It’s Inauguration Day 2021 — two weeks after the January 6 siege on the United States Capitol Building — and Rider University professor Mark Pearcy sits down and writes the following: “Dissent is foundational to a democratic society, and civic institutions like government, community, and schools are where citizens try to resolve the questions that provoke such dissent.”

Area Voices Returning Civility to Public Discourse

Mark Pearcy

The editor for the online publication Teaching Social Studies, Pearcy continues his introduction to the publication’s Winter-Spring 2021 issue by saying that even after “a mob of insurrectionists — and there is no really no better word to describe them — tore through the U.S. Capitol building in an effort to stop democracy from functioning” that “dissent is essential for democracy to flourish” and “can’t be allowed to fester into repression; and we can’t allow demagoguery to blind us to the values we share.

“Similarly, as Americans, we should believe, unashamedly, in these democratic values, and keep faith in our democratic processes — and oppose any attempt to subvert them.”

Pearcy’s world is education: He is a former Florida high school teacher and now a professor in Rider’s Department of Teacher Education. So it is not surprising when he writes that “students need to know that such resolutions are difficult, and often unsatisfying, but are essential to the proper (and continuing) success of a republic. The premise of fascism — a submission to authoritarianism, the suppression of minority views, the silencing of dissent — is antithetical to both democracy and to the social studies classroom.”

During a recent telephone conversation Pearcy says public education can help citizens understand the workings of a democratic society and protect it from eruptions — such as the events on January 6.

“The question we have all been asking over the past few months is ‘How can we teach about what is happening in, and to, our country?’ It is the prevailing issue of our profession. The social studies community needs to continue to support each other in finding the best ways to defend our democracy and to help students see its value.”

After all, he adds, a social studies education is a type of civic literacy that gives individuals the ability “to take part of trying to improve the communities you live though the civic process.”

However, problems develop when citizens lack the understanding of how the government functions, the United States Constitution, and the interpretation of rights and misconceptions and extreme ideas are exacerbated by what he calls a “troubling polarization.”

“The problem is that the Democratic Party has moved to the left, and the Republican Party has moved further toward the right and lost its mooring as a conservative body” he says, adding that tensions escalate with people in both parties labeling each other enemies.

Pearcy says the current political situation is also connected to party members existing more and more in “a closed echo chamber that is really dangerous.”

He points out that in the past both political parties could agree that a particular social situation was a problem — for example, poverty — and then offered differing policies on how to address it.

Today, he says, one political party may refute the existence of a problem completely, ignoring a social problem and creating divisions and tensions.

Pearcy says over the last five or six years, the social studies community has been asking itself, “How should we have done more (to foster dialogue and debate)? That questioning has grown since the election of 2020 and the rising up at the Capitol in January.”

However, he adds, it is difficult stuff for teachers “because parents call and complain,” and “what the political right wants from civic education is different from what people on the left want.”

He says another factor affecting New Jersey instruction is that the state has more than 580 school districts of vastly different populations and resources, so there is no mandated approach to the teaching social studies and civics.

Money — or lack thereof — is also a factor. As Pearcy notes, a study by Danielle Allen, a former Institute for Advanced Study professor and now director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, reports taxpayers pay $54 per student for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) studies, yet pay only 5 cents for civics education.

“As teachers we need to be committed to American core values,” he says. “These are values worth defending and to celebrate.”

Area Voices Returning Civility to Public Discourse

Nicholas Zolkiwsky

Supporting Pearcy’s vision is Nicholas Zolkiwsky, a Rider student whose 2021 Teaching Social Studies article “How Do We Teach Politics in a Society Where Political Affiliations Have Become Toxic?” illustrates the problems related to civics education and politics.

Zolkiwsky says when he was a fourth-grade student in 2008 his “teachers did not tell us where Senators McCain or Obama sided on certain issues or even a basic background of the parties they were affiliated with. Instead, we were all taught to like Obama because he was younger and was the more ‘favorable’ candidate among teachers at my elementary school.”

He says the same approach was taken in 2012 but changed in the 2016 presidential election when his teachers talked about where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stood on issues.

“While for the first time we were having open discussions about beliefs and the two major parties, it was undoubtedly one of the most toxic environments one could have ever imagined. Instead of listening to each other oftentimes I would find classmates getting into heated arguments, which were then followed by one person attacking the personal character of the other.

“Even as a 17-year-old I knew this was no way to hold political discussions. Where was the respect? Where were the listening skills? And most importantly, where was the maturity? The answer, nowhere to be found.”

Now in 2021 he asks, “How do we, as teachers, teach and create a healthy environment where students can learn and discuss politics when we live in a society that becomes toxic when these discussions arise?”

His answer is informed by other references and also by work beyond the classroom.

One is to provide lessons that help students and citizens explore the reliability of sources of information, media bias, and “fake news.”

As Zolkiwsky notes, “This is a perfect starting point as understanding biases will better help all students fully understand the concepts of politics and how differently media outlets portray a candidate/policy than a rivaling network. This also opens up the door to teach students the importance of fact-checking and doing their own research, which in the past few years has become so much more important than ever.”

The process also helps address the easy access to media and the increasing influence of social media on individuals who “will typically see a picture or a meme on Twitter or Instagram and assume it to be true. Not only will they outright believe it, but they won’t even go through the effort of reading up on the issue or using that additional information to form their own opinion.”

While his other points are directed specifically to classroom teachers — to inform parents that about the discussions and to remain neutral to issues and candidates — he brings up something applicable to all discussions: “Make sure that the students know that their opinions are their own opinions and they have the right to have them. This can be very empowering for students, especially those in high school who now find themselves in the ‘young adult’ category. By having their own free-formed opinions this helps them establish a sense of identity as to who they are and where their morals lie.”

Zolkiwsky sums up his argument by saying, “Our political climate in our nation today has never been as divisive as it has been over the past few years. But we as educators and even future parents must realize that if we want to change the toxic climate that is our political spheres, then we must lead the charge. Show our students it’s okay to disagree with others and that you can still be friends just because one person voted for one candidate and the other voted for the opposite candidate. The sooner we implement respect in our classrooms and when discussing politics with younger generations the more likely they will pass those traits down to their children.”

During an email exchange, the Flemington, New Jersey, raised Zolkiwsky, whose grandfather and parents are Rider alumni, says, “I wrote this article as part of an assignment for one of my education courses this past fall semester called ‘Teaching Social Studies in Secondary School.’

“I had always been interested in the fact that politics is often labeled as a ‘taboo’ topic to discuss with others. Oftentimes when people start to mention politics during a conversation you can instantly feel the atmosphere of the conversation start to change, and you worry that things will become tense or even hostile. I believe that it is possible to have discussions that involve politics, especially with people whom you don’t see eye-to-eye with, as long as a mutual understanding and respect is put forward. We often forget that people’s political opinions are nothing more than just that, their opinion, and that they are fully entitled to an opinion. I always tell people that ‘you don’t have to agree with my opinions; I just ask that you respect them.’ If we want our future generations to be able to have these respectful conversations with one another then we as parents and teachers have to show and teach them how to respect each other’s opinions.”

Area Voices Returning Civility to Public Discourse

Arlene Gardner

Elsewhere, Arlene Gardner, founder and past executive director of the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University and member of the Teaching Social Studies advisory committee, also readily shares her concerns about American democracy and her hopes for change in the near future.

“I never in my life thought I’d see that,” she says about the January 6 siege. “This is the U.S. Capitol. This kind of effort to create coup didn’t happen in the U.S.”

Yet, she says during a telephone interview, there is research that shows that seeds for such an eruption were planted years ago and grew while civics education diminished.

According to Gardner, who also serves as New Jersey Council for the Social Studies director at large, “In the late 1960s and early 1970s when there was protesting about the war in the Vietnam, we began to have this distinction where the two parties were really starting to separate.”

She says tensions between political parties escalated during the Johnson administration’s civil rights and anti-poverty legislation era and that opponents employed scare tactics using race and economics to create division — a practice continued in the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.

“I’m not sure why, but civics and a broad understanding of the Constitution and U.S. history just disappeared out of the curriculum,” she says looking back 40 years.

She says one of the reasons may be because people couldn’t agree on how to approach the subject, but that it was important to try. “That’s the why (civics education) should be in schools. People need to learn how to deliberate. At the core of the democracy is civil deliberation. The skills are really important, the skills of active listening to someone you disagree, the skills to make a presentation, and the disposition to make things better. If we’re not learning this in the classroom, where are we learning it?

As the founding director and current president of the nonprofit center with the mission to provide professional development and resources for teachers (K-12), Gardner says she and others have been attempting to address the reality that New Jersey has no statute regarding teaching civics in public schools — although public education is affected by civic actions.

She says that her organization, along with the New Jersey Social Studies Supervisor, had developed language for such legislation but that Governor Chris Christie refused to support the bill and weakened its appeal among Republicans — some of whom privately supported the project.

Ironically, Christie later founded the Christie Institute of Public Policy because, as he said in a Star-Ledger interview, politics “have gotten so ugly and divisive in the country that people are not having civilized conversations.”

Despite the past frustrations of not seeing civics education become part of the curriculum and growing political acrimony, Gardner takes hope in two recent legislative actions, both starting long before January 6.

Area Voices Returning Civility to Public Discourse

State Sen. Shirley Turner with the late Laura Wooten.

The first is New Jersey’s proposed Laura Wooten’s Law. The bipartisan bill was introduced in 2020 into both houses as follows: Senate, No. 854, sponsored by Democrats Shirley Turner (Mercer and Hunterdon) and Linda Greenstein (Mercer and Middlesex) and Republican Tom Kean, Jr. (Morris and Union), and Assembly, No. 3394, sponsored by Democrat Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (Mercer and Hunterdon).

The bill requires the provision of civics instruction to middle school pupils in public schools. Current law requires a course of study in civics, geography, and the history of New Jersey to be provided to public school elementary students, but no similar requirement exists for middle school pupils.

According to a brief, under the bill, beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, “each board of education is required to provide a course of study about the values and principles underlying the American system of constitutional democracy, the function and limitations of government, and the role of a citizen in a democratic society. The course is to be taken by all pupils in an appropriate middle school grade. The course of study must include a minimum of two quarters of instruction, or the equivalent.

The bill also directs that a minimum of $300,000 be appropriated annually to the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers. “The purpose of the appropriation will be to enable the center to provide a clearinghouse of materials, an online resource center, technical assistance, professional development, and any other activities to encourage the integration of civics, economics, and New Jersey history in the required high school course in the history of the United States and to enhance the teaching of civics in middle school required pursuant to the bill.

This bill is named in honor of the late Princeton area resident Laura Wooten, the longest serving election poll worker the nation

Born in 1920 in North Carolina, Wooten graduated from Princeton High School in 1939, was an elder of the First Baptist Church of Princeton, and joined Princeton University as a part time staff member after retiring from Princeton Medical Center at the age of 72. An election poll worker for 79 years, she died on March 24, 2019, at the age of 98.

The senate bill was passed by the senate on January 28, 2021, and received by the Assembly Education Committee on January 29.

The federal government’s Educating for Democracy Act bill was also introduced in 2020 and has become a hot topic after January 6.

The bipartisan legislation authorizes $1 billion annually for the next six years to “dramatically increase federal support for civic and history education, civic and history education research, teacher professional development in civic and history education and would require the National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEPs) in civic and history education to be conducted every four years at all three grade spans, with state level data of results made available.”

Supported by President Biden, the bill would authorize the secretary of state to design a competitive state grant program in order to support state education programs in American civics and history. These state grants would then provide competitive sub grants of no less than 95 percent of the award amount to state education agencies to carry out programs that “ improve the achievement of elementary and secondary school students in the fields of American civics and history. Priority will be given to grant proposals proposing to serve under-served, inner-city, rural, and majority minority school populations.”

The bill would additionally authorize the Department of State to offer competitive grants to the following groups: nonprofit organizations developing or expanding access to evidence-based curricula, instructional models, and other educational programs to enhance student knowledge and achievement in American civics and history in elementary schools and secondary schools; institutions of higher education developing and implementing programs to train elementary and secondary school teachers in methods for instructing and engaging students in American civics and history; researchers to research and evaluate elementary and secondary school students’ knowledge of American civics and history, and effective instructional practices and educator professional development in the fields of American civics and history.

And, finally, the bill directs the National Assessment Governing Board and the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a national assessment of student proficiency and academic achievement in public and private elementary schools and secondary schools at least once every two years.

The bill — introduced in the both the house and senate in 2020 — grew partially in response to the 2017 white paper study “The Republic is (Still) at Risk — and Civics is Part of the Solution.”

Among some of the report’s highlighted remarks is one from the 1983 National Commission on Excellence in Education report: “A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.”

Nearly 40 years after that statement, Zolkiwsky says he doesn’t have any such pressing concerns because “this is the land of the free and we are all entitled to our opinions. However, what I do fear is that we will continue to go down the path of attacking people for having a rivaling opinion. Instead we have to be able to listen to them and have those respectful discussions with one another. In doing so, we can all set an example for our future generations of how to have a respectful conversation with people who don’t agree with us, and my hope is that they will replicate the examples that we set for them. We are all capable of having discussions with people who may or may not have the same opinions as us, and at the end of the day it’s perfectly okay to agree to disagree.”

However, Gardner feels something more urgent has to happen and education is needed to strengthen citizens’ ability to engage in political analysis and debate.

If not, she says, “What we saw on January 6 is the new norm.”