Time to Be Heard: Diversifying Social Studies Curricula

Misunderstandings and failures of communication have long plagued social activism and its subsequent role in political discourse. Important conversations about race, gender, and more often get bogged down by a lack of accurate knowledge from one or multiple parties involved. When combined with the strict partisanship of current day, this results in few changed opinions and little progress made.

Part of this disconnect can be chalked up to a lack of experience with other perspectives; it can be incredibly difficult to understand viewpoints and/or experiences that you have not had yourself. Even having someone close to you who has had these experiences firsthand and can explain certain social issues to you is valuable, but the data suggest that many Americans aren’t exposed to this diversity of perspectives in their personal lives. Recent surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 9% of respondents said they have a family member or close friend who is transgender, and that 24% of Americans are not sure what the word “transgender” means. Another PRRI poll determined that 75% of white Americans only have white friends.

Obviously, there are significant social barriers that cause these phenomena, and you can’t (and shouldn’t) force people to artificially have relationships and interactions with those that have different identity characteristics. What can be done, however, is to provide insight into these perspectives and histories by telling their stories; a big place that this can happen is in school. Specifically, updating social studies curricula in public schools to include a more diverse array of narratives could be key to improving social and political discourse for future generations.

Think about your elementary school social studies classes. If they were anything like mine – which took place in a standard public school system just outside Boston – they probably focused mainly on three facets of American history: first and most dominantly, early American colonization up through the American Revolution, with the central figures being the pilgrims and the then the founding fathers; second, the various different Native American peoples and their cultures; and third, a general (but not very in depth) history of the civil rights movement. Of these latter two, only surface-level information was given – you may have been told who Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were and what they did, but not really why. Beyond that, the narratives of historically-oppressed peoples went largely unmentioned: no real discussion of the anti-Semitism that drove WWII; no reference to Japanese internment camps of WWII, or the Japanese and Chinese immigration exclusion acts of the 1880’s; no mention of the Pink Scare, the women’s movement, or the Islamaphobia people suffered post-9/11.

If we’re going to call a course “history and social studies,” it’s misleading and offensive to only pick very limited histories and social dynamics to study. Obviously, there are time constraints that limit how much material can be taught; American history is vast, and the time afforded to social studies in the typical elementary school setup is not nearly enough to cover all of it. Moreover, there’s something to be said about not exposing children to some of our more traumatic and graphic historical events at too early an age. But many perspectives not currently integrated into curricula should be introduced to students at an earlier age than they are now (if they are even included); the fact that someone can be well into their teens before they hear the term “Islamophobia” or “transgender” is erasure, and a particularly dangerous form of it. What’s more, people are more likely to be skeptical about the validity of certain ideas – even if they are undeniably true – if they spend most of their early life unaware of its existence. These are realities that Americans face every single day, and leaving them out of social studies curriculum invalidates their struggles to many of those who don’t experience them first-hand.

Updating public education’s social studies curriculum to include a more diverse array of narratives could be key to improving political and social discourse for future generations.

The most direct remedy for this problem (albeit also the most complicated to implement) would be a nation-wide revamping of social studies curriculum. Standards vary nationwide with many states developing their own curriculum guidelines, as the Common Core does not separate out history and social studies from reading curriculum until grade 6. In Colorado, the only diversity-based suggested lessons for grades K-5 revolve around early American settlers and immigrants and how they interacted with Native Americans; the words “race” and “gender” are never explicitly mentioned in the guidelines. New York’s standards seem to be more inclusive: they encourage children to explore concepts of race, ethnicity, and gender in the context of their own lives, and the fourth grade curriculum does have an emphasis on rights movements like abolitionism and the women’s movement from the 1800’s.

But the actual history taught still follows the same main narrative of other states across the country: that of America as a beacon of freedom and equality in the world, with little mention of the drastic inequalities many face regarding class, gender, race, and more. An addendum to the Common Core or state-by-state changes to incorporate more nuanced histories and varied perspectives – with a focus on highlighting the stories of those whose voices have historically been quieted – would go a long way to improving our education system, and thus our political and social discourse.

It is important, of course, to not try to imbue any sort of political viewpoint within these lessons. We shouldn’t, for example, try to tell students that the Stonewall Riots were a positive or negative event – public education must remain as apolitical as possible. However, choosing what stories to teach (and not to teach) in history classes is inherently political; one could argue that choosing not to tell the story of Stonewall is much more of a political action than telling it would be. In other words, whitewashing and smoothing out American social history is harmful because it leaves out critical information that is key to forming an accurate understanding of the country and world we live in. Injustices have happened, and many are of huge significance; ignoring them in the classroom is an omission of facts and an erasure of the realities people face every day.

The fact of the matter is nobody can fully understand forces of discrimination – both interpersonal and systemic – unless they experience them for themselves. However, learning about the social history of various demographics of historically oppressed peoples can at least provide some insight and generate more understanding and sympathy for the obstacles these people have faced and continue to face. It’s a significant failure of the public education system that these narratives are so often excluded from existing curricula. If we diversify social studies curricula now, we may in the future have a populace more attuned to the history of social inequality in America, leading to more civil discussion and common ground about the troubling persistence of discrimination in our country.