The rise of Donald Trump and his nationalist and racist political agenda has been disturbing to many of us. This morning, a friend asked me, “How could this happen in the United States?”
We agreed that are many contributing factors. For the past several decades, the United States (like much of the rest of the world) has been witnessing a social transformation the likes of which few living people can recall. Since the end of World War II, a new societal structure has gradually been taking shape. It is global rather than national. It is technological rather than agricultural/industrial. Technology has made geography increasingly irrelevant, breaking down longstanding cultural/racial identities. It is profound in its reach and depth. In the process, it has given rise to fear, anger, and resentment on the part of many affected people. But the question remains: How could the United States fall victim to the radical reactionaries of the likes of Donald Trump, whose best historical antecedent may well be Adolph Hitler?
One factor may well be that we are no longer preparing our young people—either in the public schools or in our colleges and universities—to function effectively as citizens. Here is a personal perspective. I was born in 1948, at the end of the old industrial period and at the beginning of the current societal transformation. Throughout the 1950s, American education was focused on how to maintain democracy in this changing world. This was epitomized by the Truman Commission report of 1947, which proposed outcomes for the undergraduate curriculum and standards for general education. It guided curriculum planning through much of the Cold War.
As a high school student in the first half of the 1960s, I benefitted from a high school social studies curriculum that reflected the Commission’s goals. The 9th grade social studies course was divided between a half-year of Pennsylvania history and a half-year of “civics”—which included an overview of the Constitution and the various structures of government at the state and national levels. Tenth grade was devoted to American history. Eleventh grade focused on world history. And the senior year social studies class was “Problems Of Democracy,” which explained how our government worked and explored some of the major issues that American democratic institutions had dealt with in recent history.
Unfortunately, my college experience was a bit different. While we were offered highly interdisciplinary courses in the history of the humanities and in the biological and physical sciences, civics education was not given the same treatment. We were left with the usual discipline-based introductory courses in sociology, history, and political science. The distribution curriculum did not guarantee that all student were exposed to these subjects. The discipline-based academic department structure has resisted major interdisciplinary innovations.
Today, civics education seems to have waned even at the high school level. Our culture has been in a period of profound change for much of the past five decades. This year’s radicalism suggests that we need, once again, to take responsibility for the civic education of our young people and, especially, for college students who may lead our communities in the years ahead. However, this must not be “your grandfather’s civics class.” If we are to ensure that our communities—and our broader society—can thrive in the new environment, we need to prepare young people to live in the global, multi-cultural, technology-based society and economy that has been growing for the past half-century and that is now blossoming around the world.
Much has been said lately about whether our educational system is a benefit to society or simply to the individuals who learn a vocation in our schools and universities. Now is the time to re-imagine the social role of American education and to build a new curriculum—and revitalize our institutions—to meet the needs of this new society.