LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Relevant curriculum needed to safeguard democracy

Full disclosure: I just completed a 31-year-career in Delaware as a social studies teacher, so I am biased, yet I know that a relevant social studies education (a relevant education, period) is one of the most powerful weapons we have to limit white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other extremist groups.

Delaware educators have worked for years to design model units that have become part of a “recommended curriculum” and yet essential subjects appear to be missing, such as world religions, the Holocaust or media literacy.

Do children read “The Diary of Anne Frank” anymore? The 11th-grade U.S. History recommended curriculum covers 140 years of U.S. history (1850-1990). It has 70 compelling units that are impossible to cover in a one-year course, never mind any in-depth analysis.

How deeply do students learn about immigration, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and elections? “Deeply” means diving into primary sources and really looking at the history and arguments over such topics and participating in debates.

One problem with the recommended curriculum is that it has become required in many districts. Depending upon their curriculum director, teachers might be given discretion over which units they choose, but some districts require teachers to teach all units that show up on the Department of Education’s website.

The debate over coverage versus depth should be over by now. Children’s brains (whether they are 8 or 18) need time to process and synthesize. Trying to cover 140 years in nine months is futile — if the goal is learning. People might argue that students should be exposed to this information, but exposure instead of understanding guarantees a lack of understanding.

Complete agreement about what is essential for an in-depth study is impossible as everyone seems to have their “favorite” topic, but if the goal of a social studies education is to empower students with the tools of citizenship, then there are some topics or periods that are more essential than others.

Today, many 18-year-olds cannot explain the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They have no clue about the role that Delaware played in desegregation. Too many people do not vote. Many Americans do not know the difference between the beliefs of Muslims and Hindus.

Some people argue that the Holocaust never happened. Immigrants are eyed with suspicion. Fake news is threatening the very foundation of our system of government. Extremist groups are increasingly visible.

In these troubled times, a relevant education is more important than ever.

Kathleen M. Doyle

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