get the kids arguing passionately, and there you have it: an exciting class with engaged students. Success, right? 

Not necessarily. Here’s a quick gut-check to see how wrong that impression can be. Do you assess judgment? If you do, can your students say what judgment skills they’re being asked to demonstrate? Are they learning to exercise those skills better over time? As a classroom teacher, I haven’t always been able to answer yes to all three of those questions. If you can’t now, you’re not teaching judgment — yet. 

Define It To Assess It

The key is to treat judgment like any other thinking skill. Name the skill, practice it purposefully, and assess it regularly. 

The thinking skill of judgment has two key components, articulateness and application. When you answer Question Four skillfully, you need to articulate the reasons that support whatever judgment claim you make. For our purposes, the claim is less important than the reasons. (We assess the reasons, not the claim.) Those reasons will typically take the form of general statements of principles and core values applied to the specifics at hand (established by answering Questions One, Two, and Three) in a coherent, logical way. 

The second component of skillful judgment, application, requires that you apply whatever principles and core values you articulated in considering a particular historical case to a new but related case. That will show whether you know how to apply principles skillfully when the facts vary. It will also reveal whether your principles are robust — that is, whether or not they really are the general principles you claimed them to be, or were really just ad hoc rationalizations for a judgment you made by instinct or intuition. 

An Example: The American Revolution

Consider a classic: The American revolutionaries declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and gave lots of reasons, general and specific, for doing so. Some people, both in the colonies and Britain, agreed with both the claims and the reasons. Some people in both places disagreed. What do we think about that? Were the revolutionaries justified in making that declaration — and in taking up arms in defense of it — or were they disloyal and ungrateful insurrectionists? Was their argument persuasive or not? 

We pose that question so that our students can practice doing what those revolutionaries themselves did: making judgments about real-world issues and dilemmas. This is what we mean by a practicum in judgment. As I said, we care more about our students’ reasons than their claims. The Revolutionaries have already made their decision and acted on it. The results are in and definitive. We’re using this practicum as an opportunity for our students to practice and get feedback on their skills in articulating and applying principles. 

The American Revolution is a good starter practicum, since the people whose actions we’re judging were themselves quite articulate. They actually created a now-famous “Declaration” in which they announced their general principles and took pains to apply them to the specifics of their case. That’s a helpful reminder to our students that we’re looking for principled reasoning from them as well. Once they’ve done that, they should be equipped to answer this general version of our Question Four for themselves: Under what conditions does a group of people have the right to reject the authority of their government and to attempt to establish their own independent one?

Answering that general Question Four is no mean feat. Some students will be attracted to the revolutionaries’ own argument to avoid having to formulate an alternative. Others may find their argument attractive for sentimental reasons. Still others may argue with them for the sake of being contrary. That’s where application comes in. 

For better or worse, history is full of test cases for our students’ revolutionary principles. In US History, our students can try their principles on a range of cases from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, to the Confederacy, to the modern-day Tea Party — to say nothing of the ill-fated attempts of Staten Island, my home borough, to secede from the state of New York. In world history, they can test the application of their principles to anti-colonial independence movements around the globe. That will have the salutary effect, by the way, of introducing them to other kinds of principles than the 18th-century social contract argument of the Americans. 

Students’ judgments regarding the revolutionaries of 1776 need to square with their judgments of these other would-be and successful revolutionaries. That doesn’t mean, of course, that their judgment claims need to be identical. On the contrary, relevant differences between cases may lead us to apply our principles in different ways. Or perhaps we’ll come to see that our principles need to be adjusted or elaborated in light of what we’ve learned about the world. Either way, we want to do our best to avoid putting our thumbs on the scale in favor of people we just happen to like and then removing it when the subjects of our judgment simply aren’t our cup of revolutionary tea. In other words, we want to practice making skillful judgments. 

Generating Heat, Not Light

Sometimes it’s easier to notice a skillful practice by its absence. If the Question Four conversations in your classes generate lots of opinions but very few articulate reasons to support those opinions, then your students are not practicing articulateness, and will certainly not be able to apply and test principles in comparable cases. They’ll generate heat, but not a lot of light. 

For what it’s worth, that’s an endemic hazard in our profession. When my students are animated and engaged, whatever the reason and whatever the product, I am deeply grateful. It sure beats that sullen look, or worse, a blank square on a Zoom screen. Sometimes, that feels like enough for me.

Moreover, assessing — that is, judging — judgment is, ironically, fraught with its own hazards. We want students to believe that our assessments of their work are fair and principled. When we assess their performance at rendering judgments, we strenuously want to avoid the appearance that we’re debating our students on the question at hand. In the absence of articulated standards applied judiciously — communicated through a rubric, say — neither we nor they can be sure that we’re teaching rather than preaching. In that case, it feels safer to avoid the whole issue of assessment and just enjoy the rollicking debate. 

Unfortunately, the judgment tasks we’ve bequeathed our students in the real world don’t really afford us that luxury. They’ve got important work to do when we’re done with them. Whatever your judgment on the issues of the day, you must agree with this one: we ourselves have important work to do in the meantime.

G.S.

Please Don’t Confuse “Rigor” With “Volume”

A few weeks ago Gary and I were talking with a client who is responsible for history and social studies curriculum and instruction in grades 5 – 8. She was explaining why social studies has to fight for instructional minutes with ELA, and one thing she said really struck me. She reported that some curriculum supervisors criticized history teaching by saying, “It’s not rigorous. The things you have kids read are too short.” This criticism resonated with me because I’ve heard it before, but applied to writing: “That assignment’s not rigorous. You’re only having the kids write five paragraphs.” Maybe you’ve also run into people who conflate word count and intellectual challenge. But the correct measure of the rigor of an intellectual task isn’t the number of words consumed or produced, it’s the difficulty of the thinking involved. The Four Question Method clearly defines the thinking skills of history and social studies, and that clarity allows us to demand true intellectual rigor of our students, sometimes in very few words.

Four Sentence Stories

Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?”, and answers take the form of a story. It’s Question One for a reason: if you and your students can’t say what happened about whatever content you’re purporting to study, then you can’t really claim to know anything significant about it. And it turns out that answering Question One with a good historical story is very demanding, and doing so in a limited number of sentences is even more so. 

We’ve created a rubric to define good historical stories; you can see it here. We often challenge our students to demonstrate their story-telling skills by assigning them to tell an important historical story in just four sentences. Doing so requires them not only to know the story well enough to select important elements and discard less important ones, it also requires them to use complex sentence structures so they can pack as much information into each sentence as possible. If you grade each sentence on a binary score, error/no error, this assignment becomes quite rigorous indeed. Here’s a four-sentence version of a famous story in American history: 

In early 1692 a group of young women in Salem Village began acting strangely and claimed to be bewitched. Pressed by adults to identify the witch(es) responsible, the girls initially identified three women, then broadened their accusations to include over 100 people. That summer judges held trials, and “spectral evidence” led to the deaths of twenty people, the confessions of over fifty, and accusations of witchcraft against over 150 people. In early October a group of fifteen Massachusetts ministers condemned the use of spectral evidence, and the governor called a halt to the trials; the accusations subsided by spring.

Writing a compact story like this is hard! Pick an historical topic that you know well and try it yourself. See how many minutes it takes you to write an error-free four sentence story that scores well on the rubric. Then imagine one of your students working on the same task. We’re producing a very short story, but the thinking involved in writing it well is rigorous indeed.

Reading Hard Text

Question Two of the Four Question Method is “What Were They Thinking?” We often approach this Question through the reading of primary source documents, and many of these are very challenging for students even when they are short selections. In their excellent book on reading instruction, Reading Reconsidered, Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway identify “The Five Plagues of the Developing Reader,” and plague number one is something social studies teachers deal with all the time: “Archaic Text” (29). The intellectual demands of reading documents that are more than fifty years old, and that were written for adult readers in their own eras, are significant for our students. If we actually require students to demonstrate that they understand these documents by contextualizing them, summarizing or paraphrasing them, then interpreting them to figure out what the author was thinking, even a short reading becomes rigorous.

In my imaginary conversation with the ELA-favoring supervisors described at the start of this post, I give them our Question Two rubric and ask them to interpret this single paragraph of Thomas Hobbes’ famous book on government, Leviathan

The finall Cause, End, or Designe of men, (who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which wee see them live in Common-wealths,) is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shewn) to the naturall Passions of men, when there is no visible Power to keep them in awe, and tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their Covenants, and observation of those Lawes of Nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters [of this book].

This is a short reading. It’s 116 words, and it’s actually just one sentence. But even reading it for plain meaning is clearly rigorous, and actually interpreting it is even more so.

We don’t actually use this text with students. (Although Gary did once, with ninth graders!) We use it in teacher workshops so that teachers will know what their students feel like when we assign them to read primary sources. We want to make it clear that students who do a good job interpreting primary sources are executing a rigorous intellectual task.

Rigor Means Thinking 

The point here is that a “rigorous” assignment should be defined by the thinking required, not simply by voluminous reading or writing. A few years ago we worked with a high school that was very proud that their ninth grade history students all wrote twelve page research papers. I guess that’s a good indication of those ninth graders’ stamina and tolerance for school, but I don’t think that large page count is evidence of anything more than that. 

The Four Question Method promotes rigor by clearly defining the thinking skills of history and social studies. Demonstrating those skills consistently is intellectually demanding, even if the reading and writing involved is not especially lengthy. Our hope is that more people will come to recognize this distinction.  

J.B.  

 

Sometimes Textbooks Get It Right

In my last blog post, I complained about the way our textbooks address Question Three, Why then and there? I also promised that I’d stop complaining in the next post (this one) and tell you about a textbook that actually gets Question Three (mostly) right. But first a story…

It was 2002. I’d just become a high school teacher. I was mopey on account of incompetence. Half a year earlier, I’d been lecturing successfully (I presumed) to large audiences and running lively graduate seminars. Now I was struggling to get 15 year olds to sit still and pay attention. It was a long year. 

In the midst of it, I discovered that I was supposed to tell my 10th graders that alliances had caused World War One. The Cold War had just ended. The general consensus was that balance-of-power politics had worked. The superpowers militarized and waged ideological battles. Each side recruited or coerced client states and sponsored proxy wars. And yes, both sides formed alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. And yet, no World War Three. 

As a general proposition, alliances do not cause world wars. The evidence on whether they cause any wars at all is murky. European states created and dissolved a variety of alliances in the century preceding the Great War, largely without incident. The US continues to maintain defensive alliances with a variety of countries, so far without calamity. Yet my textbook insisted, without evidence and without much reasoning, that alliances were one of the primary causes of World War One. 

Naturally, I complained to my boss. I observed to him that the textbook he gave me had dressed up the story of what European countries were doing and thinking right before the Great War as an explanation — a set of “causes.” My former political science colleagues would have been aghast. Worse than that, the book risked scaring our students into thinking that alliances were simply dangerous. 

The Missing Question: Why Then And There?

My boss and I argued, for about a decade. By then, Jon and I had figured out the question the textbook missed: Why then and there? Why did alliances lead to war in 1914 but sustain the peace after 1945? Even better: Under what conditions do alliances (or militarism, nationalism, or imperialism) increase or decrease the likelihood of war? 

Question Three makes it possible to learn meaningful lessons from history. It is extremely unlikely that our students will confront a Balkan crisis in the midst of an Anglo-Germanic power struggle during their lifetimes. But when and where alliances (or those other factors) alter the chances of war — that will be on their real-world agenda for some time to come.

Lessons go well when you and your students have an engaging, well-formulated question to grapple with and the training and resources to answer it. The same is true for textbooks. My old textbook didn’t really know what question it was trying to answer. “Why then and there?” would have helped its authors and their end users enormously.

So imagine my delight when, in the course of preparing the Question Three chapter of our book manuscript, I discovered that there was a textbook that helps students to answer it!

Strayer & Nelson Get It Right!

Every chapter in our 4QM manuscript models a full-blown inquiry case study, with sample sources and responses, graphic organizers, and step-by-step instructions. Our advice for teaching Question Three is to create a DBQ (document-based question) for your unit Question Three. Collect some brief documents and data, preferably in graphic form, that provide the background knowledge students need to see patterns and make connections. Present that at the launch of the inquiry. 

For our Question Three case study, we focus on a puzzle about Chinese and Japanese responses to western imperialism. The Chinese government resisted fecklessly, then dithered, and then, after the calamitous Boxer Uprising, capitulated. Japan’s response was more unusual: a group of daimyo (warlords, roughly) and their samurai followers overthrew their dithering government, restored the emperor to nominal power, and set out on a crash course of government-led modernization. It worked: by the early 20th century, Japan was itself an imperializing power. 

In quarantine, I happen to have a desk copy of an AP World History textbook, Strayer and Nelson’s Ways of the World, 4th ed., BFW (2019). I’ve never actually used the book in class. For that matter, I’ve never taught an AP class. (My list of deficits is long.) Anyway, we had a DQB to write, and I had this textbook. 

Strayer and Nelson do a nice job of comparing and contrasting China and Japan’s responses to imperial encroachment. They describe key background facts about population growth, economics, and governmental capacity. And they make an honest attempt to explain how these contextual differences affected the divergent outcomes in the two countries. We supplemented our model DBQ with some charts and graphs from a scholarly article we found on the internet and with some simplified quotes from a book by a political scientist. But the textbook worked great for us on this topic. 

Strayer and Nelson even gave us a neat follow-on assignment to our DBQ. They include the Ottoman empire in their chapter on responses to imperialism. They did that purposefully and thoughtfully: the Ottoman empire was a lot like Qing China and quite different from Tokugawa and Meiji Japan. So we decided that, once our students had formulated some reasonable hypotheses about obstacles to modernization in China, we would give them an abridged version of the Ottoman section and ask them to see if the evidence there supports their claims. 

And The Great War?

I was almost afraid to look, but couldn’t resist: The Great War. This section in Strayer and Nelson is just okay. The comparison — a temporal rather than spatial one, in this case — that starts the chapter is brief but effective. In a few sentences, Strayer and Nelson trace the history of European rivalry from 1815 until the Great War. They say that, after the defeat of Napoleon, “a fragile and fluctuating balance of power […] maintained the peace among Europe’s major countries.” They also note that a “powerful and rapidly industrializing Germany, seeking its ‘place in the sun,’ was a particularly disruptive new element” in that power balance. 

All that would fit very nicely into a Question Three DBQ on the reasons for the collapse of the 19th century peacekeeping system — what the old textbook called the “causes” of World War One. The contrast is clear: first, a balance-of-power system that, while “fragile,” actually did prevent major wars for almost a century. Then, a change in context and conditions that upset the balance: a unified, powerful, rapidly industrializing Germany. 

Strayer and Nelson’s account still insists that alliances drove the spread of the conflict. They say that countries felt bound to their commitments to their allies, even though some of those alliances were secret, some were broken, and some weren’t alliances at all, like Russia and Serbia. And there’s no contrast here, which tells you that they’ve actually started narrating and interpreting and abandoned explaining. 

Still, I’m grateful to have been disabused of the idea that history textbooks are good for stories and not much else. Jon and I have decided that one of our future projects is to produce a sourcebook of Question Three DBQs, something akin to the many primary source document collections that support our classroom work on Question Two (interpretation). It’s nice to know that there are some textbooks out there to help us get started. 

G.S.

Using The News To Teach Explanatory Thinking

Gary and I have been trying to finish the chapter in our book about Question Three, “Why Then And There?” It’s the most abstract and difficult of the Four Questions, so the chapter has been the hardest to write. Because we’ve been thinking about this Question so much we’re both also blogging on it. Gary wrote last week about the resource problem with Question Three: so many textbooks get it so wrong. This is one reason that makes it hard to teach well. But if you understand Question Three you can find examples of its thinking everywhere, and you can even stumble across some good resources to teach it. Today I’m writing about a New York Times article that would make a great classroom resource to practice Question Three thinking: “Why Does Louisiana Consistently Lead the Nation In Murders?”

Great Headline

First off, let’s admire the headline: A classic “Why there?” Question Three. The headline gives us a great opportunity to review our rules for answering Question Three with our students. First off, we want to “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” Louisiana is different from the other 49 states, in that its residents murder each other an an unusually high rate. In order to explain why that is, we need to look for some underlying difference between Louisiana and the other states, and explain how that underlying difference could account for the high murder rate. And when we’re looking for ways in which Louisiana is different, we’re looking for “Factors Not Actors.” We’re looking for  underlying conditions, “factors,” not the actions of individual people.

Factors, Not Actors

Then let’s dive into the article. It wanders around a bit, but at the end of the first section it includes this gem of Question Three thinking: 

Many factors could help explain Louisiana’s unwelcome ranking, including disproportionate racial segregation, job discrimination and poverty. But nearby states have a lot of these problems, too. So what might make Louisiana distinct?

This is a beautiful example of how Question Three works. First of all, the quotation identifies specific contextual factors that might conceivably explain the high murder rate. But even more impressive, it quickly rules them out because none are unique to Louisiana. And it leaves us with a clear restatement of the Question Three puzzle: “So what might make Louisiana distinct?”

Guns And Sugar

The article goes on to rule out the possibility that New Orleans is skewing the data, noting that even if that notoriously violent city is taken out of the data, the state still has the country’s highest  or second highest murder rate in twelve of the last fifteen years. The two factors that the article ultimately suggests might be good explanations are the number of guns in Louisiana, and the state’s history as a sugar growing region. Louisiana has an exceptionally high rate of guns recovered and traced by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. That suggests that the state has a very high number of guns, and especially illegal guns, per capita. If it’s especially easy to get a firearm, one might reasonably expect the murder rate to be especially high.

And the history of slavery in Louisiana was somewhat different than in neighboring states. Many enslaved people in Louisiana worked on sugar plantations, which were especially brutal and violent. Cotton plantations were less dangerous to their work forces, with lower mortality rates. Perhaps Louisiana’s history of violence associated with slavery created a culture that echoes into the present day. (Don’t discount the power of this type of argument. Political Scientist Robert Putnam was able to correlate corruption in parts of present day Italy with the presence of absence of regional singing societies during the Renaissance. Singing societies built “social capital,” which cuts down on corruption.)

As we’ve said before, Question Three thinking is hard, and the lack of good resources for teaching it makes it harder. Once we finish writing our book Gary and I will be creating a series of Question Three DBQs: Document Based Questions purpose-built to make Question Three thinking accessible to students. (Email us if you want our “Outbreak of WWI” or “Modernization in China & Japan” DBQs, which are ready now.) In the meantime, if you keep your eyes peeled and know what to look for you can sometimes find a good newspaper article to practice on.

J.B.

Question Three: The Resource Problem

[Apologies in advance; this post is long. If you make it to the end and write me a note, I’ll buy you a drink when the pandemic is over. GS]

Jon jokes at our workshops that it took me 18 months to convince him that there was a Question Three. The joke is largely true. In fairness to Jon, I kept asking the question the wrong way.

The original version of Question Three was this: “Why did that happen?” Jon’s objection was that we’d already answered this question. In narrating a response to Question One, we said what happened. Then we asked Question Two. The response to that question told us why the protagonists in the story did what they did. Now you come along and say, Why did that happen? I just told you: that happened (Q1), for those reasons (Q2).

I wore Jon down. (How that happened is a story for another time.) We eventually settled on the barely improved, “Why did that really happen?” Finally, a brilliant colleague attending one of our workshops relieved us of our misery by suggesting the version we finally adopted: “Why then and there?” 

We’ve had better luck communicating about Question Three since our colleague helped us reformulate it. Our mantras help, too: “Factors, not actors” and “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” Now, workshop attendees get less confused about the difference between Question Two and Question Three than they did before the change. They can see that, for Question Three, we’re asking about the context and conditions in which the action occurred, not the thoughts of the people involved in that action. 

Still, Question Three is the hardest part of the 4QM. We’ve heard that from a bunch of teachers and administrators who’ve done our workshops and generally like our approach. They take to the other questions readily and find it reasonably straightforward to plan lessons and gather material that addresses them. Storyboards are a hit; teachers who’ve done our training use them all the time, both to plan and to teach. Question Three, not so much, even for full adopters of the 4QM. 

“Why then and there?” is a real question, and it’s really different from the other questions. Students who attend college and major in one of the social sciences will spend virtually all their time trying to answer it. And, in fact, once you know to look, it’s all over our curriculum, even in old-fashioned narrative history classes. Why, then, do people who embrace 4QM-style teaching find Question Three so challenging to address with students? 

Textbooks Do A Terrible Job With Question Three

My hypothesis: textbooks. Other factors probably matter too. Question Three requires quasi-scientific thinking, which is less intuitive and familiar than narration and interpretation, the thinking skills we use to answer Questions One and Two. And it requires an awful lot of knowledge to answer a Q3 convincingly. But the basic pedagogical problem is that textbooks, our handiest resource, generally stink at framing and addressing explanatory questions. 

I only have room here for one example, but could give many, from many sources. (Over drinks, maybe.) Alan Brinkley’s American History, which we use for AP US History classes at my high school, has occasional boxed sections where the author surveys debates in the scholarly literature. And so, “The Causes of the Civil War” purports to contain a serious consideration of that topic. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was a Question Three.

In my rich fantasy life, Brinkley’s insert starts by defining the explanatory puzzle clearly, so that students know exactly what question the scholars under review will be addressing. Then it identifies the answer each of the scholars gives to the question, and maybe shares Brinkley’s view of the persuasiveness of each. Then it discusses the implications of the debate for our understanding of a larger topic — risk factors for civil war, hazards for democracies, the perils of territorial expansion — something transferable, a real history lesson. 

Here’s what we get instead. Brinkley’s literature survey has six paragraphs. The first one quotes President Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address saying that “all knew” that slavery “was somehow the case of the war.” Brinkley glosses the quote as follows: “Few historians doubt the basic truth of Lincoln’s statement, but they disagree sharply about whether slavery was the only, or even the principal, cause of the war.” 

We’re already off the rails. From an interpretive point of view — if we’re trying to answer Question Two — slavery was, of course, the primary “cause” of the war. That’s what the protagonists were thinking, the cause to which they were committed or opposed. They were thinking, “we must end slavery” or “we must defend slavery” or “we must keep slavery out of the territories” or “we must end the rule of the “slave-ocracy” or something like that. No doubt, the best one-word answer to Question Two, at least for American political leaders during the secession crisis of 1861, is “slavery.” 

Unfortunately, if we’re actually trying to explain why the civil war happened when and where it did, “slavery” can’t possibly be a “cause.” Enslavement of Africans began in the British North American colonies in 1619. It was acknowledged and accommodated in the US Constitution. Political compromises over slavery were enacted in 1820 and 1850. By 1860, prior compromises no longer held and a new one could not be reached. Why not? What factors made a political crisis likely in 1861, but not before (or never)? Why then and there? 

If you formulate the question clearly, as I just tried to do, then it’s obvious that “slavery” can’t be the (or even an) answer. Slavery is a constant. We’re looking for variables. Changes in slavery — its intensification and spread as a result of the industrial revolution in textile production in Britain, for example — are certainly worthy of consideration. Brinkley doesn’t consider them. So is another obvious factor: territorial expansion, which portended the introduction of many more states to the union, each of which would get two Senators, each of whom would support or oppose legislation to uphold, abandon, or undermine the institution of slavery. It’s possible, in other words, that the Mexican Cession (1848) created a structural crisis in American politics. Ditto: no mention in Brinkley’s essay. Consider, then, a demographic variable: growing immigration after 1848, the population Lincoln envisioned filling the new American territories, and eventually voting for members of the House of Representatives. That factor gets a wink and a nod, as I’ll describe below. 

Was The War “Inevitable?” What Kind Of Question Is That?

Brinkley devotes the middle four paragraphs of his six-paragraph essay to consideration of a ‘debate’ about whether the war was inevitable or avoidable. For the record, that’s a Question Four: Do we blame the politicians who failed to compromise and avoid bloodshed or accept that they did the best they could under the circumstances? William Seward, abolitionist and supporter of both Lincoln and the war, viewed it as unavoidable. Naturally. That was his judgment: he thought Lincoln did what he had to do in making war on the secessionists, and opposed those who viewed the war as “the work of interested or fanatical agitators” (a quote from Seward cited by Brinkley in this paragraph). Brinkley mistakenly cites this judgment as an explanation. 

Despite his misleading frame, some explanatory categories do emerge in the course of Brinkley’s review: culture and economics. Some scholars, Brinkley recounts, believe that the source of tension between northerners and southerns was primarily economic, while others believe it was primarily cultural. (It’s not clear why we need to pick one or the other, but Brinkley assumes that we do.) For sure, there were, by 1860, stark differences between northern and southern states on both dimensions, economics and culture. Alas, nowhere in the essay does Brinkley say how economic differences might have decreased the prospects for compromise or increased the likelihood of civil war. We simply learn that North and South were economically different. A difference to explain a change…? 

In any case, Brinkley is clearly more interested in culture. He devotes a full paragraph to a description of famous books by Eric Foner and Eugene Genovese, both of whom he describes as making cultural arguments. They are, in a way. They’re answering Question Two. Foner, in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, interprets the thinking of northerners, most of whom were not abolitionists but rather advocates of an ideology of “free labor.” Genovese, in The Political Economy of Slavery, identifies a kind of paranoia among northerners, who were convinced that the slave-ocrats were coming for their jobs and their way of life. The feeling was mutual in the south. That’s what they were thinking. 

That leaves us with an amended version of the original puzzle: Why such a fevered pitch at this time, but not earlier? Why was this what they were thinking at the end of the 1850s, but not at the end of the 1820s or 1830s? Why then and there? 

A Possible Explanation?

The closest Brinkley gets us to something that looks like a genuine explanation, one that a social scientist would recognize, is in the final paragraph, where he finally drops the conceit that the whole debate is about inevitability. In that paragraph, he recounts the argument of Michael Holt’s The Political Crisis of the 1850s. According to Brinkley, Holt argues that the collapse of the Second Party System, “the most effective instrument for containing and mediating sectional differences,” facilitated the polarization of American politics around the issue of slavery.

Better. Holt identifies an institutional change — a new array of parties — to explain a change. But this particular explanation still begs an obvious question, which Brinkley appears to acknowledge. Brinkley goes on to cite another scholar, William Gienapp, who has, he says, an account of why the Second Party System collapsed when and where it did. That explanation appears to have something to do with increased immigration, though Brinkley describes it as “ethnocultural,” on account of the movements against alcohol and immigration associated with those demographic changes. A wink and a nod. 

One last try: On the brink of the civil war, the issue of slavery became more salient in American national politics. Voters began to support parties that committed themselves openly to positions on slavery and its future and abandoned those that avoided the issue. In other words, Americans were becoming more politically polarized. (Sound familiar?) Our students already know this story from our answers to Questions One and Two about the 1850s. We still want to know, why was this the story then and there? 

I’ve already suggested the factors I think are most obvious and pertinent to a serious Question Three inquiry: territorial expansion and immigration. The mechanism through which both connect to our explicandum, the thing we’re trying to explain, is political power. Both changes, geographic and demographic, looked quite ominous for the south, in a way that would be extremely difficult to alter or impede by constitutional means. If all those new territories became states, heavily populated by immigrants, the gig was up for Southerners. They would be perpetually outvoted. Their economic system, entirely reliant upon violence to prop it up, would never again be able to draw upon the coercive powers of the national state. 

Compromise was possible so long as the future remained open — that is, so long as both sides, for and against slavery, could maintain a reasonable hope that they could get a meaningful share of power. Democracies seem to work that way. They work best when the divisions in the electorate are somewhat fluid and overlapping. That way, no matter who you are, you have the reasonable hope that on some important issue, you may one day soon be on the prevailing side. That’s why, on the contrary, emergent democracies in ethnically divided states are so fragile. They tend to reach agreement only on taking turns siphoning off tax revenues for private use. All it takes is one party to cling to the spigot a bit too long to set off violent conflict.

Students Miss Out

The specific answer to an explanatory question is, frankly, less important than the method by which we arrive at it. By failing to acknowledge and follow the logic of explanation, Brinkley’s textbook robs students of the opportunity to learn how to answer an interesting and important type of question. It sets them up for a rude awakening if they end up in a political science or economics class. And, sadly, it deprives them of a chance to learn something that might actually matter to them in their own lives. 

In this particular case, that’s especially poignant. Our students also live in a time of great political polarization. A sizable group of aggrieved white people, more rural and male than average, appear to believe that their futures are uncertain and their liberty threatened by the rule of what they see as a hostile and culturally alien elite class. That group is opposed to what they see as an unwarranted rise in the status and privileges of immigrants and African Americans, abetted by those elites. This group’s stakes in government are not (yet) hopeless. The party they prefer controlled the Senate and presidency until very recently. They have prospects for a return to power, thanks to the rural gerrymander built into our constitutional apportionment of congressional power and some fortuitous appointments to the Supreme Court — assuming, that is, that new states like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia do not join the union. 

We like to tell our students that learning history is useful, that those who fail to learn from the past — you know the rest. Show, don’t tell. I’m particularly vexed by Brinkley’s textbook because he wrote a really first-rate narrative, included some mightily impressive and erudite interpretations, and then completely botched one of few opportunities he gave himself to teach students how to explain things. By doing that, he squandered a wonderful opportunity to help teachers like us to show students that learning from the past is for real, that it can make sense of things we’re still struggling with in our own lives. 

I’ve obviously gone on too long already, and complained up to and beyond my quota. Next time, good news about the rare textbook that gets Q3 (mostly) right. In the meantime, drop me a line below and we’ll set up a time to talk over libations this summer. 

GS

Explaining The Events of January 6th: A Question Three Puzzle

The assault on our nation’s capitol on January 6th was dramatic, frightening, and very unusual. That makes it a prime case for a Question Three puzzle: Why then and there? Question Three is all about patterns and disruptions of patterns. Consider: throughout our history there have been countless demonstrations in Washington, but as Senator Cory Booker reminded us, the houses of congress have not been breached since the war of 1812. So the events of January 6 2021 disrupted a pattern of behavior that lasted over two centuries. Our rule for answering Question Three is, “Explain a change with a change, and a difference with a difference.” This assault was a dramatic change. What underlying change(s) might have made it more likely to happen now? This post attempts to answer that question while taking us through the thinking steps of a Question Three Puzzle.  

Step One: Define Your Explicandum

The “explicandum” is the thing you wish to explain (and yes, that’s a real word!). Defining your explicandum precisely is crucial to good Question Three thinking, and it’s not easy. In this case, we want to know why a mob broke into the capitol building — but we need to be more precise than that. Leaving that question as is drives us toward Question Two thinking. Why did they break in? The people in the mob believed the election was being stolen, and that violence was justified to prevent that from happening. 

Summarizing the perpetrators’ beliefs doesn’t explain why the attack happened, but it does point us toward our explicandum. Remember that we’re trying to precisely articulate something new that happened, that disrupted a long standing pattern. Of course there have always been conspiracy theorists in America, and fringe actors willing to condone and carry out violence. What was new this time was the large number of highly mobilized conspiracy theorists. These conspiracy theorists were not fringe actors attaching themselves to a larger demonstration that was rooted in political reality — this entire demonstration was made up of conspiracy theorists. This was a large rally of people who believe deeply in something that is demonstrably untrue, namely that Donald Trump won both the popular and electoral college vote in the 2020 election. 

So we can define our explicandum this way: Why were there so many people who believed so deeply in lies that they were willing to use violence against their own government? The large numbers of people and the depth of their commitment to an untrue narrative are the changes that need explanation.

Step Two: Identify a Plausibly Relevant Change or Difference

In our Question Three guideline to “Explain a change with a change, or a difference with a difference,” “change” is chronological, and “difference” is geographical. When we’re studying a single society, as we are in this U.S. case, we’re asking what underlying change over time might cause the explicandum. When we’re comparing different societies, say the U.S. and China, we’re looking for underlying differences. 

In this case, the creation of a large mob of deeply committed conspiracy theorists seems plausibly related to the rise of the internet and social media. Facebook, Twitter, and the first touchscreen smartphones all debuted in 2006. Six years later Facebook had a billion users, and by 2016 77% of Americans had a smartphone. All that adds up to a significant underlying change in American society. 

But good Question Three thinking requires a further step. You actually have to explain how the change you’ve identified could plausibly be the cause of the think you wish to explain.

Step Three: Describe A Mechanism That Shows How The Change Or Difference Works

As I said above, there have always been conspiracy theorists in America and people willing to use violence against the U.S. government. But I suspect that the rise of the internet and social media have dramatically increased their numbers and their commitment. Here’s how.

Before the internet, it took real work to become a political conspiracy theorist. You had to listen to someone ranting on a street corner or on late night AM radio, or you had to encounter a conspiratorial newsletter somewhere. You had to find those ideas enticing enough to actively seek them out; you had to find the address of a branch of the John Birch Society, for example, and you had to pay to subscribe to their newsletter. If you created conspiracy content yourself, you had to work pretty hard to find an audience for it. All the large circulation newspapers had editors who would decline to publish your outlandish accusations, and the three major TV networks would not give you air time. On both the supply side and the demand side, the market for conspiracy theories in politics was structurally limited.

Since 2006, the internet and social media have changed all of that. On the internet there are no editors, and Facebook and Twitter profit from feeding people information that they “like.” In economists’ terms, the “barrier to entry” for both consuming and producing conspiratorial content is now extremely low. And the psychological rewards for doing both are significant, as are the financial rewards for the platforms that support it. 

There’s a further mechanism at work here. These platforms make it possible, and in some cases likely, that users will get their “news” from sources that are not committed to any standard of fairness or objectivity. Before the internet, everyone in the country got most of their news from the same few sources. Americans often disagreed about what policies to enact, but there was less disagreement about the basic facts on the ground. (In 4QM terms, we fought about Question Four, but generally agreed about Question One.) 

The structure of social media platforms means that there are many more people than there used to be consuming conspiracy theories, which drives demand for many more people to create conspiracy theories. The social media platforms then allow many more people to live inside their own information bubbles, and some of those bubbles will be largely made of lies. When you have a President who himself lives in a bubble made of lies, you have the ingredients for a national summit meeting of thousands of deluded people who are able to act on their beliefs in a way that we’ve not seen before. 

I think that most of the people who participated in the assault on the capitol would not have done so if they lived in the United States of 2005. Indeed, I suspect that most of them would not be involved in fringe politics at all. But new conditions brought about by new technology has turned thousands of ordinary people into a dangerously unhinged mob.

J. B. 

 

Schools Can’t Fix This

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts put civics instruction at the center of its revision of the Social Studies curriculum frameworks published in 2018. Every 8th grader in the state is meant to study the institutions of the American republic and learn how they work. The governor signed a law that same year that will eventually require every 8th grader to complete a nonpartisan civic action project. Many organizations have stepped up to support this effort by creating curriculum and providing support and training for Massachusetts teachers. The movement is national: iCivics, Project Citizen, and many others advocate for civic education in schools. 

We here at 4QM Teaching share the vision. The explicit goal of our project is to cultivate the thinking skills and habits of mind that prepare young people to become philosopher-citizens. Our students will inherit our democratic republic and become its active stewards. It will thrive or not in their hands. We think that the Four Question Method is a great way to equip them for that awesome responsibility. 

Noble sentiments. I think I still believe them. 

Schools, Teachers, and The Mob

Two weeks ago, a sitting president encouraged an angry mob to attack the US Congress in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Our republic is broken. I’m not convinced that anyone knows how to fix it. This, however, I’m sure of: schools did not create this problem. They are surely not equipped to solve it. 

That won’t stop us from trying. When bad things happen in the world, particularly things that move and touch us personally, many teachers feel strongly that they should address those bad things in their classrooms. That’s an inspiring and noble impulse. It’s a way to model civic awareness and engagement. 

It’s likely, then, that many teachers, especially social studies teachers, will want to redouble their efforts in the wake of our current constitutional crisis. For that, and many other reasons, teachers are among the finest people I know. They care about the world and they care about their students, and will stay up late many nights in a row in order to help students their care as well. 

We Can’t Fix This

Nevertheless, I say to my dear friends and esteemed colleagues: we can’t fix this. I understand the temptation to think otherwise. After all, we are in the thinking business. We equip young people with knowledge, and train them to acquire more of it. It’s tempting, then, to think that we can do something about a political problem that, on its face, appears to be rooted in cognitive dysfunction. People believe false reports they read on social media. They put stock in conspiracy theories. They accept exaggeration and outright lying from politicians and pundits. You’d think that people in the knowledge and thinking business, especially ones who are explicitly committed to civics education, would have an important role to play in addressing our national crisis. 

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that we can solve that crisis with the enlightenment tools that are our stock-in-trade. People who distrust the government don’t suffer from lack of knowledge of the US Constitution or the three branches of government. They’re not confused because they don’t know how a bill becomes a law or what a political party is. Nor is the problem that too many people lack training in how to vet sources on the internet. That’s an independent problem, one we should certainly address in schools. But people don’t join militias or QAnon because they’re confused about a web page’s point of view or what the role of an editor is. People who have grown skeptical and impatient with our constitutional procedures are not lacking information or techniques for assessing it. They are motivated to find the information that addresses their underlying passions and grievances. 

Our crisis is political. It will have to be addressed that way — through politics — or left to fester. Schools already do what they can. Schools feed children and their families. They provide them with health care and counseling. They identify abuse and offer protection. They care for the severely disabled. Individual teachers in the thousands and tens of thousands make life-saving connections to young people every year. Teachers don’t just teach. They lift spirits and save lives. 

For sure, teach about the election and its aftermath. Teach about the presidential transition and the constitutional arrangements that frame it. Teach about the mob attack and social media and the crisis of contemporary American democracy. Teach civics. It’s important, still. 

Meanwhile, the big “we” — the entire adult membership of the American polity — we’re the ones who own this problem. We will solve it or not using the rickety political institutions we’ve inherited and whatever new forms of organization we can shore up beside them. This is a grown-up problem. 

G.S.