What binds us together as a nation? What do we hold in common? What are the invisible linkages of law, custom, trust—the “single garment of destiny,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called it— which we weave with the intertwining threads of our lives?
I am prompted to think and write about this because of the shootings in Colorado and the inevitable swirl of Op-Ed and discussions about guns. I applaud Mayor Bloomberg for making gun laws an issue, but I suggest we here turn our attention from the political fray of specific legislation to a central question about citizenship. One of the key goals of K-12 education is to prepare future citizens. As a society, we have attenuated our sense of what it means to be bonded with other citizens, and the clashes over gun laws illustrate that. Every person who demands his or her gun for protection (hunting is a different matter) is saying that safety comes from what he or she does as an individual, not from the laws and customs of our shared society.
Social Studies is that strand in our schools that is supposed to teach young people about citizenship. What happened to Social Studies? In the dark days of NCLB, testing came to rule: literacy, math—these could be tested, and thus “annual yearly progress” assessed. The Social Studies community was so divided it could not establish standards to test. Thus, there were fewer and fewer Social Studies assessments. Thus the subjects meant less and less to how schools, and administrators and teachers, were evaluated. The decline reached its nadir a couple of years ago when the state of Nevada stopped training Social Studies teachers in its state colleges, since there was so little demand for them. The experts could not agree on which history and what values to teach, so there were no tests, so the schools ignored the subject—cutting it down, in some cases, to one hour a week in elementary school.
That is the story of one discipline and perhaps of interest mainly to those of us who value it. But now let us examine it within the national narrative: increasingly we focus on what we each individually can get. Self-reliance is as American as apple pie. There is nothing new in the idea that I want to make as much money, save as much in taxes, give my children as many advantages as I can. But that race to “get my pile” is always in some conflict with my role as a citizen. In school we try to equip students to do as well as they can in the world. We are also socializing them to become citizens—not just in the minimal sense of their obligations, but in the broader sense of being mutual members engaged in a common project, a common effort, to build a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Media and money make government feel as far off as, well, Reality TV. Most young people think, correctly, that only really rich or famous people get on TV, or can run for office. Ours is a nation so big that governing feels very removed for most adults, and even more so for young people. But democracy is not just about elections and laws—it is about civic duty, it is about the society the people build and maintain together; about relying on one another. The fact that we could edge Social Studies further, and further, and further out of our schools shows what we value: pumping up each individual student for his or her race to somewhere. What will protect those monads, those units of individualism, on their life journeys?
Every man his own castle, every woman standing her ground, every American armed and dangerous. That is what we build when we forget that being part of a society is not just living by a set of rules that we grudgingly obey, but instead what Dr. King called the “inescapable network of mutuality.” Which “network” do we focus on in our schools—the digital land of clicks and downloads, or the human one of shared responsibility?
This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.