The Great American Nerd-Out

by | January 11, 2021

As images of a mob of Trump supporters wreaking havoc in the Capitol flashed across our television screen, I felt like an oncologist in 1970 watching a group of people chain-smoking in the atrium of a kindergarten.  “STOP!”, I thought, “what you are doing is misinformed, bad for you, and bad for the community.” But I also thought, as the oncologist might have then, “how can it be that there are thousands of specialists like me, who know how bad this is, and yet we have not been able to stop this kind of behavior from damaging our country?”

In this case, what troubled me was the spectacle of thousands of people unable to understand the truth and untrained in the core skills needed to be citizens of a democracy. 

The people who swarmed the halls of our temple of freedom lacked three fundamentals:  (i) an ability to differentiate fact from fiction; (ii) a connection to the concept of a common good and the sacred principles of democracy, and (iii) an understanding of the rules of civil discourse.  These are all basic building blocks for a democracy that my profession, the profession of historians and history educators, knows full well how to supply and develop.  These are the skills and mindsets that we are trained and tasked to provide to our nation.  

According to Senator Ted Cruz and his consorts, 39% of the population believes the election was stolen. A YouGov poll found that 45% of Republicans approve of the events of last night.  These numbers underscore the failure of our education system to deliver to our youth the history education they need to function as constructive members of democracy.  Those of us who know the importance of history must take responsibility.  This includes not only history educators, but also every parent and leader who was taught and understood the important of civility, character and community.  It includes every person who voted on a school budget committee to cut back history and civics education to the benefit of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). 

We have stood by as the civic health of our country deteriorated.  We have let universities and school districts cut funding to history departments.  We have accepted the fact that for the past 100 years, over 85% of students are consistently non-proficient in history exams.  We have let universities cut history from the core requirements of undergraduates.  We have taken time and money away from history teachers, saddled them with extensive curricular guidelines and testing expectations and have undermined their sense of relevance.  On January 6, we got the bill for these mistakes.

The damage for which we now must pay is not that most young people don’t know the dates of the Korean War.  Or that they may think that Waterloo is just an ABBA Song.  Or that most Americans can’t find France on a world map.  It’s not even that our newly minted Senator Tommy Tuberville thinks that we liberated France in 1945 from the Communists, not Hitler. The damage for which we must pay is that a large swath of the population is unprepared to engage constructively in democracy. 

The first core skill we have failed to teach is how to tell truth from a lie.  A Pew Survey found that 70% of adults struggle to differentiate a fact from an opinion. This skill of critical thinking is not just a technical skill that is important for historians.  It is core to having power.  If you can’t determine whether or not something is true, you can easily be led astray and become a pawn in someone else’s power play.  Misinformation is the tool of dictators, used to make people do things that serve only their purposes.  Storming the Capitol was Exhibit A.  We already have the tools to teach history in a way that develops critical thinking. Stanford University’s History Education Group has developed a brilliant set of tools that anyone can use for free to ensure that their students learn how to evaluate sources of information and how to understand bias in the media.  The problem is that we have not made this a priority over the long-favored method of lecturing kids on content. 

The second core area of civic understanding that we have failed to prioritize is that democracy is very complicated, and depends on a mixture of unity, complexity and disagreement.  Unity comes from a shared commitment to democratic values and to the abstract idea of a common good.  Complexity is mirrored in the multiple narratives that make up our story of “we,” one that we must constantly historically analyze, update and acknowledge. Disagreement is inevitable when we talk about how to realize values in practice, and when we must negotiate between conflicting interests and conflicting narratives.  These concepts are hard to teach and hard to measure, so we have not prioritized them in our schools. 

Finally, we have failed to fight for space in the classroom to encourage civil discourse on divisive matters.  Even today, after this historic event, school districts around the country were issuing directives to their teachers to not discuss the events in the Capitol.  We have allowed history to continue to be approached as a monolithic narrative and litany of facts, with no space for discussion on the gray zones because those questions are not on the test. Again, the tools to do this in a classroom exist.  Teaching Tolerance and Facing History and Ourselves have long developed toolkits for classroom discussions; with its “Speak Truth” program, the Center for Inspired Teaching has been modeling a pathbreaking concept of student-led discussions on the thorniest topics, showing just how much young people can teach us, adults, about how to disagree. 

For each of these areas that we need for our civic health, the solutions and tools exist.  What teachers do not have is the bandwidth and time to provide them.  Pressured to cram content into their shortened schedules, pressured to limit their curriculum to textbooks that their districts purchased, pressured to get kids to pass state tests and pressured to avoid difficult topics at all costs to avoid pushback from parents, history teachers are on the frontlines of democracy with no protection, no ammunition and no backup.  

With these failures on our collective record, we must take decisive action and roll back the scourge of disinformation and divisiveness with the power of good history teaching.  As we do so, we can be inspired by the oncologists of America, who took action back in the 1970’s to ensure that the dystopian possibility of smokers in kindergarten became utterly absurd.  

In 1977, the American Cancer Society decided to take what had been a small local effort national, calling for the Great American Smoke-out to stop cancer.  Over the course of the next 30 years, a massive campaign covered bus stops and air waves in America, despite the efforts to block the campaign by the tobacco industry.  The effect was stunning.  From 1965 to 2016, cigarette smoking among adults in the United States decreased from 42% to about 15%. 

There may be a lot of people who have an interest that our history teaching stay the way it is, including textbook and testing companies, and the STEM teaching lobbies that have ensured that they gain ever greater slices of the educational funds pie.  But none of them come close to having the deterrent power of the tobacco lobby.  We truly have no excuses.  

Instead of a Commission to Ensure Patriotic Education, as envisioned by the out-going President who incited mass violence, the Biden Administration should launch a Great American Nerd Out –  a campaign to re-establish our commitment to critical thinking, community and civility. 

This would be a public relations effort of epic proportions to ensure that everyone understands what skills, mindsets and knowledge are essential for civic health.  Let us make a renewed investment in history education, giving teachers resources, time and space to do the work they need to do, and supporting efforts to connect them with museums and their communities. Let us revisit our school budgets and realize that the only barrier between us and the demise of our democracy is teachers who need the space, tools and support to prepare young people as citizens of democracy.  

On January 6 of every year, to commemorate 2021’s day of infamy, we should celebrate the renewed American “Epiphany” that we as a nation will only realize well-being and peace for all if we collectively nurture truth, community and civility.  On each January 6th, we should do our part to support civic health by seeking information on something we are curious about, by reflecting on the common good, and by being kind to someone else.  

We must seek to make ignorance, individualism and intolerance problems of the past.  Let the great American Revival begin.  

As President elect Biden puts it: When we come together as Americans, there is nothing we can’t do.  

Filed Under: Politics

About the Author

Fernande Raine is a social entrepreneur and Founder of Got History? Got History? is a systems-change initiative to strengthen history education for a better democracy by building local learning collaboratives and amplifying youth voice. She has a PhD in history, started her career at McKinsey and Company and spent 15 years with Ashoka starting programs and growing the institution around the globe.

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