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Inquiry, Current Events, Algorithms, and Truth

On a recent trip to a conservative state that had just experienced a gubernatorial change, I had the chance to talk to social studies teachers and curriculum coordinators from about seven different school districts. They were a mix of rural, suburban, and urban, and there was a common theme...fear.   

What was interesting in our discussion was their willingness to share their personal political leanings with me. Like the schools they taught in, they were mixed politically. They were all afraid of teaching current events. One teacher expressed that her name, phone number, and home address had been shared on a local radio station several times because she was trying to teach about historical racial tension in the United States by examining and comparing the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act together, and a parent interpreted it as teaching Critical Race Theory. This act of intimidation was terrifying to her and caused so much cognitive dissonance with her legal role to teach state-approved social studies standards, that she was strongly considering leaving the profession.  

Another teacher in another state told me he had to be moved to a new school within a district because he was accused of ‘brainwashing’ students about race in the United States. He was teaching about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and the diverse groups fighting for and against the Civil Rights Act under President Johnson’s administration.  

Speaking as a historian, teacher, and textbook publisher, we are struggling mightily as a nation to face our history accurately when it comes to race and how the consequences of our choices are affecting the lives of every person in the United States today. Our Founding Fathers, to effectively unite several British territories, adopted a clause in our founding documents that counted each enslaved person as 3/5ths of a human for tax and representation purposes. Since before that critical decision was made, the value and place in society of people of non-western European ancestry has been a point of contention, even fueling a catastrophic Civil War in the 1860’s.  

After Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, it took us an additional 100 years to pass the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts respectively. Fifty years later, acute racial tensions again became front page news with the Black Lives Matter movement which highlighted instances of Police brutality against Black Americans.   

For many reasons, I am an avid consumer of news. It is critical in my job and as a citizen to have an accurate understanding of current events so I can appropriately contextualize them and use my knowledge of history to understand why a particular group of people feel a certain way or why conflict has arisen around a topic or area. So, I consume news from as many places as I can. Admittedly, I turn to certain sources more often because my expertise allows me to shortcut particular narratives, but as a rule, I don’t consume less than two stories from different reliable outlets on any given topic that I am interested in so I get more perspective and can see differences in how things are reported.   

What I know from decades of carefully ingesting the news is that they are not all saying the same thing, they are not all reporting with the same rigor required of a free press, and they are not all trying to educate the citizenry to be better decision makers in their government. I also know that many are working tirelessly to tell the truth. But there are those that seek this power leverage the 24-hour news cycle and social media to convince the citizenry what they are doing is “right.”  

If you consider that many people are getting news from a single source (think only getting news from MSNBC or Fox News) and that same single-source consumer is also getting an algorithm fueled feed on their smart phone from Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tic Tok, and whatever sites or apps they regularly visit reinforcing the same messages the news source is reporting, our partisan and politically divided society starts to come into focus. The danger of this is that the people who are falling into this cycle of single-source news messaging, who also don’t have the skills/and or expertise to accurately contextualize it, are living in a partial or distorted reality of current events because they aren’t understanding the whole story. 

Back to the classroom, one of the most important functions of a good social studies classroom is its ability to pivot from the historical to the current and to help students accurately contextualize both. Teachers help students see cause and effect, consequences of choices, and to accurately understand their place in the world. From personal experience in modern classrooms, this is an engaging, enlightening, and critical part of the job of any social studies teacher because our children are not ignorant of the world around us. The moment they have TV or internet access, they have an onslaught of information coming at them, more than any generation in the history of humanity. So, the idea or ideal that any teacher can teach in a vacuum not affected by current events and news is a non-reality in United States, and most internet-connected countries.   

To meet their state-approved standards effectively and legally, social studies teachers must teach about current events. They must contextualize them with opportunities to evaluate historical sources that set up the event or time they are studying, and they must do it in a way that allows students to come to an accurate conclusion about why things are happening the way they are.  

So, how do we accomplish all of this? How do we make sure students have the skills to navigate the onslaught of narratives they are subject to, make sure teachers feel empowered and safe to carefully mold skills in our students that become strong assets in discerning truth, and ensure that students come to understand the truth about the past and its effects on today’s society? The answer is practice, inquiry, and continual skill building.  

I think it would be difficult to find any parent in the United States who doesn't want their child to emerge from public education as a more capable and knowledgeable citizen, equipped with the skills to actively engage in our democracy, compared to when they initially entered the public education system. Based on this belief, I would like to suggest the following principles. My hope is that we can all rally behind these principles within the realm of public education, particularly in the context of the social studies classroom: 

We can accept that the goal is for students to accurately understand the past and empower our teachers to guide them through the process of learning and practicing the skill of historical contextualization in service of understanding the present more effectively.   

We understand that this skill of contextualization must be built, practiced, and guided through a student's time in public education by expert certified teachers.   

We accept that our comprehension of history evolves much like our grasp of medicine, engineering techniques, or business strategies. The role of a historian or a history teacher involves an ongoing process of enhancement, driven by the continual emergence of fresh evidence through ongoing research. This means that something that was ‘true’ in 1975 may not be in 2025 because many qualified researchers found new evidence, applied their expertise to that evidence, made sense of it, and then sent it out to sometimes hundreds of colleagues to test their conclusions and they all accepted it or are challenging the evidence in a quest to get to the truth (if you want an interesting exercise in this phenomenon of changing historical understanding, do a quick ‘research project’ on our understanding of the death toll from the Civil War in the United States and how the number of official deaths has changed over time).  

We accept that public schools and their teachers are bound to legally teach the state approved social studies standards. A teacher can no more change what a learning standard is than give themselves a pay raise. So, if you are concerned about what is being taught in schools, address that through or local, regional, state, and national governmental channels...not with an individual teacher who is teaching out of the same curriculum that the entire school or district is teaching from.  

We accept that our students are individuals with the right to come to their own conclusions about the past and present, and we acknowledge that they can always be guided by their parents and caretakers and can learn from them. This can either be a healthy practice of discourse, discovery, and mutual understanding or it can be a violent and scary experience when guardians choose extreme measures to ‘combat’ historical truths being taught about in your local school.  

We must, as a group of interested citizens, demand that more focus and time be put on this process of learning about the past and practicing the contextualization of it to understand the present and possible future. As a nation, our allotted instructional time in Social Studies has consistently been dropping for decades. I have personally heard major districts around the country allotting less than 30 minutes per week at the K-6 level for social studies instruction.  

For teachers, how can they improve their classrooms and make sure they are appropriately and accurately contextualizing the past and present? The answer is to focus on inquiry. There is a free framework available for any student, teacher, parent, administrator, legislator, or citizen called the C3 Framework. I would encourage any interested party to read this and seek to accurately understand its goals, purpose, and how it could help to secure the future of our great experiment in democracy.  

Back to my news addiction...there is ample evidence that those seeking power, regardless of their political leanings are a threat to our future and right to self-rule. So, if you read this and are interested in helping, become an advocate for your local social studies teacher. Engage and understand the role of social studies in the modern school and promote is as being as important as any STEM or STEAM subject and demand your local schools treat is as such. Bolster your own skills in understanding the past accurately and contextualizing that to understand our current reality. Help review your state standards next time they are up for review. Hold your news outlet to a higher standard of truth and accuracy so our freedom of the press, which is essential to our democracy, is not challenged as untrustworthy. Be engaged instead of angry. Be involved instead of just grumbling on social media. Most importantly, be a citizen   who advocates for truth, fairness, and a democracy where all who seek it can thrive. Help make the fear go away.