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“You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation,” former President Donald Trump told the collection of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and would-be instigators of a second civil war who rallied with him in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. The crowd cheered at the idea that people like them — mostly white, mostly male — were the true heroes of American history. Then they ransacked the Capitol.

Most Americans were appalled. But many were not, and they agreed with the rhetoric motivating the crowd. In Arizona, Tara Immen, who joined a protest against the election results at the state capitol, told The Washington Post that she thought it was “fantastic” to see a mob storming through D.C. “I personally love it because you know what? It’s how this country was built, the way our Founding Fathers stormed the British Empire.”

High school social studies teachers and scholars of American history don’t deny that the nation’s story is full of mobs, civil unrest and violence. White supremacists and xenophobes have often wielded force to suppress the votes and voices of others, and to keep power and wealth for themselves.

Teachers ask if education bears responsibility for the rise in political extremism. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

Many educators were dismayed that so many Americans see that history as heroic and believe violence is acceptable in a constitutional democracy. Teachers took to social media to agonize about whether the attacks this month and the growing political extremism of the last several years could be traced back to the failings of their profession.

“Each person knocking down those doors once sat in a classroom,” wrote sixth grade teacher Christie Nold in a Tweet that prompted hundreds of responses. Author Andrea Gabor called the violence a “Sputnik moment for teaching civics.”

As Americans survey the damage to our democracy, how much can we blame schools for the vast divide between how different groups understand our shared history? Should we expect schools to develop engaged and responsible democratic citizens? And what happens when we don’t? How much of the polarization, lost faith in our electoral system and rise of political extremism can we attribute to what students learned — or didn’t learn — in school?

According to political scientists, historians and educators themselves, it’s complicated.

“I wouldn’t say it’s only the schools, nor would I blame the schools,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. Other institutions, along with a lack of leadership, have played a role in the current crisis, he said. A solution for America’s political crisis isn’t possible if citizens don’t have a firm grasp of what’s causing the problem. “The pathology is white supremacy,” he said. “It’s baked into institutions. It’s baked into aspects of our culture.” Public schools must teach students about democratic struggles over suffrage and civil rights and the nation’s history of white supremacy. “You can’t heal a disease until you understand the pathology,” Grossman said.

Related: Why students are ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement

What you learn about U.S. history and democracy depends on where you live, however. American students lack a shared foundation in U.S. history and civics, and many leave school with big gaps in political knowledge.

In Alabama, students are required to learn in detail about the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, while across the state line, in Mississippi, some school textbooks give substantially more space to the leadership of the state’s white supremacist politicians than to Black activists. A CBS investigation last year found that standards in seven states don’t directly mention slavery and that eight don’t mention the Civil Rights Movement. “Only two states mention white supremacy, while 16 states list states’ rights as a cause of the Civil War,” the investigation found.

Schools can influence students’ political formation but factors outside of school also play a role. Credit: Sarah Garland/The Hechinger Report

But do these vast differences play a role in forming the politics of future citizens? That’s something political scientists and education experts have debated for decades. “High quality civic education is essential to ensure that this generation of young people is fully prepared to participate wisely and well in the political and civic realms,” said Diana Hess, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of education and an expert in civic and political education. “That said, the crisis of epic proportions facing our democracy was caused by a confluence of factors and certainly should not be blamed solely or even primarily on what did or did not happen in our schools.”

Research has found that people with less education are more likely to be racist and hostile to people of color, and that more educated people have more political knowledge and are more politically active. Young people who went to college were “20 percentage points more likely to vote than those who had not attended college” in the 2016 election. While education levels are not related to conservative beliefs about economic policy, they are related to conservative beliefs about the value of cultural diversity. Other studies have found that more educated people are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories, and that students who learned civic media literacy in school were more likely to correctly identify misinformation.

At the same time, researchers have said that it can be hard to discern which parts of schooling shape people’s political identity, because schools are such complicated places. And while it’s clear that schools matter, the size of that influence is debatable. Or, as journalist Stephen Sawchuk has written, “A history education rooted in facts, evidence, and well-argued positions might be a beginning step toward healthier, more productive, and more engaged citizenry. But it is hardly an inoculation. Rather, it is more like the first in what has to be a sequence of booster shots.”

Other factors outside school, including social media, parents, peers, churches, the media, social class, segregation and rising income inequality exert varying degrees of influence on how Americans fill information gaps, form their political views and act politically. At the same time, civic life outside of schools has become more disconnected as unions and churches have become less influential; one reason “Americans trust each other less may be that they no longer engage in the large, connected civic associations that predominated in the twentieth century,” according to Tufts University researchers Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg.

“Each person knocking down those doors once sat in a classroom.”

Sixth grade teacher Christie Nold

In their book, “The Political Classroom,” Hess and Paula McAvoy write that “social inequality and political polarization are problems far too complicated to be corrected by schools.” They add that “The interplay between what students bring into the classroom and what they experience in school is complex and does not lend itself to easy or definitive answers.”

The role education plays can also be inverted in some cases: Studies of people drawn to extremist movements abroad have found that higher education levels can be more associated with radicalization, and some people who joined or supported the insurrection at the Capitol were highly educated.

Still, most experts are convinced that the quality of education and what students actually learn in school is both relevant and even crucial to the sorts of citizens they become — and what will become of our democracy. 

Martha Bouyer developed and directs Stony the Road, a training program for teachers about the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama. “Education is key,” she said. We can’t teach “young people this myth that there are people in this nation who don’t deserve certain things.”

Related: Last week was tough, teachers say. But it wasn’t the first difficult ‘day after’ they’ve faced

Teachers should instead arm “students with an honest account of our nation’s political DNA,” argues Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, a high school social studies teacher who serves on the board of Rethinking Schools, a magazine about social and racial justice in education. Researchers know a lot about the sort of curriculum that works well — one that includes not only learning the facts of history and the branches of government, but also that democracy depends on debate. Hess says schools must fill kids’ “intellectual knapsacks” with ideas like the principle of free and fair elections; skills such as how to talk to people they disagree with about politics; and the ability to fact check so they are less susceptible to misinformation and outright propaganda. Practicing and participating in debates and political simulations is also key.

political extremism
Along with demonstrators, supporters of former President Donald J. Trump showed up for the opening day of the new civil rights museum; one supporter looks at a list of those who were lynched.  Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, said that because good history and civics instruction invites discussions about controversial topics, good classroom culture is especially important. “It’s peeling onions a little bit: Does a teacher have a trusting relationship? Does every student feel like they matter?” she said.

Ashley Woodson, a diversity scholar at the University of Michigan and director of the Abolitionist Teaching Network’s Virtual Freedom School, said she’s seen “the political imagination and identity development of young people change trajectories” based on new content and ideas they’ve encountered in school. As for what happens outside school, she suggests challenging students to think critically about the influences in their lives that have shaped their political opinions.

“Let’s disrupt what you thought you knew,” Woodson says: “Why is that your position on abortion, whatever your position might be? Why is this your position on gun rights? Because you’ve been socialized to believe that this is the only option for you to hold.” The goal for schools, she added, isn’t to push students left or right, but to ask them to deconstruct their own political development as a way to prepare them to be active, engaged and thoughtful citizens as adults.

Social studies classes shouldn’t frame conflict as a problem, but as a challenge, said Kawashima-Ginsberg. “This is the moment to step into those disagreements,” she added.

But Christie Nold, the middle school teacher, said that just as schools get involved when students need help academically, they must watch for and intercede when students are drawn into political extremism. “I don’t want to push this outside of the school system,” she said, because “we know that young people are being actively recruited.”

Whether schools have the time and resources to fit all of this into the school day is another matter. “You can’t blame the teachers and starve the teachers at the same time,” said Grossman. “We’ve starved our public schools, so you can’t say it’s the fault of the public schools unless you say it’s the fault of the American public for refusing to pay the taxes required to support an effective educational system.”

We can’t teach “young people this myth that there are people in this nation who don’t deserve certain things.”

Martha Bouyer, director and developer of Stony the Road

Jinnie Spiegler, director of curriculum and training for the Anti-Defamation League’s education program, said an overemphasis on reading, writing and math because of high-stakes testing put social studies on the backburner. “I think we’re seeing that frankly,” she said of the Capitol attacks and the political extremism that led to them. “It’s hard to prove a cause-and-effect relationship — the lack of civics, lack of civil discourse and the lack of understanding how government works, because there are other factors there,” she said. “But it definitely doesn’t help that people don’t understand it.”

Teachers also need time to fill in their own gaps in learning. Noorya Hayat, a senior researcher at CIRCLE, said a “targeted approach to supporting teachers can boost their confidence.” Already, the racial justice protests and the launch of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which centers American history around slavery and its consequences and the experience of Black Americans, have galvanized many educators, Woodson said. But without more support from their schools and the public, many teachers won’t be able to “stop everything that they’re doing … and make these changes without a raise, without an additional workday,” Woodson said. Beyond the extra time required, the work means more emotional and intellectual labor.

“I don’t think that’s realistic,” she said.

Relying on teachers alone to do the work is also likely to exacerbate the divides that already exist. Trump directly criticized “critical race theory, the 1619 project and the crusade against American history” as “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together” earlier this year, as quoted by Politico, and quite a few members of the mob at the Capitol this month were teachers. Some are turning to the 1776 Unites curriculum, a conservative response to the 1619 Project focused on the personal agency and accomplishments of Black Americans. The curriculum launched the same month that the then-president formed the “1776 Commission” to create a more “patriotic” education to counter “left-wing indoctrination in our schools.”

New President Joe Biden ended the commission and withdrew the report it published on his first day in office.

“You can’t blame the teachers and starve the teachers at the same time.”

James Grossman, American Historical Association

Bill Bigelow, co-director of the Zinn Education Project, argues that schools must do more than present an uplifting version of American history, because a “no-big-deal approach to racial injustice” is partly what brought us to this crisis. He said educators and schools should instead help students consider and debate earlier seismic struggles over American democracy.

Reconstruction, Bigelow added, is a perfect example to help students understand the political extremism of the current moment. “There were wonderful things happening. There were people of conscience who were trying to reconstruct the society in all kinds of wonderful ways,” he said. “And there were people who felt threatened by that and who were organizing violence.” During the post-Civil War period, the United States had to decide whether to commit to justice and equality, or whether there would be an “effort to reestablish the racial hierarchy of slavery with another name.”

Bouyer, of Stony the Road, also sees this moment as an inflection point for American society. “I pray to God we don’t miss it,” she said.

“The Jan 6. event — they’ve been taught this hatred. They’ve been taught that Black people don’t deserve American citizenship,” she added. “We’ve got to teach a more inclusive education that shows the contribution of all people, and the role of citizens in maintaining democracy. We have to work for it.”

This story about political extremism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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