Learning about “American” ideologies, values, and identities in public schools
By | Jarrod Hanson, PhD
The connection between the educational system in the US and the idea of being or becoming an “American” is complex, and that is illustrated by the many important issues raised in the central article for this issue. One key idea the piece raises is that there are American ideals that should be taught as aspirational and that are worthy of sustained consideration. I want to explore this idea within the context of a recent initiative to reform history and civic education.
Educating for American Democracy (2021) recently released The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, which provides curriculum guidance in this area through a “framework for excellence in history and civics for all learners.” Many of the key ideas in the report resonate with the ideas in the central article of this issue. Both point out a need to provide an inclusive history of the US and recognition of common ideals and principles that are foundational to American government. The Roadmap also recognizes some of the tensions that arise when educating about an inclusive history, common ideals, and shared principles. I want to explore some of those tensions here.
Presenting an inclusive and honest history will naturally lead to questions about American ideals. The history of many Americans is a history of subjugation and marginalization. Such a history calls into question the reality and substance of claimed American ideals, such as liberty and equality. James Baldwin well described this mental dissonance when he was asked in school to pledge allegiance to a flag that assured liberty and justice for all (1963). Yet when he looked around, he was continually reminded that those ideals of liberty and justice were not true for all and that he was living in a country not built for him. He recalls going to a White part of town as a young boy, looking around, and thinking, “You know—you know instinctively—that none of this is for you” (Baldwin, 1963, p. 8).
This presents a challenge. Some argue that students must be taught a patriotic history of the US because it serves “as a glue for an extraordinarily diverse republic” (Cohen, 2020, para. 6). A patriotic history is seen as a means for creating attachment between citizen and state. But how can one create an attachment to something which holds no reality for them? Perhaps one could argue that, regardless of circumstances, the ideals hold true, and progress toward making American ideals a reality for all is happening. It is this argument that grounds civic reform efforts that call for providing a better education about the founding of the country and the origins of these ideals. The argument is that, by providing more background on the founding of the nation, teaching students about the documents that codified these ideals, and combining that with a narrative of progress, students will feel sufficiently attached to the country to engage in good citizenship.
This approach can be seen in current bill SB21-067(2021), recently passed by the Colorado General Assembly, that calls for students to learn the “fundamentals of the American republic,” including instruction about the “foundational documents” of the United States. The foundational documents that the bill explicitly mentions are the US and Colorado Constitutions (including the Bills of Rights of each) and the Declaration of Independence. This bill also requires that students receive instruction on such civic knowledge as the history and heritage of the nation. All of this together is intended to create civic-minded citizens with an attachment to and disposition to participate in the American project.
However, approaches like this suffer from the tensions mentioned above. If students learn an honest and inclusive history, they may legitimately wonder why they should develop an attachment to a nation and its institutions that, while articulating certain ideals, has not delivered on those ideals for them over two centuries. Alternatively, they can learn the patriotic historical narrative that has dominated in the educational system. A glance at history textbooks, particularly older texts (although the problem persists with newer editions), shows the presentation of a whitewashed history—one with White people (usually males) at the center, with a large part of the American population existing on the periphery, only coming into view in sidebars, and most often when they fit a narrative of racial progress (Loewen, 2018). Such texts create a picture of “Americanness” that excludes those who are not White. This too makes attachment difficult.
All of this information leads me to conclude that any history or civics reform must include discussions of power and involve the development of civic imagination. The ideals embedded in the American documents that may be worth preserving have a relationship to power. Those ideals work for those who possess the power within societal structures to make them work for them. This helps explain the saga of subjugation and marginalization as power differentials have played out over time. Presenting power as part of history leads to students asking questions regarding whether our current democratic structures are resulting in a meaningful sharing of power and are therefore moving us closer to the American ideals.
Civic imagination is equally important. Power exists and is maintained within structures. Although American founding documents may embed ideals, they have also given rise to institutional structures that reflect both the ideals and the power differentials in society. If students are taught reverence for the ideals and, in turn, the same reverence for the structures they created, the disillusionment is likely to continue. Students must have the freedom to critique the political structures and engage in a creative process of refashioning and reshaping the institutions that are intended to give life to these ideals.
Baldwin, J. (1963). A talk to teachers. Child development and learning, 7-12.
Cohen, E. A. (2020). History, critical and patriotic: Americans need a history that educates but also inspires. Education Next, 20(2), 8-18.
Educating for American Democracy (EAD). (2021, March 2). Educating for American democracy: Excellence in history and civics for all learners. iCivics.
Loewen, J. W. (2018). Teaching what really happened: How to avoid the tyranny of textbooks and get students excited about doing history. (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Strengthening Civics Education, SB 21-067, 73rd Colorado General Assembly (2021). https://leg.colorado.gov/bills/sb21-067
Jarrod Hanson, PhD, is a senior instructor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver and is interested in civics education and the history of the education of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States.