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.