Curriculum for an emancipatory democracy

As a professor working in the social sciences, I often struggle with choosing appropriate content for my undergraduate students, which resources (i.e., books, articles, movies, etc.) they should consult, and how to best evaluate their understanding of these materials.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that most K-12 public schools and community colleges do a poor job educating the majority of students I encounter. Based on conversations with other colleagues I hear similar concerns. More specifically, the current political situation has highlighted how little many Americans know about their history, the constitution, the political process, the ability to think critically, and information literacy.

This state of affairs poses a number of contradictions. For example, we ask people who are becoming American citizens many of the basics of American history, laws and politics.

Why do we do this?

We want them to know this information because we realize the importance of having citizens know these simple facts. So why should we not require the general public to do the same?

We don’t bother to ensure that this is true for natural born citizens. In fact, a lot of Americans have difficulty passing a citizenship test.

This state of affairs is a fundamental breeding ground for the the decline of democracy and the acceptance of authoritarianism.

I don’t mean this piece to be another drawn out critique of the current state of K-12 education in the United States. But I do want to highlight a few things that I have alluded to in earlier posts about inequality, political participation, and crimes of the powerful.

Most Americans are woefully ignorant about their history, civics, and the law. They also have challenges with logic and critical thinking. This is especially evident in their understanding of what a democracy is, what it can achieve, the threats to its existence, and its limits. This has led to many of our political leaders proclaiming on network television many things that are just not true. And in some cases journalists who are either lazy, unskilled, or don’t know the facts failing to challenge these claims.

Ever since Newt Gingrich’s rants in Congress, we have experienced a ramping up of the culture wars. This struggle is evident in rhetoric coming from many of the talking heads and pundits prominently featured in our news and played out in the content disseminated in social media outlets. It’s also evident in our local school boards fights. In many jurisdictions there’s a comprehensive effort to re-write history and dumb down civic education.

Rather than bemoan the situation, we need to ask ourselves, is it possible to right this ship? I believe it is. It’s by no means an easy task, but it’s achievable. I will start by suggesting a few subject areas that need to be emphasized.


Students need to be exposed to and forced to learn the classics. Not the Sparks Notes or sanitized Disney version of this content. We can debate the specifics of what the classics should consist of, but there is no debate here. By reading the classics students should learn that many of the debates we witness today are longstanding and that solutions to many of them have been offered, some of them have been tried and some of these experiments work better than others in particular situations. Again, this also means that we have qualified people who can teach these subjects, which is yet another argument, left for another day.


And just because you stand for Pledge and the national anthem, and wave the flag neither means that you understand American history nor the constitution. Students making their way through the public school system should learn both these items as they were originally written and the important commentaries. Americans need to learn how essential slavery was to the founding of the thirteen colonies, and how the founding fathers tried really hard not to abolish it. I also believe that it is necessary to understand that was not just founded but it relied upon the genocide of American Indians. I think it’s also important to teach that the Constitution is literally words on paper (which the founders recognized as imperfect) and almost every country has one, but ours has been elevated to some sort of mythic document.

Civics & Government

In terms of politics, it’s not sufficient to simply know how many years a senator can serve, or how a bill gets passed, but how ideas in the public realm make or don’t make their way into legislation, including the limits of the law on human behavior. Americans also need to learn the history of public protest, including nonviolent protest, and the heavy handedness of the state when legitimate protest is squashed by law enforcement, the national guard, or company goons. I also think that Americans believe that “government” is something that happens very far away and not in their backyard.

Critical Thinking & Information Literacy

Finally, students need to understand logic. There are multiple courses at the university level that teach this subject, but it should be mandatory at the K-12 level. I’m not talking about taking classes like today we learn about Descartes. I’m referring to systematically picking apart arguments and learning the different kinds of fallacies inherent in them. Closely connected to this point is that students should be well versed in information literacy. Simply going to google or a search engine of choice without being able to deconstruct (i.e., assess the validity) of what we read is insufficient.

The elements of this curriculum should apply to all students, whether they are enrolled in the public school system, or those in private or parochial schools, and homeschoolers.

-How will we establish this? How will we make sure that this is what is being taught? There needs to be a recurrent funding mechanism for this curriculum. Public schools should be primarily funded by the federal government and not through local property taxes. If the new system or funding model is properly designed it could be enabling and not a chokehold. If the private sector or wealthy individuals want to pitch through financial incentives with no strings attached, and get a tax break, that is fine. But we can no longer leave the curricula and teaching of important subjects subject to the whim of local preferences. We need a curricula and the subjects that are taught in order to be a bulwark against authoritarianism and one that is truly emancipatory.

photo credit woodleywonderworksFollow
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