George Washington set the standard for those who seek the office of president. He was the most highly esteemed military and civilian figure in the nation when he was elected. In every setting, he served as the model of dignified and self-disciplined conduct. As a general, at the end of the Revolutionary War he preserved civilian control of the military by preventing the use of military force against Congress. As president, he was not tempted to hold on to power and retired to Mount Vernon voluntarily after two terms, ensuring the peaceful transition of power in our new republic. His example has preserved our nation for more than 225 years.
Now we watch as ambitious men and women pursue Washington’s office, in a race which sets modern lows for irresponsible, uninspiring, and divisive rhetoric and conduct. What will this election teach our students, and what should history and social studies teachers like me be doing to help them make sense of what is happening? I believe this is an extraordinary opportunity to teach the next generation of leaders about civic engagement and the roles and responsibilities of American citizens.
The founders of this nation understood the critical function of education in a republic. Jefferson, for example, wrote, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” A republic cannot survive unless power rests with people, Jefferson noted, and education is the way to prepare them to exercise that power. This idea goes at least as far back as Plato.
This semester, I happen to be teaching Plato’s Republic to middle and high school students, and it’s fascinating to see what he wrote in 375 B.C.E. after witnessing firsthand the shortcomings of Athenian democracy. Athens’ democracy was overthrown by an oligarchy, which was then replaced by a restored democracy that ultimately executed Socrates for teaching children to think critically about their government. With this in mind, Plato concluded the only way to create just government and a just nation was to redesign education to prepare just leaders. He wrote, “on education everything else depends, and it is an illusion to imagine that mere legislation without it can effect anything of consequence.”
According to Plato, education should be designed to shield young minds from injustice in any form, to prevent them from learning from the bad examples of their elders. He wrote, “we shall thus prevent our guardians being brought up among representations of what is evil, and so day by day and little by little, by grazing widely as it were in an unhealthy pasture, insensibly doing themselves a cumulative psychological damage that is very serious.” Plato was concerned that if students read about or saw people behaving unjustly or improperly, particularly heroes and leaders, it would impair children’s ability to be just leaders (“guardians”) themselves.
This question is relevant for history and social studies teachers today. Should we shield future leaders from today’s poor role models so our students don’t learn their bad habits? We might be able to do this by focusing on a sanitized record of the past, of the sort offered in most history textbooks. Or do we use what’s being said and happening in the election as source material for a robust conversation about the roles and responsibilities of citizens in a republic?
I disagree with Plato about isolating students from the world. We need to start talking with them, in a candid and meaningful way, about what’s happening in the world they will inherit. Teachers should put the safe textbooks away, open newspapers and magazines, show debates and speeches, share editorials and criticism, and dive deep into the complex policy questions that are driving primary voters, candidates, and parties this year. Asking students provocative, well-structured questions that require research and thoughtfulness, and an analysis of costs, benefits, and tradeoffs in the short- and longer-term, gives teachers an opportunity to show how our political and economic system works in a way that is compelling and truly educational.
Here are a few examples of questions every high school student could be working on in history and social studies classes right now:
Are there things Presidential candidates should not say? What is the history and future of unions? What is the proper role of the U.S. in the Middle East? Should illegal immigrants be granted a path towards citizenship? Does the Constitution say that a president cannot nominate a Supreme Court justice in an election year? What responsibility does a nation have to those citizens whose jobs have left the country? Why do certain interest groups oppose the Paris Agreement on climate change? What are the big issues that candidates are not talking about but should be, like artificial intelligence and the future of human work?
If we use the issues, controversies, and fears this election has raised as a way to promote civic knowledge and engagement, students can learn (1) their power as citizens; (2) the sometimes countervailing power of interest groups; (3) that each citizen is responsible for ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth;” and (4) justified optimism, based on the historical record, about what reasonable people working together can accomplish. We’re doing something very wrong in our schools if history and social studies aren’t the most exciting and powerful subjects, particularly given this unique—at least in our lifetimes—teachable political moment.
So, history and social studies teachers, I hope you’ll ask great questions that require your students to think and to act like the leaders they will become. And, parents and administrators, I hope you will give teachers and students time and freedom to work on these sometimes controversial questions. Teaching leadership in a democracy is a special challenge and responsibility, and this is a great time to be a teacher and a citizen in this democracy.
This article was published in Loudoun Now on March 25, 2016.