Annals of Social Studies Education Research for Teachers ASSERT

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A Call to Action for Social Studies Teachers to Save American Democracy

The storming of the Capitol Building on January 6th by Trump loyalists, rioters, insurrectionist, and would-be-usurpers represents a shocking, but wholly predictable consequence of Trumpism. What surprised some of us most is that it wasn’t worse. It is stunning how quickly civil society can fall apart. A quick look to the Balkans and Rwanda ought to provide sufficient proof of that reality. It can happen here, it very nearly did.

We were struck by President Elect Joe Biden’s statement that the events at the Capitol “do not reflect a true America, do not reflect who we are.” What if “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol” do reflect a true America? It is important for us to answer this question in a serious way. The short answer is yes. Many in the U.S. and around the world have come to recognize it as a country in decline, one whose peoples are divided and uninterested in understanding those who think differently, whose politicians are more interested in power than legislation, whose priorities have been to enrich a few and impoverish the many, whose media is dedicated to proffering outrage instead of information, and whose institutions mete out justice unequally according to race.

Trump and his would-be coup partisans are not the cause of the U.S.’s civic disease, they are a frightening symptom of decades of viciousness and rapacious excess that has decimated its people’s opportunities and crippled the commons. The stark difference between the brutal police/military response to peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in Lafayette Square and the careless, derelict, and in some cases collaborationist response to a violent attack against the sitting government makes clear once more that White Supremacy is very much woven into the fabric of American life. This is not an intellectual problem; it is an existential one.

Decades of tumult in a rapidly changing world have inexorably altered the landscape of life in the United States; the American dream people had been told to believe in evaporated around them. There's a psychological concept known either as 'worldview threat' or 'ontological insecurity’ which translates to having your world turned upside down, where everything you believe in and value begins to dissipate. People who suffer this phenomenon feel besieged (Catte, 2019; Cramer, 2017; Wurthnow, 2018). They are much more susceptible to dangerous populist rhetoric, conspiracies, and hate because it reflects their feelings that things are not right in the world and gives them someone to blame for their plight. Most dangerously, people in this state are inoculated against facts. Despite Ben Shapiro’s oft quoted rebuke that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” feelings are embodied; they hold primacy to the person feeling them. The feeling cannot be dismissed with rationality, nor can rationality gain mental purchase without the benefit of emotional ballast.

The European Enlightenment can take us only so far. We need to look elsewhere for wisdom traditions to bring us back into balance. The Blackfoot peoples have a fruitful approach to this problem. They point out, helpfully, that you can't think your way out of a feeling problem. If you don't address feeling first, what follows is wrong-thinking and wrong-action that will sicken rather than heal the nation. No amount of effort to change the thinking or acting of Americans will alter what ails the body politic until the nation addresses the deeply held resentments (on the Right and Left) and the conditions that foster them. The Zulu concept, Ubuntu, likewise provides an ethic to approach this effort at remediation. Its fundamental teaching, we are human only through the humanity of others and that we uplift ourselves when we uplift others, stands in stark contrast to the Neoliberal notion that the rising tide lifts all boats. Importantly, both of these traditions have provided avenues for change through Truth and Reconciliation, which the U.S. needs desperately to consider.

As social studies teachers, we stand on the front-line of democracy. What and how we teach matters. We know that. Teaching is a political act. And it is time that we face the reality that how and what we are teaching is not sufficient to heal what ails the civic body. We must begin in earnest articulate why we teach, to what ends, and to articulate our common values so that we may thrive together because, not in spite, of each other. We must exercise our political muscle to unravel the corrosive effects that the de-funding of public schools, collapsing social institutions, and finally NCLB has wrought. We must endeavor to create and invigorate community and educational ecosystems that nurture and uplift in ways that are both just and equitable. Human beings need to learn to communicate with each other across difference, carry with them a robust critical media disposition, a fulsome understanding of their collective histories, and the capacity to discern fact from fiction. We do not believe the U.S. can do this without us, without you. It is with urgency that we must join together across universities, K-12 classrooms, and borders to catalyze our work into systemic change. Help us connect. Help us organize. Share this call with teachers everywhere. ASSERT Yourself.

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In the meantime, here are some resources for your classroom:


Current Issue

Vol. 1 No. 1 (2020): Teaching Controversial Issues

In this issue, we are proud to present six works representing the scholarship of seven scholars whose scholarship has focused on teaching controversial issues.

Published: 2020-09-24


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