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Can history and civics ‘inoculate’ society against demagogues?

A vintage portable version of the United States Constitution. (Library of Congress)

Apart from being illegal, the actions of the rioters last week at the U.S. Capitol run counter to many basic lessons from civics and American history that most of us first encountered in high school.

For many people, the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was painful to watch and difficult to process. As feelings of sadness and anger subsided, many historians began to wonder how we got here as a nation, and how those specific individuals made the choices they made to take part in an uprising that left five people dead, and trampled norms dating back to the 19th century.

Along with the months of post-election campaigning by the White House to discredit the results, some wondered about the role of education – specifically, history and civics – and if it’s possible for knowledge to “inoculate” society to make citizens better informed, and less likely to follow a demagogue or to radicalize and become insurrectionists.

KIRO Radio reached out to three experts on history and education to test this thesis: James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C.; Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal; and Tacoma high school history teacher Nate Bowling.

James Grossman of the American Historical Association says, first off, the analogy is not quite right.

“Inoculation is definitely the wrong term to use here because when you’re inoculated against a disease, you’re done, you don’t need to worry about it anymore,” Grossman said. “It becomes, at that point, a passive process, and what we need is just exactly the opposite.”

“We don’t want to inoculate citizens,” Grossman continued. “We want citizens to have a hunger for learning the history that they need to know, and that they need to continue to learn, in order to understand what is going on.”

Grossman agrees that it’s important for Americans to understand the Constitution, but he says that the riot at the Capitol wasn’t only about ignorance of the Constitution, but was instead a dangerous mix of loss in faith in institutions, and a culture – and media – that rewards and obsessively covers celebrity.

Grossman sees what he calls a “pathology” about what’s going on in American society. This pathology, he says, needs to be called out, and called what it is – not ignored as it was in analogous circumstances after the Civil War.

“January 6, what Americans need to understand, is the history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and everything that happened for the century after that,” Grossman said. “Look at the symbols that the insurrectionists brought into the Capitol. They brought Confederate flags, they actually also brought medieval symbols, which tells you something about their dream of return of what they consider to be a white nation.”

If this isn’t a kind of ignorance, what was it?

“White nationalism is what was going on in the Capitol,” Grossman said. “So if Americans want to learn the things they need to learn, so that they do not take these people at their word, so that they do not think of Confederate flags as somehow things carried by what the president referred to as ‘American Patriots’ – and his children referred to as patriots – that’s what they need to learn.”

Grossman says that the failure of Reconstruction 150 years ago was to pretend that all those American military officers didn’t commit treason when they joined the Confederacy and went to war against the United States.

“You can begin to learn in elementary school that the Civil War was a war to liberate slaves, it was not a tragic event,” Grossman said. “It was tragic in the sense that so many people died, but it was not something that was unnecessary. It was necessary.”

“Certainly in high school, students can learn that what happened from after the Civil War, after Reconstruction, up until the 1960s, was a successful attempt to unify the nation by throwing Black people under the bus,” he continued. “That’s the history that people need to realize, because that’s the history that basically these people who have done this, these insurrectionists, have distorted in their sense of somehow feeling entitled to own the government of the United States.”

Grossman also says that, in addition to factual learning, students need to be taught to question evidence, question stories, and be able to tell the difference between fact and opinion.

And it’s the facts and opinions that bombard students outside of school hours – and everyone else pretty much constantly – that cause Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal to be concerned.

“Riddled throughout what we do from K-12 is a lot of this sort of information literacy — the ability to understand arguments, the ability to know when you have a qualified body of research before you, what’s opinion versus fact,” Superintendent Reykdal said. “[There are] huge structures in our learning around the role of government, and our rights versus our responsibilities.”

There’s so much focus on this for students, Reykdal told KIRO Radio.

“I’m getting to the point now where I’m like, ‘All those people who storm capitols, they [studied] this stuff [too].’”

Because of that, they should, Reykdal believes, essentially know better than to take part in an insurrection.

So why don’t they know better? Is it the education system’s fault?

“Like anything, we move through time,” Reykdal said, meaning education for most concludes by the time someone is in their early 20s. “And I think folks are so swamped by the tools of influence now, the social tools of influence, that they just overwhelm their formal education around this stuff.”

Reykdal doesn’t just single out social media and digital media. Print, TV, and talk radio are part of the problem, too, Reykdal says, with personal attacks and calls for elimination – rather than reform – of government and other institutions that are essential to a functioning society.

Given that this bombardment is unlikely to go away anytime soon, does the statewide curriculum need to be adjusted or updated to take this reality into account?

“I think we should ask ourselves –  and, man, I’ll take criticism for this – but are we balancing historical tradition – think about literature, for example – with the needs of young people to function in a way that maintains their mental health and allows the republic to have an educated citizenry?” Reykdal said. “If that’s in question, then we’re going to have to let go of some of what we’ve done, and we’re going to have to put more time on this question of digital literacy, quite frankly, media literacy, and what I keep calling civility.”

“Anyone can teach the three branches of government,” he continued. “It’s harder to teach young people how to engage each other, have differences, and still respect each other. Civility has to be embedded in all of our curriculum, and that is a change I don’t think we’ve made yet.”

What does all of this look like from a desk and whiteboard – and, nowadays, online video classroom – altitude?

Nate Bowling is an award-winning high school history teacher who taught for many years in Tacoma. He’s currently teaching overseas.

Bowling says he’s not worried about the high school-age students he’s teaching now or those he was teaching in Tacoma a few years back who are now in their mid-20s.

“As far as civic education goes, Washington state is actually in a pretty good place,” Bowling said. “Washington’s one of only nine states in the U.S. that mandate a civics class to graduate from high school. In 41 states, you don’t have to have a civics course to graduate high school.”

The demographic group that Bowling does worry about when it comes to civics versus that bombardment of social and other media are Baby Boomers.

“Honestly, the issue that we’re seeing today in our politics – the biggest sharers of misinformation – are Baby Boomers,” Bowling said. “And the people who fall for misinformation online and share fake news most often – and this is data, this is from studies – are Baby Boomers.”

The difference, Bowling says, is a result of age and the recent rise in digital technology.

“The boomers are actually the biggest conduits for misinformation because they’re not ‘digital native,’” Bowling said. “Young people have grown up in a digital age, and so they’re better able to discern what is real and what is not.”

Is it a coincidence that based on what we’ve seen and what we know so far, many of the Jan. 6 rioters appear to fit the demographic that Bowling described?

Bowling doesn’t think so, and this informs his nuanced view for what the future might bring.

“I am very pessimistic about the near future,” Bowling said. “I am very optimistic about the long-term future. The generation of kids who I’m teaching right now, the 25-year olds I taught seven years ago – this band of Zoomers – they are more empathetic than we are. They are more compassionate than we are. They have a broader worldview than we have. They have true libertarianism, where they’re not trying to impose their values on other people through the mechanisms of state.”

“I’m very optimistic about the future-future,” Bowling said. “But the near future in the United States is dark.”

Is there any way to reach those demographic groups that might most benefit from learning about the Constitution?

KIRO Radio checked with Kerry Sautner, Chief Learning Officer for the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Sautner says the center offers educational programs for thousands of students each year, most of which have moved online during the pandemic, and has for many years offered a significant resource on the web accessible to anyone, regardless of age.

“We have the Interactive Constitution, which is this great nonpartisan tool that brings all perspectives together on big Constitutional issues – what they all agree upon and where they diverge,” Sautner said. “So we can watch trends in the news react on that site, [and traffic] spiked in the last week on the 25th Amendment. It spikes on Article 1, and Article 2, and all those pieces, and then when we see a Supreme Court Justice being sworn in and the controversy around that, we see Article 3 spike.”

Sautner and her colleagues are pleased that web users are visiting in search of specific information, but they often wonder if it’s enough.

“People are trying to go to a trusted resource and find information,” Sautner said. “But it is also, do we have enough Americans going there and enough people around the country and the world [going there], to be honest.”

Sautner says that times like these might present an opportunity for expanding the audience that the center’s programs are aimed at.

“We’ve been talking at work about what if we do a ‘Constitution 101’ for all,” Sautner said.

This would be “for adults, and you don’t have to feel shame that you may not know anything about the Constitution – come on in, this is for you, too.”

James Grossman of the American Historical Association says that key to all education, for citizens of any age and demographic, begins with leadership.

“You have to have a leadership that says ‘Public health is important, public education is important,’” Grossman said, evoking the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. “And so if you’re looking for quote ‘education,’ education doesn’t take place only in schools. Education takes place through the words and the actions of leadership.”

And when it comes to those insurrectionists shredding the country’s sacred document on Jan. 6 or on some potential future dark day – will education in school, or from the media, or a website affect them?

“If you want the American public to respect the Constitution,” Grossman said. “Then you start by having our national leadership respect the Constitution.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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