Campus radicalism is easy to spot—and condemn. Attempts to justify the atrocities committed by Hamas, and in some cases to celebrate it, have caused crises at dozens of universities, prompting deep-pocketed donors to publicly withdraw philanthropic support and threaten not to hire graduates. Even some stalwart liberals have been shocked by the depth and virulence of campus anti-Semitism.
Such scenes might be fewer and farther between in K–12, but that doesn’t mean there’s not cause for concern about how the Israel-Hamas war is being taught and discussed in public-school settings. The blunt truth is that America’s K–12 education system is uniquely ill-suited to help students make sense of complicated world events and navigate contentious issues, let alone achieve some level of moral clarity about them.
When major news breaks, social media and education news sites fill up with well-intended advice for teachers on “how to talk to students” about traumatic events. As often as not, that advice is aimed at reassuring children that distant events do not place them physically at risk or fostering “tolerance and empathy,” not teaching history. “When approached by children with questions about the Israel-Hamas war, parents and teachers should center conversations on empathy rather than politics,” advised Harvard “global health” lecturer Claude Bruderlein in the Boston Globe. New York City schools chancellor David Banks tweeted that New York City would be “providing resources to our schools to facilitate discussions about the conflict and supporting our students in being compassionate global citizens.” A fine impulse as far as it goes, but surely it’s of equal public interest to encourage students to become well-informed global citizens.
Readers of a certain age might remember doing “current events” as students, which typically consisted of giving an oral report in homeroom or during morning announcements about world, national, and local news culled from the newspaper. That public school warhorse rested on two assumptions, neither of which is reliably true today: that every student’s family took a daily newspaper (or watched the likes of Walter Cronkite the previous evening) and that public education at least tacitly viewed preparation for engaged citizenship as a core part of a school’s mission. Nor is it helpful that the credibility, neutrality, and trust in mainstream media, already low, has suffered repeated blows since October 7, potentially complicating classroom use of articles from major newspapers.
The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, a big deal in social studies circles, emphasizes the importance of “developing active and responsible citizens” who “vote, serve on juries when called, follow news and current events, and participate in voluntary and group efforts.” To the degree that any attention at all to contemporary events is part of the typical American student’s experience, it falls under social studies, the most neglected field in American education. Scores of eighth graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s civics and history exams are by far the lowest of any tested subject. Only 22 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the NAEP “proficient” level in civics. Just 13 percent in U.S. history. The student survey that accompanies the NAEP exam shows less than half (45 percent) of U.S. students report getting “quite a bit” or “a lot” of opportunity to discuss current political and social events.
Perhaps we should be grateful for that. The group Parents Defending Education reports receiving several complaints from parents in the past month pertaining to inappropriate classroom materials and displays, including a California teacher displaying an image in class showing a fist destroying a Star of David. A Massachusetts school superintendent circulated “resources” from the Saudi-backed Middle East Policy Council, which said, in part, “Israeli terrorism has been significantly worse than that of the Palestinians.” As Fordham’s Daniel Buck reported in National Review, the Zinn Education Project, which develops history curricula used by 155,000 teachers, declared that Hamas’s terrorist attack “is the direct result of decades of Israeli occupation.”
Such episodes illustrate an aspect of classroom life that is too dimly understood, even by education policymakers and otherwise well-informed observers, who fail to grasp how little control is exercised over the curriculum and materials put in front of students on any given day. Studies by the RAND Corporation have long shown that nearly every U.S. teacher draws regularly upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in preparing lessons. Only half of elementary principals surveyed by RAND reported that their schools had adopted published curriculum materials to support kindergarten through grade five (K–5) social studies instruction.
But the standard practice of teachers scouring the Internet for materials takes on a very different feel when it comes to hot-button political or social issues. Teachers who are on shaky ground in their own understanding of world events are a ripe target of opportunity for curriculum materials and lesson resources published by organizations that promote particular points of view.
A good illustration of the phenomenon is the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” The Pulitzer Center produced classroom material based on the controversial series. Only five school districts in the U.S. are known to have officially adopted it for classroom use, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo. Yet the Pulitzer Center’s website claims that its materials have been used in 4,500 classrooms across the county. So which is correct? Almost certainly, it’s both. The simple fact is that a prodigious amount of material ends up in front of children in classrooms all across America with little or no oversight or official vetting.
In an ideal world (and perhaps in a different era), teaching current events would encourage debate, deliberation, and discussion. It would also suggest to students that part of becoming a well-educated citizen is paying attention, beyond one’s personal interests, to the world outside the classroom window and developing informed opinions. The neglect of history as a discipline, inattention to current events, the collapse of trust in the media—and the normalization of teachers culling their classroom materials from untrustworthy sources—adds up to a kind of pedagogical perfect storm that is likely to result in students either misinformed or in the dark entirely on events that are likely to have far-reaching impact on their lives for many years.