A year ago I was excited about the US election. Just as comedy news show hosts like Jon Stewart would get giddy at the prospect of a disaster candidate providing endless comedic material, I as a teacher of AP US Government and Politics was really looking forward to how the farcical nonsense that a candidate like Donald Trump creates would engage my students.
Well, over a year later and engaged they are! I think it's fair to say that my students over the past two school years have been able to explain a range of forces with a depth of understanding that far surpasses my expectations. From dark money to Citizen's United, from the role of "extreme" voters in primaries to the inadequacies of a first-past-the-post electoral system, from political polarization to the quiet filibuster, from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, my students understand US politics vastly better than the average American. This election is most definitely one of the main motivating factors.
But this election has also really scraped the bottom of the barrel of human decency, and I'd really rather it be over with. I was one of the people who wrong-headedly thought that Trump never stood a chance of winning the Republican nomination, much less had a serious shot at the presidency. I underestimated the capacity of a populist strong man candidate like Trump to effectively voice the collective exasperations of white working class males, however incoherent, racist, sexist, and xenophobic that voice may be.
This election stopped being funny many months ago. Putting his disgusting, hate-filled rhetoric and behaviour aside, Trump has claimed he would default on the US debt to pay it back at a discount, which would bring down the entire global financial system (since all lending risk is stabilized by confidence in the US dollar), and claimed today in the second debate that he would use his executive authority as president to jail his political opponent. This is the stuff of which tinpot dictators are made.
Were Trump's cultural authoritarianism to gain legal force and effect, and a political mandate to boot, the world could see a sharp reversal of democratic legitimacy in the US government, whose moral authority in the world has already been declining (The NSA? Iraq? ISIS? Drones? Kill lists, anyone?). I'm no fan of Hillary Clinton. Indeed, I could go on about why at great length. But the notion that these two candidates are equally bad is completely absurd. Trump is dangerous, full stop.
While this election has been useful pedagogically in many ways, what concerns me is the extent to which it might deepen political apathy amongst the young. We already know that political interest tends to be significantly lower amongst young people. Same goes with voter turnout. While Bernie Sanders' calls for a "political revolution" excited--indeed, arguably politicized--many thousands of young people, there is little reason to think that a Clinton presidency will keep that flame alive. After all, Hillary is hardly a voice for systemic change, and even at her best she will face an oppositional Republican Congress. While I think young people will breathe a sigh of relief if and when Trump loses, I don't see many of them getting excited about Clinton and party-politics-as-usual either.
What Can Social Studies Educators Do To Increase Civic Engagement?
In my view, there are a lot of flaws in standard social studies approaches to teaching kids about the world and how to have a positive impact in it. There is also a lot we could do to make social studies more engaging and meaningful to kids. I'll got through the ones percolating to top of my head, which is by no means an exhaustive list.
1) Shift the Curricular Bias Away From Understanding the Past. While I certainly find history fascinating, and indeed I think most kids do once teachers get good at problematizing the curriculum to force critical thinking to make material engaging, the utility of history is still questionable. The unassailable fact is that the vast majority of what students learn in history courses is soon forgotten. It's simply how our brains work. This begs the question: why do we study history at all?
I think most history teachers would put forward at least two good arguments. On the one hand, history teachers teach not only content, but also historical thinking skills. These skills include highly transferable skills, such as understanding causation, perspective-taking, analyzing and applying primary source evidence, and so on, that are essential elements of critical thinking, more broadly. On the other hand, many history teachers would point to politicians like Trump and say, "Aha! This is why we must study history! If we don't learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them!" I very much agree with this line of reasoning. However, it is much harder to convince people that "learning the lessons of history" is important apart from seemingly dire situations in which deeply held values and democratic institutions are under threat.
One of the issues with social studies departments being so focused on history, which in many cases is to the exclusion of other important subjects, is that historical knowledge is almost always inert knowledge. That is, there is almost nothing we can do with most most historical knowledge. Yes, Napoleon is interesting. But so what? What is actionable for a fifteen year-old (or for that matter, a fifty year-old) about understanding Napoleon? I'm sorry to say it, but basically nothing. And so goes it for almost the entirety of history! In fact, the further back we go into understanding the civilizational past, the less useful this knowledge becomes.
But does this mean history doesn't matter and should be discarded from curricula? Of course not. Rather, what I think it means is that the purposes for, and means through which we teach history need some re-imagining. History is useful--nay, crucial--for understanding most any event or development occurring in the world. What historical understanding does is provide the context for understanding what is going on, for better or worse. One simply cannot properly explain Putin or ISIS or terrorism or poverty alleviation or whatever without understanding the historical context behind developments.
What I think this implies is that rather than trying to get kids to care about and learn the entirety of the recorded past, what we should do is to elicit what issues and problems kids care about in the present, and then use history as a set of concepts and tools for contextualizing problems and hence deepening understanding. Doing this would require a lot of careful planning but would not be difficult for a dedicated team of teachers. We would need courses with problem-focused curricula. Understanding problems that affect kids, like racialized policing, debt, sexual assault on college campuses, or whatever would need to be viewed with, and taught from, an integrated, multidisciplinary approach. Any of the aforementioned, and indeed most any problem one can think of, has political, economic, social, demographic, cultural, and historical causes and permutations. Simply teaching the broad span of history and making perfunctory "connections" to real-life is massively inferior to focusing on what is wrong with the world and using history as one of several lenses through which to understand and think through ways to alleviate problems kids care about.
2) Shift the Curricular Bias Away From Understanding Government Structures. The AP curriculum in particular is oddly focused on getting kids to understand how the government works. While I see the point of this in AP US Government and Politics, in AP Comparative Government and Politics, on the other hand, I have found this baffling since day one. Comparative political scientists put a stop to trying to learn anything from cross-national institutional comparison literally decades ago because it is mostly useless for understanding the relationship between governmental structure and political process. This is because such a project expunges culture from the analysis. What is the point of comparing Mexico's electoral system with Iran's? What works in one country will most likely not work--or at the very least will not work the same way--in another country. For this reason, I would argue that AP Comp Gov is by far the worst AP course in terms of practical utility, The knowledge in this case is not just inert, it is anachronistic.
Now, understanding how the US government functions is most certainly important as a basic component of civic education for Americans (or anyone who wants to know how the world works). But the problem is that the focus on structure comes largely to the exclusion of a focus on political processes and political phenomena. Rather than being, at best, a secondary objective, helping kids research, understand, analyze, debate, and reflect on political problems should be the main focus of political education. Not only is it vastly more interesting and engaging for basically every single student, it makes the content of courses more meaningful from the standpoint of civic engagement.
What message are kids being sent when they spend 80% of their time in politics courses on learning how the governmental institutions work? They learn that it is government that matters--not them. It is the elected leaders that make the decisions that matter--not them. In other words, they learn that citizenship is about voting and then watching from the sidelines. They learn that citizenship is passive.
If we are truly committed to creating active citizens, do we not have a responsibility to help kids learn about how politics impacts their lives? Shouldn't we aim to instil mindsets of inquiry, critical evaluation, and problem-solving? How can we do any of that when 40% of our time is supposed to be spent on the three branches of government? I'm very fortunate to teach in a context where I am not limited by the curriculum, where I can extend it to connect curricular concepts to real world events and to my students' future lives as students in US universities. But if we want serious, widespread youth engagement and to curtail apathy, the governmental system-centricity of AP and other politics courses needs to be re-engineered.
3) Overcome the Inaction Orientation of Social Studies Curricula. The intended curricula in most social studies courses are not only inert in terms of knowledge utility, they embed an orientation of inaction towards problems in the world. I think most social studies teachers might agree that this is perhaps the most fundamental problem with what we do.
Now, of course there are curricula like the International Baccalaureate (IB) that have major service learning components, and in fact a lot of schools do this extremely well. But it is also noteworthy that very few embed active civic engagement as a core component of mainstream social studies courses. The Futures Academy at the International School of Beijing is a notable exception in that this middle years "school within a school" uses a cross-disciplinary PBL approach that embeds community engagement in all of its units. However, I have been hard-pressed to find examples of schools or courses that do this is a systematic way in high school courses. I really feel that it is in the ages of 15-18 that active social engagement is most important for pre-empting political apathy in our youth. We are really missing a major opportunity here.
One development I have seen some schools move towards is promoting civic engagement through social innovation and social entrepreneurship. I feel that these are promising moves. Social innovation is about solving social problems through means that are novel and more "effective, efficient, sustainable or more just than current solutions." When such efforts are revenue-generating, they fall under the sub-category of social entrepreneurship. The basic approach in schooling is to get kids to identify problems in their school or community for which they can develop possible solutions. The major benefits of such an approach are that students develop problem-solving mindsets and are oriented towards taking action in a pro-social ways from a young age.
Design Thinking is another approach to potentially creating more actively engaged young citizens. Design Thinking is a cognitive approach to designing innovative solutions for problems that is employed by product designers and has been popularized by the d.School at Stanford University. It is a human-centred approach in the sense that students become innovators first and foremost by empathizing with the people they aim to help by understanding their context, needs, and aspirations through interviewing and ethnographic research. Only once they understand the "user" they aim to help do they define the problem, ideate, prototype and test potential solutions. Design Thinking aligns perfectly with social innovation by providing a procedural means to that end. For educators, Design Thinking and social innovation can provide great direction for, and impetus to, PBL, of course, but also to developing actively engaged global citizens.
The challenge comes in the course design. We need to start by seeing active citizenship as a set of curriculum standards in themselves--and not as possible desirable by-products of social studies teaching and learning. We then need to apply a Design Thinking process ourselves to course re-design. Currently, I'm trying to do so in my AP Seminar and International Relations courses, as those are the ones over which I have the most creative freedom and flexibility.
In AP Seminar, our next unit is entitled, Shaping the Future of PAS. Students will engage in a Design Thinking process to analyze ways in which to apply emerging technologies (AI, AR, VR, Big Data, the Cloud, the Internet of Things, etc.) to our new campus. Teams will interview and observe the various users, from the Head of School, to the teachers, to the students, to the support staff and parents, and will make a series of proposals to a panel at a major school event on Thanksgiving. I'm really excited to see what they comes up with.
But all this is experimental so far. What I'd really like to do is work with a team of awesome teachers to begin rethinking and redesigning courses to focus them on getting kids to problem-solve issues that matter and to find ways to take action. To the extent that such behaviours might become normalized, I think social studies would do a much greater service than it currently tends to in developing active civic engagement, innovative mindsets, and a deeper and more enjoyable learning experience overall.