David J. Bobb
A perfect storm is brewing — and if we fail to act, the damage to our classrooms and children could be significant.
Much of the 2023-24 school year will occur against a looming presidential election. Many Americans look toward that election with dread because of the deep polarization and bitter rhetoric occupying much of our national discourse.
A 2022 survey found Americans rated political extremism and polarization as a leading concern, outpacing immigration, health care, and unemployment. But hyper-polarization does not just tear at our national fabric; it is causing harm to a generation of young people.
A Stanford study last year found that children can become politically polarized at age 11. These are sixth graders already learning to distrust and dislike fellow citizens because of political disagreements.
At the Bill of Rights Institute, we work with more than 70,000 civics and history teachers, and they experience the effects of polarization firsthand in their classrooms.
As one North Carolina high school teacher wrote, many students feel sharing their viewpoints is an “exercise in futility,” or they could be “made to feel wrong” for voicing opinions.
Teachers today face the challenge of helping students overcome fears of being shamed by classmates for expressing their feelings. These fears, while disheartening, are not unfounded. They reflect a larger polarization problem in America that filtered down to our children.
A Pew Research Center study found most Democrats and Republicans today label the other side as more closed-minded, dishonest, immoral, and unintelligent.
We have normalized hostility toward people we disagree with, and we should not be surprised when young people follow our lead. Nor should we be surprised when students struggle to share opinions in class.
This dynamic must change — but we will not get the change we seek by eliminating discussion of contentious issues or current events from classrooms, as some suggest. Sanitizing or shutting down discussions will not depolarize students. Instead, it practically guarantees they become ideologically entrenched within their echo chambers.
We must teach students to think critically and engage civilly, even on issues of disagreement. These are valuable citizenship and life skills.
Civics and history education can play powerful roles — but teachers need our support. Because civics and history classrooms explore government, politics, and sometimes controversial historical issues, they provide a setting where students can learn to think critically, explore diverse viewpoints, and engage in civil discourse.
“I believe that in civics class students can learn to articulate their opinions, but also learn to listen to others who have different opinions,” wrote Wyoming government and history teacher Lona Tracy, who has taught for more than 30 years. “They can and do learn to respectfully agree or disagree.”
Skilled civics and history teachers present information rooted in primary sources and facts so students develop well-informed perspectives while learning to respect other viewpoints.
Teachers can deploy strategies that support safe, robust classroom discussions, such as setting expectations for conversations and building trust among students before exploring difficult topics.
In high-functioning civics and history classrooms, opinions are freely expressed, analyzed, and respectfully challenged. This is how knowledge is built — and even wisdom.
Delivering these outcomes for students requires us to support our civics and history teachers. We should have high expectations for these teachers regarding preparation, content knowledge, and transparency. But we should not ask civics and history teachers to perform their jobs scared, either.
They must know we support them as they lead sometimes difficult conversations about current events, politics, and history. We must give them the latitude and respect they need to help students learn to think critically and act civilly.
There is more we can do outside the classroom, too.
We must step outside our comfort zones and show young people we can engage civilly — in-person and online — with people with whom we disagree. Children need to understand that disagreement does not make neighbors or classmates enemies.
We are not doing enough as a nation to deliver that message. With a new school year upon us and a presidential election approaching, young people need us to do better.
David J. Bobb is president and CEO of the Bill of Rights Institute.