This autumn, if all goes well1, I’ll take charge of my own classroom of high schoolers for the first time in 25 years! That’s how long it’s been since I last served as a full-time teacher, though I’ve worked closely with young people ever since, in my stints as a minister and a women’s rights activist.
I’m going back to the classroom with a much greater sense of purpose than last time. 25 years ago, I was mostly just happy to get started in my first job after finishing college. But now, I’m diving back in, convinced that good social studies (or social science, if you prefer) teachers are needed as much as they’ve ever been, given the extraordinary challenges we Americans confront in the Age of Trump.
Because They Provide Context
That’s because, first of all, students across the country are experiencing more intense social turmoil in their communities than in many generations. Politics is a big cause of it, and the president’s words and policies themselves are putting significant stress on many teens. I don’t recall so many teenagers ever being so worried for the state of their country. In my lifetime, most have barely had to acknowledge that anything reported in the news even concerned them.
The issues that students feel anxious about are many. They include firearms of mass destruction and regular school lockdown drills, refugees seeking asylum and how welcoming we should be as a nation, race and the resurgence of hate groups that believe Trump supports them, religion and whether the free exercise of it can be discriminatory, gender-based violence and holding perpetrators accountable, the acceptance and rights of persons identifying as LGBTQ, the place of American military and economic might in the world, and the chaos and abundant corruption in the Trump Administration, not to mention the mounting evidence of the president’s own involvement. But social studies teachers are uniquely poised to calm students as they educate them, by providing context. They inform young people of who we are (geography, sociology, and psychology), where we’ve come from (history), the choices we now face (government and economics), and the implications of those choices. Good social studies teachers can help students to feel more confident that this period of time in our nation’s history, though very difficult, will pass, and the nation will survive.
Because They Empower Informed, Well-Reasoned Actions
If early 20th century philosopher George Santayana’s saying is true – that is, people “who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – then effective social studies teachers are collectively helping rising generations to avoid the mistakes of their elders and ancestors.
At the same time, they don’t tell students what to think. They teach young people to evaluate critically the flood of inputs they receive daily through news and entertainment media. While bombarded by the numerous sources of disinformation intruding into their social media feeds, students can gain vital tools for a lifetime of critical thinking from their social studies teachers.
Government teachers get to then equip students to turn their informed, well-reasoned opinions into impactful action. My supervising teacher at Austin High back in Texas, the occasionally gruff but always golden-hearted and generous Brian Schenk, encouraged students to visit city council meetings and even to speak during public comment. On the first day of the semester, he told them how they could contact their congressional representative and senators. Demystifying the American system of government, and showing students how easy it is for them to be engaged citizens, is one of the highest privileges for a social studies teacher.
Because They Promote Civility
Among the most serious problems that have befallen our country in recent years is the deterioration of civil dialogue and any semblance of national unity. This didn’t begin with the current president, but he has, without a doubt, exploited and exacerbated it. But good social studies teachers can help their students to learn not just how to make a point, but to express it respectfully. And as they moderate student discussions and debates on hot topics, they can also help teens to grow in their empathy toward others who have different opinions, guiding young people to hear and understand the real concerns and fears behind the rhetoric. As these students grow into adulthood and take greater leadership roles, they can bring the civility that they’ve learned into their communities.
Truth be told, examples of empathy, understanding, and civility seem in short supply among all political viewpoints these days. But one American who possessed an abundance of these qualities was Jack Kemp. A former pro quarterback and 18-year congressman from Buffalo, he served as President George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Though I’m fairly progressive these days, in the summer of 1992 I stood on the floor of the Republican National Convention, listening to the future vice presidential nominee talk to his party of its need to learn from that year’s Los Angeles riots and to change. Among other things, Kemp said, “We must be the party that gives all people a stake in the system and a stake in each other.”
I’d like to amend that slightly to make it a statement of support for my fellow social studies teachers, as well as a reminder to myself:
We must be the profession that shows all students their stake in the system and their stake in each other.
Empathy, understanding, civility. Social studies teachers get to show the way.
My fellow social studies teachers, though our subject has perhaps been downgraded in importance in the age of school accountability standards, we are as vital as we’ve ever been! Without exaggeration, our country, our communities, and the young people of America need us – desperately.
1 I’m substitute teaching at the moment and seeking a social studies teaching position in the Los Angeles/Orange County region. I’m also open to teaching math, as I have both social studies and math authorizations on my California single-subject credential. Call me, maybe?