CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Is contemporary history taught in schools?

October 12th, 2012
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This week, CIRCLE released a new fact sheet entitled “State Civic Education Requirements,” a scan of civic education-related standards and requirements in every state and the District of Columbia. All states have social studies standards that describe the essential knowledge and skills that students need for citizenship, work, and higher education. (Civic education can occur in many subjects, but social studies courses are particularly valuable opportunities to learn civic knowledge and skills.) The work was made possible by funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

One theme that we found in 35 states’ social studies standards concerns “contemporary US History.” Although that theme is common, states differ in how, or whether, they define “contemporary.” Twenty-six states do not specify what “contemporary” means in the standards themselves. Some define it as the “1980’s until present.” A few of the standards focus on connecting historical and present-day issues.

In our 2006 survey (PDF), young adult Americans recalled that historical issues had been much more prominent in their social studies courses than current events. Forty-one percent of young Americans recalled “the Constitution or the U.S. system of government and how it works” was the main theme they had studied in civics courses. The other themes that they recalled, in descending order, were “wars and military battles” (32 percent), “great American heroes and the virtues of the American form of government” (26 percent), and tied for fourth place were “problems facing the country today” (11 percent) and “racism and other forms of injustice in the American system” (11 percent).

There is no consensus about what mix of history and current events is best, but the typical curriculum seems to have shifted in favor of history. In 1948-9, 41.5% of American high school students took “Problems of Democracy,” a course that typically involved reading and debating stories from the daily newspaper. By the early 1970s, that proportion was down to 8.9%, and the course is now very rare (Niemi & Smith 2001). On the other hand, American history courses remain almost universal requirements.

Some evidence suggests that young people who do not continue on to college (and whose civic engagement is typically very low) are alienated by curricula that emphasize history to the exclusion of current events and issues.  Out-of-school youth in our research said that civic education was engaging and memorable when it seemed relevant to civic experiences in their daily lives or current issues and problems. Many respondents felt detached from what they were learning in their civics courses – and most of their time was spent reading textbooks and doing worksheets. Of course, history can be taught in engaging ways, but research also suggests that moderated discussions of contemporary issues and interactive activities promote active citizenship later in life.

Smith, J.B. & Niemi, R. (2001). Learning history in school: The impact of course work and instructional practice on achievement. Theory and Research in Social Education, 29(1)18-42.

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