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Reassessing the Social Studies Curriculum: Promoting Critical Civic Engagement in a Politically Polarized, Post-9/11 World

reviewed by Sohyun An - December 19, 2016

coverTitle: Reassessing the Social Studies Curriculum: Promoting Critical Civic Engagement in a Politically Polarized, Post-9/11 World
Author(s): Wayne Journell (Ed.)
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475818122, Pages: 152, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, the American political landscape has become increasingly polarized and contentious. The us versus them attitude has bifurcated along party lines and intolerance of others has only continued to grow. We saw this clearly during the recent presidential election. In this polarized post-9/11 context, how can we create spaces for critical thinking, multiple perspectives, and productive discussion? How can we prepare our next generation of citizens to work together for societal changes toward democracy and justice? What role should social studies play in this process and how? Wayne Journells edited book, Reassessing the Social Studies Curriculum: Promoting Critical Civic Engagement in a Politically Polarized, Post-9/11 World, grapples with these timely and compelling questions.

Journell did a great job combining nine chapters from some of the leading scholars in the field of social studies education to revisit the question of what social studies education should look like in a post-9/11 world (p. xxi). The authors collectively generate necessary and fascinating conversations about the status and potential of social studies in an increasingly polarized post-9/11 world. They also offer both conceptual and pedagogical recommendations for educators to teach citizenship that is most necessary today. The overall effect is like listening to thoughtful discussions around key issues in current civics education.

The books first three chapters invite readers to question the possibilities and limitations of curricular transformation in the post-9/11 era. Keith C. Barton (Chapter One) helps readers with this inquiry by telling the story of what happened to history curriculum in the First World War era. Drawing on a content analysis of published articles in history teaching journals during this important historical period, Barton shows that an international conflict like World War I can serve as a catalyst for changing curriculum. However, it was not the war itself that brought curricular transformation, rather it was the structural dynamics and worldviews associated with the war. Jeremy Stoddard and Diana Hess (Chapter Two) find a similar pattern in the case of 9/11. Their studies on curriculum changes after 9/11 reveal that this tragedy changed the secondary school social studies curriculum. It caused 9/11 and the war on terror to enter high school social studies textbooks, supplementary materials, and state curriculum standards. However, this change was limited in that school curriculum (e.g., particularly textbooks) continued to forego engaging students in inquiry and deliberation around issues related to 9/11. Instead, the curriculum presented nationalistic themes. Elizabeth Bellows (Chapter Three) explores the curricular change at the elementary level. Her analysis of state-level elementary social studies standards reveals that 9/11 rarely entered the official elementary curriculum. However, when it was included, this curriculum decontextualized facts associated with 9/11 and emphasized uncritical patriotism. Bellows also provides readily available digital resources and childrens books for elementary teachers who wish to counter such uncritical teachings of 9/11.

The following three chapters invite readers to revisit core questions concerning social studies education. These questions have become more pressing in a polarized post-9/11 United States. They include: What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be patriotic? What makes a good citizen? What kind of citizenship and patriotism should we teach?

Mark T. Kissling (Chapter Four) outlines the various meanings and complexities of patriotism and identifies its dominant form in post-9/11 America to be nationalist and anti-democratic. To answer what kind of patriotism should be taught, Kissling proposes a place-based patriotism (p. 43). This is anti-nationalist, anti-oppressive, and aligned with democratic ideals. He contends that patriotism should be explicitly taught in social studies curriculum and students should be given the opportunity to examine differing notions and expressions of patriotism. Lisa Gilbert (Chapter Five) argues for an aspirational approach (p. 64) to teaching citizenship and patriotism. She defines a national identity as aspirations rather than static characteristics. If not, as Gilbert vividly describes in her chapter, civics education becomes oppressive for students who are excluded from a static national identity such as Muslim students in post-9/11 America and post-Charlie Hebdo France. According to E. Wayne Ross (Chapter Six), what Gilbert and Kissling advocate is dangerous but highly necessary because they challenge existing, oppressive hierarchical structures of power. Ross presents sheer numbers and statistics positing that America is not functioning as a democracy, but instead as a plutocracy post-9/11. To disrupt this undemocratic reality, Ross argues social studies should promote a dangerous citizenship, which engages students in examining and challenging the disconnection between American rhetoric and the reality of freedom, equality, and justice.

The final three chapters provide pedagogical recommendations for critical civics education in a post-9/11 world. Stephen S. Masyada and Elizabeth Yeager Washington (Chapter Seven) outline and advocate a conceptual approach. This encourages students to think conceptually, use media critically, and apply their conceptual thinking to the issues they encounter post-9/11. Jane C. Lo and Walter C. Parker (Chapter Eight) recommend political simulations as an effective strategy to prepare students for a contentious and divided world. They convince readers that a well-designed simulation can expose students to multiple viewpoints on a civics issue and help them become more tolerant of different worldviews while learning political processes in an authentic and meaningful way. Christopher H. Clark and Patricia G. Avery (Chapter Nine) introduce a psychological approach to discussing controversial issues. This approach is rarely used. However, it is highly informative in understanding why it is so hard to conduct a productive discussion and how to do it better. Clark and Avery detail the ways psychological mechanisms like motivated reasoning, biased information seeking, and homophily can prevent students from engaging in thoughtful discussions. They also offer strategies like community building, affirmation, and strategic grouping to overcome these psychological barriers.   

Altogether, the authors in Reassessing the Social Studies Curriculum offer rich, diverse, and compelling questions, ideas, and perspectives to consider in envisioning the civics curriculum needed most in a politically polarized and contentious post-9/11 world. This book is a timely and invaluable resource for social studies teachers and teacher educators who are hopeful about the possibilities of progressive citizenship education after 9/11.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 19, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21768, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 7:47:44 PM

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About the Author
  • Sohyun An
    Kennesaw State University
    E-mail Author
    SOHYUN AN is an associate professor of social studies education at Kennesaw State University. Her teaching and research interests include issues related to race, citizenship, social justice, and immigration within the context of social studies education.
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