• Jennifer Smith

I'm A Social Studies Teacher. What Will I Teach If America's Democracy Ends?

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

I’ve spent my entire career teaching America’s youth. Whether I’ve taught students about other countries or America, my instructional foundation has centered on America’s core values of freedom and democracy.

Yet in recent years, I have limited my discussions of American politics in the classroom to avoid causing too much conflict. I had to carefully tailor my lessons during the Trump years. It seems political issues disappeared and critiques became personal. Sharing opposing solutions was no longer permitted.

The purpose for teaching about our history, government, and Constitution is to help create an informed citizenry. When the President of the United States deems journalists as “fake news”, what can I do as a teacher? Am I to fact check the President? Will then the students view him as a liar? Parents are not up for that kind of challenge.

For example, in January 2021, many of the rioters believed that the Constitution permitted Vice President Pence to overturn the electoral ballots. Completely untrue, but you ask any one of those people, and they firmly believed it was a legal option and that Mike Pence was intending to do so. What am I to do if one of their children is in my classroom? Do I contradict the parents? Likely, I would provide a copy of the Constitution, but what is the reaction I face from home? Is my job at risk?

So much misinformation exists, facts no longer exist. Anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-race beliefs limit my abilities to hold rational debate in the classroom. Parents' aggressive tactics, like bringing zip ties to the school as a threat, make teachers think twice about what topics they want to broach with students. What is it safe to teach?

Our country's polarization is emotional, not rational. Where does this leave educators as more polarizing politicians are elected? Moving forward, how will I teach if our democracy is defeated in 2022? Will I be allowed to educate students on the January 6th event? Will I be accused of teaching “incorrect facts”?

What if an autocratic leader defeats democracy in 2024? What if free speech is restricted? What if not everyone has the ability to vote anymore? Don’t roll your eyes and laugh at me. These are real possibilities. And if you don’t believe me, you are seriously uninformed. The voting rights legislation being pushed in Texas to limit people’s abilities to vote and restrictions in many states on teaching about race undermine the fundamental principles of democracy.

I am not the sort of teacher who preaches a political party. I educate students. I teach them how to think, not what to think. But, part of educating students in that way leads me to compare our democracy to that of China and North Korea. Free speech is limited. Freedom of assembly is not permitted. Think: Hong Kong protests for democracy.

Current events are a core component of most social studies classes. Helping our youth to understand the world is part of our role as teachers. As well, we help them to think critically and examine issues from multiple sides.

In our current political climate, current events topics are restricted. Many politicians are attempting to eliminate the topic of race relations from being taught or discussed in the classroom. Even books are being censored. And at the present moment, we still call ourselves a democracy.

How can I teach the importance of free speech? How can I teach free assembly? Will freedom of religion be permissible? All of these are crucial components of a healthy democracy. Will I be expected to teach about our “supreme leader”? Or perhaps I’ll be required to teach about the healthy and strong political party in power?

Will challenges to government decisions be acceptable? Will I be able to explain why people protest against their own governments? Will I be able to explain why Black Lives Matter protests occur? Unlikely, as some states currently enacted legislation to prohibit that education already. Will I be able to educate our youth in the importance of voting and encouraging everyone to vote?

Healthy debate, discussion, and new ideas are important aspects of democracy. If we cannot allow these, what will we have?

If I cannot teach the components of a healthy democracy, what would I teach?

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