Youth today are surrounded by violent video games, movies, and entertainment, and it appears the social studies curriculum and classroom is no different. Students studying U.S. history often move from one conflict or violent struggle to the next; rarely having the opportunity to use what they learned in class to take action and/or to take agency to promote peace and understanding in their community, country, or world. U.S. History, and the history depicted in textbooks, is riddled with conflict, human disaster, tragedy, competition, and loss. Research indicates that history education can serve as a weapon that exacerbate conflicts, divisions, and violence in societies (Saltarrelli, 2000; Hilker, 2011). Violent conflicts depicted in history textbooks often impose singular dominant narratives that rely on sensationalism, misinformation, and propaganda to advancing political goals- often in the name of nationalism.
As students move from one heart-wrenching episode to another, they soon become overwhelmed, disempowered, and desensitized to the human condition and suffering. Youth are often repeatedly exposed to this death, destruction, loss, and violence in the study of history- which in itself turns many youth off to the study of U.S. History. This constant barrage of negatively and not having a productive academic outlet to being the change they wish to see in the world, only breeds youth apathy and inaction. Students become overwhelmed with a sense that the world is a very dangerous place, as indicated in a recent study that found 60% of Americans considered a third world war likely.
This movement from one significant historical conflict, crisis, and unpleasant episode to another only serves to wound students’ perceptions towards their own industry, resulting in civic despair and apathy. While worldwide deaths caused by war and conflict have steadily decreased, textbook publishers often exclusively focus on use of violence and war to solve domestic and global challenges. Instead of focusing on the gains made through non-violence and diplomacy, textbooks often glorify and highlight how the use of violence and confrontation is foundational to beating back “evil”. Students in U.S. History classrooms are left with the impression that violence is the answer, and fail to learn and apply the essential skills of non-violent conflict resolution. Pulling from what’s been taught in their history classes, some youth all too quickly turn towards the use of violence. This being a serious challenge, as homicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24 (CDC, 2012). Other youth are left simply overwhelmed, desensitized, and turned-off to a violent history curriculum that rarely provides them with the opportunity to learn peaceful conflict resolution skills and understandings that can truly make a difference in their lives and communities. In social psychology this phenomenon is called learned helplessness. By enduring continued adverse and unpleasant stimuli, youth become unable or unwilling to see how their actions can make a difference around them. In the complete antithesis to the mission of the social studies, youth become turned off by the study of history and yes even emerge as disempowered.
The acquisition of apathy and learned helplessness is all too common in U.S. History classes. An analysis of most U.S. History textbooks will showcase significant content on issues of war, violence, destruction, and conflict. For instance, in class, students learn about the death and destruction brought on by rising nationalism and militarism during World War I. After learning about the horrible toll of this Great War, including its over 37 million casualties, students transition into the next unit- or the next great tragedy. This usually includes students learning about the struggle and suffering of workers and families facing great hardships during the Great Depression. Black Tuesday and dwindling consumer confidence create panic and financial ruin for communities and households. Despite New Deal Reforms, families learn to live without, and many people fight to sustain themselves through soup kitchens and breadlines. 13% unemployment rates and mounting federal debt eventually gives way to the next big, horrific event in U.S. History- WWII and its Aftermath. In this unit, students encounter more conflict, genocide, extremism, nuclear warfare, and Fascism. Over the course of the semester this trend continues as students stare down such topics as the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and the War on Terrorism. In most cases, the heroes turned towards the use of guns and tanks to achieve victory.
Today’s standardized and high-stakes tested classrooms often impede teachers from having the opportunity, curricular flexibility, and resources to help students learn valuable strategies and tools to promote peace and to improve themselves and their communities (US Institute of Peace, 2014). This includes learning about the thousands non-violence acts of courage, bravery, and civic protest by ordinary Americans that have led to a more prosperous and inclusive nation. Students are rarely given the opportunity to use these stories of perseverance, grit, determination, and non-violent protest to build connections with their lives or the times in which they live today- all in an attempt to improve the quality of their community and circumstance. Instead of passively listening to one bleak, depressing, and harmful encounter with disaster and conflict, which can breed learned helplessness, the study of history should inspire and prepare students for the challenges they face and will face. Such an approach to teaching social studies yields relevance and authenticity. Maybe, instead of focusing on a conflict ridden past, social studies teachers can put at its curricular and instructional center a more peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable tomorrow? Instead of a social studies curriculum and pedagogy that privileges and prioritizes the narrative of successfully using violence to achieve our goals we inform and showcase to students the profound role conflict resolution, active diplomacy, statesmanship, and non-violent activism can play in creating a better tomorrow?