learning civics and history

Earlier this week, I was listening to a discussion around Richard Haass’ new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.

The discussion centered around the dearth of knowledge among many in the United States on the basics of civics and history. The root of this lies seems to lie in our educational system.

Unlike most countries, the United States does not have a national educational system. Schools are controlled by local school boards with a greater or lesser role played by state education boards, depending on the state. This leads to a wide range of what students learn in school and the depth of that learning.

I went to public schools in western Massachusetts in the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Civics and history were an important part of our schooling. I remember in the later grades of grammar school reading the US Constitution and summaries of landmark Supreme Court cases. We were expected to apply what we had learned from history to current events, such as deciding for whom we would vote for president in a mock election. This being small-town New England, we would attend town meeting day with our families, showing democracy in action.

Having already learned the basics of US and world history in our younger years, in high school, our coursework was designed to delve more deeply into particular areas of social studies. One of the best courses I took was one on minorities in America. I learned about such important historical events as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. We studied the Black experience in the US, from enslavement and Jim Crow through the civil rights movement, which was, of course, ongoing. I learned for the first time about the discrimination that had affected my own Italian grandparents and Irish great-grandparents. By the time I turned 18 and could register to vote, I had a good understanding of the complexities of our past and of how to evaluate issues of the present and future.

My daughters went to school in New York, where the State Board of Regents is the main driver of curriculum. The Regents set the required courses and use statewide exams in high school to ensure that the students are fulfilling the goals of the curriculum. While the State is fond of survey courses, they do expect students to do much more than memorize historical facts. A major component of history exams is a document-based essay, where the student is given primary source material, such as political cartoons, government documents, and newspaper articles, and asked to use them to write an essay expressing support or opposition to a given proposition. It demonstrates the kind of decision-making that voters need to do to evaluate candidates or stances on current issues. High school students, usually in their final year, also take a semester course on participation in government, which is considered the capstone of their civics education. This New York State framework, which my daughters used in the 1990s-early 2000s, remains in place today.

Some other states and localities do a poor job of educating their students in history and civics. Some even boast about the limitations they place on what is taught in their schools. A current egregious example of this is the state of Florida, which passed a law last year severely limiting teaching about race and identity. This led Florida to reject a pilot of the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it includes materials about current topics such as intersectionality, the reparations movement, and Black feminist literary critique. They also objected to students reading works by such well-known Black scholars and writers as bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Florida officials claimed the course was more indoctrination than education, failing to realize that one needs to learn deeply through the full spectrum of a field of study to be truly educated and able to make judgments. Perhaps, their own education was too limited for them to appreciate the complexities we all now face.

At this point, we have a lot of catching up to do, with adults needing more education in civics, as well as many younger students. Part of this effort must be to emphasize our responsibilities to each other as citizens, or, as Richard Haass calls them, our “obligations.” (I haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, which was just released this week, so the following thoughts are mine and not from his work.)

For example, the First Amendment states that the federal government cannot establish a religion or prevent anyone from practicing their religion. I have the right to practice a religion or not, as I choose. However, I have a responsibility to not impose my religious tenets on anyone else. The First Amendment also says that laws can’t be made to abridge freedom of speech, but I am responsible for what I say and should take care that it is truthful and appropriate.

There is some tendency in the US for people to be hyper-individualistic, crowing about their individual rights, viewpoints, possessions, etc. while ignoring that we all exist in community and relationships, with people who are similar to us and those who are different in some way. Part of the reason that education in civics is so important is to increase the realization that we are responsible to each other as members of the community and the nation.

We are responsible for finding out the facts on an issue, forming a reasoned opinion, and taking action. We need to be respectful of others and set a good example. We need to keep listening and keep learning, as new information and discoveries come to light every day.

We need to be civil.
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a new sign

On Saturday, September 17, 2022, I went back to my hometown, Monroe, Massachusetts, for their bicentennial celebration. There will eventually be a proper post about the fun and meaningful day I had there but I wanted to give a little shout-out today.

These welcome signs are new. This is the one at the Massachusetts/Vermont state line about half a mile from where our house was back in the day.

One-Liner Wednesday: history

History does not repeat, but it does instruct.

Timothy Snyder

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One-Liner Wednesday: one thing leads to another…

“You should know be now that I cannot introduce any topic without also introducing the history of the entire world.”
~~~ Dr. Melody Ross in this twitter thread, although I feel that, while I don’t know Dr. Ross, I do know other people who could say the same thing.
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One-Liner Wednesday: remembering the past

“Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection.”

~~~ Richard von Weizsäcker, President of West Germany, in 1985 marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II (copied from an article in the Washington Post)

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for the archives

A few weeks ago, a poet-and-church friend who is a faithful reader of Top of JC’s Mind asked if I would like to get in touch with a friend of hers who is involved with a local historical society. Their historical society is joining with others in New York State to assemble an archive related to the pandemic. My friend thought that my posts about being in the vaccine trial might be appropriate for the archive.

It turned out that the archiving project was interested in my vaccine trials posts and any others that dealt with living in the time of COVID. I had sent the vaccine posts first. Then, I worked my way through my blog archive, copying the links to other pandemic related posts.

I knew that I wrote about the impact of COVID-19 quite a lot, but I was surprised at how long the list of posts was – fifty-six posts, from late February through September 11, in addition to the handful of vaccine ones. I joked with the archivist about it being either “an embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment!” Since then, any time I write about our pandemic experiences I send her the link.

I had asked her how they were preserving the archive. She said that, while they do keep links on their computer, they are printing the materials for posterity. Archival technologies tend to come and go but paper lasts for a very long time.

It’s humbling to think that, decades from now, some future historian might stumble across some of my posts and be able to glean some insights about what it has been like dealing with these fraught times in our communities in upstate New York. First person contemporaneous accounts are highly sought sources for historians and documentarians and I would be honored if my posts are able to assist someone with their research some-year in the future.

re-opening fears

Some of the states here in the US are re-opening stores, hair, salons, dine-in restaurants, recreation activities, and other businesses, even though they haven’t met the not-very-ambitious federal benchmarks to do so during the pandemic.  They feel safe enough because they are not large cities like New York City or Chicago and they don’t have thousands of new cases every day in their state – or are ignoring it if they do.

I’m afraid they are ignoring not only science but also the experience of my state, New York.

The health guidelines are that limited re-opening should not occur until a state has had two weeks of decline in the number of cases. The reason for the two week timeframe is that fourteen days is considered the maximum incubation period, although people can develop symptoms as few as two days after exposure. If numbers are declining for two weeks, it signals that the outbreak is under some measure of control, so careful resumption of some business and recreational activities can resume in conjunction with testing widespread enough to quickly detect a rise in cases, in which case stricter measures would be resumed until there was again a two week decline. Not only do the states that are opening not meet the two-week decline criteria but also they don’t have the testing capacity to quickly detect an uptick in cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in studying the virus’s path in the United States, now realize that the strain that has caused so much illness and death in New York came through Europe, not directly from China. This strain appears to be even more virulent than the strain that came to the western US directly from China. During the weeks when the administration was banning travel from China, thousands upon thousands of travellers arrived from Europe to NYC area airports, some of them bringing the virus with them. It’s now estimated that there were 10,000 cases in the NYC area before any were officially recognized as COVID-19; this explains why New York State has so many more cases and, unfortunately, deaths than other states. The virus was already wide-spread in an area with a high population density weeks before anyone realized it.

New York, through closing all but essential or work-from-home businesses and encouraging most people to stay at home except to buy needed supplies, has managed to bring down the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, although not yet for long enough to enter phase one re-opening of some businesses. Plans are being made for eventual re-opening with testing in place to make sure that things will not get so out of hand that our hospitals will be overwhelmed with critical cases. There is the very real possibility that, despite all the planning and precautions, we might have to reverse course and close down again if the numbers start climbing. Until there is a vaccine, it is unlikely we will be able to get the case number down to zero or resume large-scale gatherings.

It’s not that Governor Cuomo and other state leaders don’t want to open more of the economy. They do, but not at the cost of more debilitating illness and death. As a community, we are all responsible for trying to protect the health of others, especially those most vulnerable to complications and those who are working in health care, food service, delivery, transit, custodial, and the other essential businesses that have been continuing to serve throughout the pandemic and who have been getting sick at much higher rates than other New Yorkers.

Our state leaders are also acutely aware of those who are unable to work because of the restrictions in place. There is enhanced unemployment insurance in place, as well as emergency food, utility, health, and homeless outreach programs. They are refusing the false dichotomy of illness/death or the economy, trying to prioritize health and life for everyone so that we are healthy to re-build our economy.

There are some New Yorkers and some folks in other states who are claiming that they have a right to be anywhere they want and do anything they want and that government has never interfered in people’s lives like this. They are overlooking that with our rights, both political and human, come responsibilities. The individual has the right to risk their own health, for example by drinking alcohol, but with that comes the responsibility not to harm others through violence or driving drunk. National and state governments have taken action to protect the public health in prior epidemics, such as the 1918 flu pandemic and the waves of polio that afflicted the world before the development of the vaccine. As I am fond of pointing out, in the Preamble of the Constitution, we the people of the United States established our national government to “promote the general welfare.” Each person has that responsibility to all the others. While some may have fallen into the illusion that individual freedom entitles them to do whatever they want, our system has always been a social one. One person’s freedom can’t interfere with others’ well-being, at least, not without challenge.

As I watch the news of opening of businesses in other states and see people in large gatherings without personal protection, I worry that, within a couple of weeks, there will be coverage of spikes in cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths, especially because some of the states have re-opened with major outbreaks in factories, nursing homes, and prisons, as though those cases won’t spread beyond facility walls. Maybe the strain they have circulating is not the more virulent one we have suffered with in New York.

Or, maybe, our collective burden of sorrow will be increased, knowing that learning lessons from New York’s experience could have saved heartbreak and lives, if only people had heeded them.

One-Liner Wednesday: freedom

“When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then (they) ceased to be free.”
~~~ Edith Hamilton/Edward Gibbon from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
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Badge by Laura @ riddlefromthemiddle.com

One-Liner Wednesday: Presidents

“Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings. This means that they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control.”
~~~ U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in her 120-page opinion that former White House Counsel Donald McGahn must comply with a Congressional subpoena
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Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2019/11/27/one-liner-wednesday-im-gonna-make-it/

Badge by Laura @ riddlefromthemiddle.com

Koper

After a few hours in Piran, we boarded our bus for a late lunch in Koper and then went to the cathedral to rehearse for our concert that evening.
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The cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. Our Slovenian guide told us that about half of the churches in Slovenia are dedicated to Mary under one or another of her many titles. Originally built in the 12th century, the cathedral evolved over the centuries to incorporate elements of later styles. Interestingly, the bell tower was originally a Roman watchtower, which explains why the stonework is so different from the rest of the cathedral. You can see some beautiful photos of the cathedral, including its impressive artwork, here.

As we saw often in Slovenia, locations tend to be a mix of styles over its long history, most of it spent dominated by other entities. The square where the cathedral is located is named Tito Square, after the president-for-life of Yugoslavia. The City Hall, which is on another side of the square, is a 15th century Venetian palace.
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After rehearsal, we had a bit of time to get something to eat before we had to dress for the concert. Given that our lunch had been both late and large, B and I decided to visit a gelato shop down near the port. We ate quite a lot of gelato in Slovenia, as there were shops or stands selling it wherever we had free time, perhaps a nod to the Italian influence in at least the southern part of Slovenia. Fortunately for B, who is lactose intolerant, most of the shops had a nice selection of sorbets and vegan gelato. On this evening, I chose a yummy vegan peach gelato.

After we dressed in our black concert attire, we waited outdoors until it was time to file into the cathedral. Here, my roommate at Smith and my first Smith friend are sitting and waiting, utilizing the fans that she brought for us. The sitting was important because we would be spending a lot of time standing on stone floors. The fans were important because it was July and quite warm. We were lucky, however, to have been in Slovenia in the time between two major European heat waves that set many all-time high temperature records. (I’m the one on the right with the silver hair and blue fan.)
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The concert was well-attended and well-received. It was so much fun to sing in that acoustical environment. You can read more about the music and concerts here.
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