President-Elect Biden and Secretary-Designate Cardona, We Need An American History Ed Czar
We need a history education czar. Or more specifically, the US Department of Education does.
For decades now, we have been quick to name federal “czars” to oversee specific issues that are critical to the times. We’ve had poverty czars and AIDS czars. Climate czars and border czars. Homelessness czars and Ebola czars. Trade czars and terrorism czars. With each appointment, the Federal government sought to address an immediate issue that either cut across multiple government agencies or was falling through the cracks in an existing federal office.
Last fall, I led a national study of high school students, finding that the only academic subject the leaders of tomorrow see as less valuable to their future careers and lives than history is art. For too many young people, social studies are too boring and too irrelevant to be a priority.
Last month, as part of a national survey conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies, I found that 75 percent of American adults believe one should have a strong understanding of American history to be a successful citizen. Yet despite seeing the need, only about four in 10 adults believe that today’s high school graduates possess that understanding of American history.
The first week of January 2021 has already provided teachable moments on the British Forces burning the U.S. Capitol in 1814, the election of 1876, the meaning of sedition, and the intent of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. All important historical road markers that help educators use the most current of current events as bridges to needed classroom lessons.
This, coupled with the activities of 2020, shows how important a history education czar is to improving K-12 and postsecondary education in the United States. Last year, we witnessed history happening right before our eyes, from how the world addressed a global health pandemic to how our nation addressed the call of Black Lives Matter. We’ve seen the first woman and woman of color elected to the second-highest office in the land. And we’ve watched this wondering that no matter how significant, how history-making, how will we effectively teach about 2020 in the future?
At the same time, we have sought to remove statues and building names of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and even Frederick Douglass in the name of equity. We went after the presidential elections with mentions of the Electoral College and the 12th Amendment. We use the 1st and 2nd Amendments, among others, to justify our political beliefs. But we do so much of it without demonstrating a working understanding of its original meaning, how it has been interpreted and misinterpreted over the years, and how we can learn from the proper applications and improper abuses. We cling to or reject our collective history without fully understanding it.
Across the nation, there are extraordinary K-12 teachers who make history come alive and inspire the kids in their classes to think like historians. These educators aren’t looking to create a generation of biographers or college professors. They, like the average American, recognize how important a core understanding of history and government is. And they know that effective social studies instruction results in learners skilled in critical thinking, communication, teamwork, leadership, and similar skills we have long sought from graduates of our high schools.
Imagine a history education czar who is advocating for and celebrating those educators who have moved beyond the dusty textbook used by their parents and grandparents to make history more interesting to their students.
Imagine ensuring that our classrooms are telling the full story of our nation’s history — the good, the bad, and the ugly — all in the name of showing all of today’s learners that people who looked just like them played a part in developing the nation we live in today.
Imagine connecting the work at the US Department of Education with that at the US Department of Labor, where one can demonstrate how the skills learned through meaningful history instruction is chock full of the skills that employers need from their workforce hires of tomorrow.
Imagine bringing together those focused on K-12 education, postsecondary education, innovation, civil rights, and a host of other offices within the US Department of Education to ensure that social studies is on equal standing with math and reading instruction.
Imagine demonstrating to states, school districts, philanthropy, the business community, and higher education that history education should hold the same level of importance as STEM education does. Whether it be Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, David McCullough, U.S. Sen Ben Sasse (who holds his doctorate in American history from Yale University), Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who majored in American studies at Cal), soccer star Mia Hamm (a political science major at UNC), or one of many impressive National Teacher of the Year, an American history education czar can spotlight the importance of social studies instruction immediately and with great power.
Ultimately, our goal should not to construct yet another education bureaucracy nor to get to the point where the vast majority of high school graduates can win the history section of a local trivia night contest. For generations, we have demanded that high school graduates possess the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in both college and career. That goal is achieved both through the assessment of specific knowledge AND the development of abilities.
Whether we aspire to be auto mechanics, elementary school teachers, state senators, members of the armed services, or college professors, we all benefit from thinking like historians. Reaping those benefits may only come through a czar who can advocate, agitate, elevate, spotlight, and celebrate history education.
(An abridged version of this essay appeared in the Stamford (CT) Advocate.)