The students who protested at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, were all violent rebels and deserved to die.
The National Guard that participated in the KSU shooting on May 4 were all murderers and totally without justification for their actions.
It’s been 50 years since the tragedy at Kent State University (KSU) where four students were killed during protests of the United States’ escalation of the Vietnam War. For some people, emotions are still raw. For others, time has clouded the view a bit. But for many, it’s still about perceptions. For today’s high school social studies students, the event may be viewed in different ways, influenced partially by what is taught or discussed in a school.
May 4 isn’t alone. Having students learn about controversial subjects, including slavery, Reconstruction, Japanese internment camps, the treatment of Native Americans and religious beliefs some people don’t hold, make many (particularly parents and teachers) nervous. As a result, people have voiced concerns that certain aspects of American history, civics and government aren’t being fully taught in schools. And if those things are basically ignored, can the U.S. have a society whose members vote — and vote wisely — participate in civic events and, most importantly, learn tolerance?
The responsibility of schools to fairly and fully teach history and civics cannot be underestimated. The country’s fragmented society — divided by age, race, geography, religion and political slant — can only function well if everyone understands the tenets of the government. That’s not to say things can’t, and in some cases, shouldn’t be changed. But people need to know the foundations first before presenting arguments on one side or another.
Is what a president of the United States doing illegal? An abuse of power? Does the Electoral College still work? What are the checks and balances of the three divisions of government? Can an administration force isolation or immunizations related to communicable diseases? Are tax laws fair? The list of questions is varied and critical. Young people need to take an interest and voice opinions based on research and future needs. Thought-provoking social studies classes allow students the chance to decide for themselves and make well-informed decisions.
“I think most of social studies is controversial,” says Todd Hawley, associate professor, Social Studies Teacher Education, KSU. “If people on Facebook can engage in discussions about these subjects, so can a seventh grader in Ravenna. Teachers worry about the approval of parents. We live in an era where everything is blamed on teachers in schools. The national conversation is that teachers are failing their communities.
“Time is a real concern. A teacher’s end-of-the-year evaluation is partially based on [student] test scores,” says Hawley. “The pressure is real. But coursework that doesn’t involve just tests and textbook memorization, but instead gets students engaged, can be worked into classes where it doesn’t disrupt what must be taught for standards. Social studies should be transformative and engage students in their real worlds.”
To help middle school and high school teachers teach students about events surrounding May 4, KSU will hold two workshops this summer. “Making Meaning of May 4: The Kent State Shootings in U.S. History” will connect to today’s concerns.
“I think teachers probably have more freedom than they think,” says Hawley, who also expressed concern that some teachers who are not accustomed to talking about controversial subjects or who don’t come from multicultural neighborhoods sometimes have difficulty giving kids the space to inquire about things like race relations or prejudice. “But I am an outsider. I am not in a public school classroom teaching every day. I do think administrators should give more support to teachers.”
The Ohio Department of Education sets course requirements that students must complete to earn a diploma. This includes a half-unit of American history, half-unit of American government and half-unit of world history and civilization for students in the classes of 2021 and beyond. Districts and schools may have requirements that exceed state limits. Electives range with community, student and teacher interest.
Joe Boyle, whose family has roots in East Cleveland, is a Toledo Public Schools history teacher. Boyle was named the 2019 Ohio History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit organization dedicated to kindergarten through 12th grade history education. Boyle was always interested in American history, noting that three of his great uncles served this country during war time. One relative was killed in 1944 during World War II’s Normandy Invasion.
“When I took history in school, there was a textbook and questions at the end of the chapter,” says Boyle. “The textbook now is supplemental, and I use packets of primary sources custom tailored to what projects students are doing.”
“Social studies learning standards are unique to Ohio, so textbooks do not align perfectly,” adds Kathi Maxwell, associate superintendent of instruction (7-12), with the Westlake City School District. (Westlake requires three social studies credits for graduation and offers 13 electives, including AP art history, contemporary thoughts and issues and American government with financial literacy.) “Teachers will supplement material as they see fit. However, supplemental material must be aligned with the curriculum.”
Maxwell says potential social studies textbooks for use in Westlake classrooms are examined for teacher needs, student diversity, multicultural representation, cost, clarity and other factors.
Textbook selection is a discussion for another day. Hawley points out that while “the perception is that teachers are supposed to be neutral,” the reality is that textbooks, just by what they cover and don’t cover, are seldom unbiased.
“Land of Hope,” by Wilfred McClay (Encounter Books), is one of the new history books that has helped fuel the debate regarding the accuracy and purpose of textbooks. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He has this to say about the country’s political left and right versions of history and how to close that gap: “A certain kind of pop postmodernism has done us a great disservice in undermining the idea that there can be truth in history, preferring the lazy and self-serving idea that ‘narrative is all,’ and your narrative and my narrative are equally good, since they are ‘ours’ and therefore incontestable. But truth is the basis of our common world. We cannot have a common world unless we agree on its contours.”
Boyle says knowledge of local history is vital if students are to gain a sense of place and understand how that influences civic engagement and economic development. Students in Boyle’s hyperlocal history classes, which begin next spring, will each choose a person, place or thing from Toledo’s history deserving of a memorial marker and raise funds to make that a reality. Boyle also acknowledges that history teachers’ lesson plans can be loaded with landmines.
“There is almost more of a resistance to teaching a class on slavery than there is encouragement,” says Boyle, pointing out the enrollment of his Toledo high school is about equally split between whites, African Americans and Hispanics. “In one particular class, I had a parent who was upset that we spent five days teaching about slavery. I was embarrassed that we only spent five days.”
Boyle described teachers’ efforts to present course content, as dictated by the Ohio Department of Education, as being put through a “meat grinder” for the amount of social studies materials that must be covered in one course or year. Many educators say it’s a balancing act between just teaching facts and figures and meeting standards and getting students really engaged in a subject, which can take a lot more time. Also, the recent push for more S.T.E.M. education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in schools has squeezed out some elective social studies courses.
“But how do you make sense of the Jim Crow era if you don’t know Reconstruction?” asks Boyle. “How do you make sense of the Civil Rights era if you don’t do Reconstruction? Were Japanese internment camps massive imprisonments or necessary for national security? I want students to make the call themselves when they have a variety of evidence in front of them.”
Boyle says he doesn’t know if civics is more or less important than it was when he began teaching in 2003. Americans wrangle over the balance of power among the three branches of government or wonder if actions by elected political figures are legal. History is a living entity — opinions over its interpretations will always change and vary. But Boyle “understands a lot of people are really fired up right now that we have to have more civic education.”
“A lot of us have been screaming about that for a really long time,” says Boyle, who believes getting students interested in local news is imperative, can help fill some gaps in teaching and is an ongoing, lifelong education. “As a civics and government teacher, what scares me more than anything is the constant shrinking of local news. So many boards and local committees get to meet in secrecy today because news organizations just don’t have the capacity to cover them. To me, the real crisis is the lack of interest for any local or state issues.”
Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) follows state standards and requires three units of social studies, according to Lavora “Gayle” Gadison, curriculum and instruction manager, social studies. Gadison began her career in 1971 and was a middle and high school teacher for 31 years. She, too, is particularly concerned with the way certain topics are covered.
“We do a terrible job at teaching about slavery and its impact. We talk about it as something that happened and that it’s over, so be done with it. We isolate the content into a separate class — often black history. But this is American history. We need to fully teach it, not because slavery was horrible, but so we can examine the world today. In Cleveland, we have done an inadequate job covering this,” says Gadison, who is passionate about teaching the provisions of the Constitution and the connection to slavery.
“Students need to understand that many of the provisions were put in to protect slavery, and that the right to bear arms was put in by people to protect themselves against potential slave insurrection,” she says. “We don’t teach in that context.”
It’s not just about teaching history and the past that worries some educators and parents. Some schools choose to slide a bit on civics course content because of the fear of offending community members of varying ethnic or religious groups, or the concern that a teacher may go too far voicing his or her own opinions. Offending groups can translate into no votes when school levies come on the ballot, not to mention lawsuits and pretty ticked off PTA moms.
“You’re not supposed to tell kids to vote for this person or to not vote for that person, but to talk about making decisions and solving problems,” says Gadison.
Does that happen in all classrooms? Do today’s students even care about their teachers’ opinions? Parents have all asked their teens what they did in school that day and heard the response, “Nothing.” But teachers do have impact and influence — probably even many years later.
Orange City School District requires four credits of social studies for graduation and also offers electives, such as introduction to law, social psychology and history through film.
Karen Moore, director of curriculum and instruction for the district, claims to be “unaware” of any social studies content being changed or not taught because of student, parent or community reactions during her tenure. Moore gave the same answer when asked if the district received any complaints about content or how a civics or history class was being taught.
Concerns about what is taught in a classroom are often addressed by parent/teacher conversations first before school administrators and school boards are involved.
Moore also provided written sections of her school board’s stance on controversial subjects. The board permits a topic in a course if it: is related to the course of study and level of maturity of the students; does not tend to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view; and encourages open-mindedness and is conducted in a spirit of scholarly inquiry.
Board guidelines also state: “No classroom teacher shall be prohibited from providing reasonable periods of time for activities of a moral, philosophical or patriotic theme. No students shall be required to participate in such activities if they are contrary to the religious convictions of the student or his/her parents or guardians.”
Students are not excused from the course, however, and alternative learning activities are provided during requested absences. Also, controversial issues may not be initiated by a source outside the schools without principal approval, according to school board policy.
“All social studies classes should be open to discussing social issues that take place in the community today,” says Hawley. “Teaching isn’t telling. You’re not going to stand up in front of a class and say no one should be able to own a gun. But if you connect those discussions to ways adolescents are involved today with environmental concerns or stopping school shootings, it makes it easier to justify what you are doing in your classroom.”
And maybe should be doing, some observers say. Some school districts need to re-evaluate their social studies curriculums. It must be determined that what is in the master plan is really being taught in classrooms through innovative and honest discussions. Or else most young people will know more about TikTok than the First Amendment.
What’s the Difference?
Social Studies – the study of human reaction in societies and cultures; usually consists of several branches, including geography, history, government, civics, economics and politics; often used as an umbrella term
Civics – the study of citizenship; high school civics courses teach about voting, paying taxes, the role of government in people’s lives, etc.
American History – the past story of the U.S.; in many high schools, the narrative picks up after what was taught in middle school, generally from 1877.