On Jan. 6, the world watched as President Donald Trump spoke to a crowd of supporters in Washington.
Over the next few hours, those supporters — waving Trump flags, egging each other on — forced their way into the U.S. Capitol. A panicked Congress evacuated, leaving a mob to breach the heart of American democracy for the first time in more than 200 years.
On Jan. 7, social studies teachers had to explain it to their students.
It was a tall task. And in some school districts, teachers initially didn’t even try. Matt Carlstrom, a teacher at Minnesota’s Deer River High School, said his administration forbade teachers from bringing it up. Later, after talks with district leadership, those restrictions were loosened.
“This did happen to other teachers, throughout the state,” Carlstrom said. “I think there was concern that if we were too passionate about one side or the other, that was going to go home and make some families upset.”
School isn’t what it used to be. Teenagers today are living in a world where American politics — the most divided in generations — are crashing up against digital disinformation in the TikTok age. Progressive politics are transforming the way America talks about and teaches race. At the same time, multiple states are reviewing their social studies standards, touching off deep debates about classroom content.
The result puts social studies and civics classrooms at the center of some of the most difficult conversations in the country. That debate isn’t just about how to build a generation of smart, upstanding voters, but about the nature of American history itself.
In Minnesota, leaders are weighing scheduled updates to statewide standards, catapulting it into its own fight about a more progressive, inclusive version of history. In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem has complained about “indoctrination” in the classroom just as the state launches into its own work to “strengthen” civics and history. And those debates are no surprise to the teachers who grapple with them all the time.
"There is a real push-pull, and it speaks to the divide of where we are as a country right now,” said Carlstrom, a member of the nearly 40-person Minnesota committee tasked with drafting updated standards. “This idea that there's a base-level amount of knowledge on certain things that everybody should know, and it's black and white and cut and dried. And that doesn't work very well in social studies, because there's so many shades of gray."
That’s especially tough in a country with shrinking middle ground. Brent Jiran, a North Dakota social science teacher at Grand Forks’ Schroeder Middle School, said this year marked the first time since he’d started in the mid-1990s that Schroeder hadn’t held its mock election — with students divided into 50 states, each of which “vote” for a presidential candidate.
COVID-19, of course, had made it nearly impossible. But even without the pandemic, it would have been hard.
“It felt like there isn’t enough good that’s going to come out of it,” Jiran said, “for all of the stress that it puts on students that were just absolutely petrified that one candidate was maybe going to win this thing.”
The classroom fight itself is nothing new, though. Social studies teachers, who tell the story of America, have long been at the center of arguments over precisely how that story should be told.
But in recent years, and especially after the events of 2020 — from the COVID pandemic to the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd to the countless protests that unfolded across last summer — there’s a reckoning with race in the U.S. that’s found its way into schools. The Washington Post counts recent classroom battles in Florida, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Idaho, where the question of how to teach social studies is increasingly centered around race and inclusion.
In Minnesota, new statewide social studies standards are being revised right now, on their regular schedule. A draft of the new standards, released in December, notes they’re intentionally written to be more “inclusive.” The full document stresses the importance of students engaging with the consequences of climate change, their place in “diverse communities” and the “genocide that occured in the past within the land that is Minnesota today.”
Bobbie Burnham, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the schedule for the next draft release was bumped to this summer after significant public comment.
In the meantime, the process has touched off conservative criticism worried about the “woke” liberalization of the classroom.
And in South Dakota, there’s another conversation about the future. Gov. Kristi Noem, writing in January, said “the left’s indoctrination takes place every day with kids all across America from the time they walk into a school at age 5 to the time they graduate college at 22.” She’s since won $900,000 from the Legislature to give an already-planned revision to the state’s approach to social studies an added boost.
A spokesperson for Noem did not respond to a request for comment.
Jessica Ellison is a teacher-educator at the Minnesota Historical Society, doing professional development and curriculum development for teachers. She’s also president of the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies.
“I think there’s a misperception about public education in general,” she said. “That teachers are all up in front of their rooms, ‘indoctrinating’ — that’s the word (critics) like to use — indoctrinating students. But a good social studies teacher teaches critical thinking skills, teaches evaluation of evidence, teaches corroboration of sources.”
And in a world where kids are faced with a barrage of news — increasingly from places like social media sites TikTok and SnapChat — that’s crucial.
Eli Zerr, an eighth-grader at South Middle School in Grand Forks, said he gets much of his news from digital digests, which curate a selection of credible mainstream sources from around the internet.
But many of his peers, he said, don’t. They’re active social media users who, at the end of the school day, pop open their phone and see what’s happening on social media. It’s instant information, but it’s a far thing from reading a newspaper.
“I think, overall, it’s kind of a double-edged sword, because on one hand they have access to the news. So they could see it. But is that news always accurate?” he said, recalling a school project exploring digital misinformation. “Social media is the biggest hotbed for fake news.”
One Stanford study, conducted in 2018 and 2019, worked with nearly 3,500 students. More than half of them fell for a disinformation video that claimed to be of ballot-box stuffing at the 2016 Democratic primaries — but was actually shot in Russia. The study found that only three students investigated the video’s source, “even though a quick search turns up a variety of articles exposing the ruse.”
And there’s evidence that civics education, in recent decades, has taken a back seat to science and math, just as the internet age has amplified disinformation and fractured the news landscape. In 2019, one leading advocate estimated the federal government spends about $54 per student on science, tech and math education and about five cents per student on civics.
Social studies class requirements throughout the upper Midwest are roughly similar. In North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota, students must take a collection of history and government courses. They vary slightly when it comes to the precise number of courses or units, or precisely what the classes are called, but they all try to cover the basic structure of American history, with a dollop of civics and economics.
● South Dakota requires one year of U.S. history, a half-year of U.S. government and 1.5 years of social studies electives.
● Minnesota requires a half-year citizenship and government; a half-year of geography; a half-year of economics; and one year each of world history and U.S. history.
● North Dakota requires one year of U.S. history. In addition, students must either take an additional half-year of U.S. history and a half-year of economics; or one year of “problems of democracy.”
And all three states have roughly similar scores on Advanced Placement tests — which help students test out of university study while they’re in high school. Those tests are graded on a five-point scale. The average 2020 score for the U.S. Government and Politics test was 3.11 in South Dakota, 3.02 in Minnesota and 2.78 in North Dakota.
There are a few key differences, though. North Dakota, for instance, began requiring a civics test for graduation in 2015 — the second state to do so.
But as the world changes, so does exactly what kids need to know. Social studies teachers point out that kids don’t really need to know how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution (there are 27), but instead should learn how to be active members of a democratic society. Those are breathtakingly different things. One is a collection of facts, and the other is a skill.
Ellison recalls the case of a group of students who organized to change the name of their school. That lesson, she said, taught them what it really means to be a citizen — to lobby their local government for the change they want to see around them.
“Those kids will never forget that,” Ellison said. “You know?”
In Brent Jiran’s classroom at Schroeder Middle School, Jan. 6 left him with the same tough task as any other social studies teacher. He went to school knowing that the issue was a tinderbox — and he jumped in.
Jiran started his students on mainstream, “middle-of-the-road” news coverage, getting students to understand what had happened and how. But once he got them there, he said, the conversation turned to history. The war of 1812 was the last time the Capitol had been breached.
Jiran said he tried to get students to understand why someone — rightly or wrongly — might feel compelled to go to Washington and storm the Capitol.
But, he said, he ended with something important: the sense that, at the root of the issue, there’s an argument, and one that can be won by thinking and studying. It’s the same kind of thing teachers in multiple states say — they’re always proud that, in a polarized country, their classroom can often be an island where kids from different backgrounds can have a conversation.
‘“This is why we have order,” Jiran recalls telling the students. “‘Because you can't just have the strongest winning the literal fight instead of intellectual arguments.”
Gabe Sagini, one of Jiran’s eighth-grade students, said that teaches a valuable lesson.
“I think we’re more brought together. We can have more meaningful discussions and you don’t just jump to conclusions anymore,” he said. “We’re now more willing to discover the facts and look a bit deeper when we’re trying to understand something.”