Forum, July 8: Teaching History and Civics

Friday, July 07, 2017
How We Teach Civics

This is regarding the July 4 opinion column, “Don’t Know Much About History.” I retired from teaching social studies at the end of the last millennium. Where to begin a reasoned response to this column?

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: Without an educated citizenry there has never been and cannot be a democracy.

The cultural/political problems of history and civics curriculum and instruction in American public schools are of long standing and deep-seated. To wit:

1.) I find it paradoxical that Americans believe that we can instill democratic civic values in an institution that is a bureaucracy, i.e., a top-down organization.

2.) In more than one school that I have known, the administration believed it appropriate to hire teachers of history/civics whose primary responsibility and qualifications were actually to coach athletics. Whatever they did in the classroom was something of an afterthought.

3.) The funding of public education generally is perceived as “a problem,” and is often subordinated to other political priorities.

4.) Public education tends to devolve into a middle-class enterprise with something of a bias toward serving the mobility aspirations of students, wherein career success is the primary goal. Citizenship in a democracy — not so much. The teaching of “history” is lacking in civic purpose, lacking consistency.

Precisely what should be taught in one semester of civics? For instance, of what use is it to teach “how a bill becomes a law” in the light of current legislative manipulations?

Boris G. von York

Springfield, Vt.

Teaching Rather Than Testing

As a former fourth-grade teacher, I can say that the testing demands of the accountability push ushered in with No Child Left Behind threw many in education for a loop. Ultimately, the focus on accountability encouraged the use of research to drive instruction.

Getting there was not smooth. Sometimes, preparing for new assessments required by state and federal mandates consumed valuable time that had been spent on subjects like science and social studies, which is what William Dunlap of the New Hampshire Historical Society discussed in his July 4 column.

 In order for a trip to the historical society to have lasting impact, the children need to have studied community in kindergarten, themselves in first grade, the neighborhood in second grade, the town in third and then the state in fourth. Even then, some children got confused — just as there are some who still have baby teeth or can’t yet reason in the abstract — and ask if the governor is the king. This is expected because they are only 9. Additionally, I waited until the spring to go, to have time to teach them about state government, colonial life, the symbols of the state and the reasons for disagreements with England. 

Districts buy programs that promise to produce better scores tailor-made to the student’s needs, according to digital formulas, because the higher scores help real estate values and reduce tax bills. Software costs money, so something has to go, which means fewer or no field trips, sadly.

Rather than having children raise funds themselves for educational field trips, adults need to rally our school boards to reinstate the essential building blocks necessary to have an informed citizenry. Teachers are innovating, and creating as many ways as they can to make these experiences happen, but they need our help.

Debra N. Beaupre


Stuck in Poverty

If you want to know more about why people are stuck in poverty and who is getting rich off them, read Evicted by Matthew Desmond. You might be surprised.

Landlords take more than half the tenant’s income for rent, leaving too little for food, utilities, clothing for themselves and their children, and medical expenses.

If the tenants do repairs to their homes like painting to help earn money or reduce rent, the landlords grossly underpay them. Ultimately, tenants are evicted, as they can never catch up.

The author shows how landlords prosper on evictions, because someone is always waiting for a place to rent. For example, one tenant had an unusable toilet and sinks, and could not reach the landlord. The landlord and her husband were away buying a second home in the tropics.

Elaine Smith


It’s All Fake News

The conservatives call the liberal media fake news. The liberals call the conservative media fake news. Folks, it’s all fake news. The Republicans are fake news. The Democrats are fake news. Washington is fake news.

It’s all corporate marketing. The owners are selling products. Their products are fear and loathing, division and dissension, murder and mayhem, death and destruction. Their favorite product is war. It’s a best seller. They are confident that the consumers will buy what they’re selling. They always do.

The owners are laughing all the way to the bank. In fact, they own the bank. The owners employ overpaid TV war salesmen. They’ve all sold their souls. After all, those who tell the truth rarely become rich and famous; more likely, poor and lonely. Vox clamantis in deserto: a voice crying out in the wilderness

Truth-tellers get no hundred-million-dollar contracts like George Stephanopoulos. But ultimately, the mass media is irrelevant because truth is unstoppable. On the dollar bill is written, “In God We Trust,” but we put our faith in the untrustworthy instead. That was a big mistake. The world does not work the way we were told as children in school. And it doesn’t work the way we’re told by the TV news.

Neil Meliment


Trump’s Obsession

The pursuit of the virtually nonexistent voter fraud in America conjures up the example of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the great white whale, Moby Dick. Today, Donald Trump is Captain Ahab and his “white whale” obsession is trying to prove he won the popular vote.

Sadly, our New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner appears to have bought into this futility.

Gordon Porter Miller