A few days ago my colleagues and I celebrated the end of the school year under a tent pitched on the quad of our picturesque New England prep school. Music, food, drinks, the vibe felt reassuringly post-pandemic normal. The party seemed to confirm that the rhythms and rituals of private school life had reasserted themselves, timelessly, almost magically.
Reviewing my lesson planner over a cup of coffee this morning, though, the year looks anything but normal. In September, I was teaching the 20th-anniversary of the 9-11 attacks and near simultaneous collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. Mid-year found me teaching the first anniversary of the Capitol riot on January 6. War broke out in Ukraine on February 20, and I taught that, too.
Events crowded together in the closing weeks of spring term: draft Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, mass shooting in Buffalo, another in Texas. Seven moments, two occurring at the beginning of the year, two in the middle, three near the end. The arc of a line connecting them would give the impression of a slightly out of balance suspension bridge, one that might be named “democracy in crisis.”
My experience teaching those events to students of U.S. government and politics, world history, and contemporary issues offers lessons for a society wrestling with the purposes of education, politicization of history, and political violence.
No teaching environment is perfect, but, as a platform for civics education, my workplace has a lot going for it: committed faculty, financial resources, motivated students, academic freedom. I’m privileged, especially compared to underfunded public schools in states with legal prohibitions on “controversial subjects.”
Still, I confronted surprising levels of ignorance. My fellow history educators and I gave the 9-11 anniversary a full-court press, holding all-school teaching sessions on the causes of the attacks, effects of the event on America and the world, and interpretive possibilities for understanding 9-11. I came prepared to teach “causes” with an outline history of al-Qaeda, maps, excerpts from the 9-11 Commission Report and Lawrence Wright’s history of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower. 9-11 is outside living memory of today’s high school students, so I focused on basics.
It was tough going. Students knew very little beyond the planes hitting the World Trade Center. The phrase “war on terror” and the George W. Bush speech coining it was new information, so were the principal participants and places. 9-11 falls in temporal limbo for high-school students. Too distant to remember. Too close to get taught in U.S. history surveys.
I hadn’t expected the Capitol riot to evoke similar blank looks. After watching the New York Times video analysis of the event, “Day of Rage,” one of my 12th-grade students, Ivy-League bound this fall, said “I didn’t realize it was that bad.”
“Where were you?” I snapped. “It was only a year ago.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t see anything like this.”
Young people have little patience for long-form journalism, print or visual. They imbibe news in Tik-Tok sized bites. Another student put it candidly after we read a news story from The Times out loud. “See, that took a long time [10 minutes], and I suppose that’s what’s wrong with us. We don’t take that kind of time to read . . . and, we should.”
Unawareness is, at least, a normal teaching problem. More concerning was misinformation: the student who insisted that “300,000 votes were missing” in Pennsylvania after the Presidential election, false equivalence: “Yeah, Fox News is biased, but so are PBS and The New York Times,” and conspiracy mongering: “I heard the government was involved in 9-11.” Comments like these occurred just often enough to mandate a response.
Mine was to teach about Alex Jones and “Infowars.” Jones represents a disturbing through line across the subjects we studied. He came to national notoriety after declaring 9-11 an “inside job.” He has insisted that school shootings, including Sandy Hook, are also government-sponsored hoaxes, “false flags” meant to strip Americans of Second Amendment Rights. In Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021, Jones urged the mob to overturn the election.
My go-to source for teaching Jones is the PBS Frontline documentary “United States of Conspiracy.” After watching it, students preemptively conclude he’s crazy, although experts on Jones question that onscreen. His brand of outrageousness has gone mainstream. Students have ingested some of it.
My best countermeasures against ignorance and falsehood were guest speakers. U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-5th Dist.) Zoomed with students in January to discuss the Capitol riot. She described being barricaded in her office with her husband, 12-year-old son, and two staffers, wondering how they’d defend themselves if the mob breached the door. “We were [there] for hours, in the dark. . . . You could hear the crowd outside,” she told them.
A woman of color and former national Teacher of the Year, Hayes saw on her cellphone “there was a noose” brandished by rioters. A Confederate flag waving in the Capitol looked similarly ominous. Hayes occupied herself by “lesson-planning” about the attack, jotting notes about how she’d teach it. “I understand [now],” she said, “how important it was we went back to vote” to certify the ballots and thwart a concerted effort “to change the outcome of a democratic election.”
Afterward, one of my students said “she seems like she’s still traumatized, but she did her job.” He respected that.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder visited in April to discuss the war in Ukraine and opened with an eloquent pitch for history. “If you don’t know history, everything is a surprise,” he said. He told students that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for war hinged on false claims about history: that Ukraine doesn’t have a past independent of Russia and that Russians were engaged in an “eternal history” of conflict against the West.
Snyder made a strong case that people have intellectual and civic obligations to understand the past. He inspired students by his expertise and patient, eloquent responses to their questions.
In Alan Bennett’s 2004 play “The History Boys,” one of the characters asserts “there is no period so remote as the recent past.” It would be easy, comforting, and popular in some circles for history teachers to stick to ancient Rome, the Revolutionary War, or the Middle Ages, although serious inquiry into any of those would undoubtedly yield controversies. But avoiding the recent past and current events is irresponsible.
Teachers have become first-responders for students processing crises. If we don’t educate about contemporary problems, rationally, informed, and objectively, we cede instruction to a popular culture with a poor track record for accuracy and analysis. It will be messy, sometimes controversial, but democracy demands we do it.
Chris Doyle, Ph.D, is Chair of the History Department at Avon Old Farms School, in Avon.