Politics Shouldn't Stand in the Way of Accurate and Inclusive Social Studies

For social studies specialists across the country, an already difficult job is becoming more challenging thanks to increasing political pressure.

With ideological groups turning up the heat on elected officials to change social studies curriculum, particularly in American and world history, social studies specialists are often the last line of defense in preserving a neutral and balanced approach to content.

This week, I had the honor of speaking to social studies specialists gathered in Boston for the annual conference of the National Council for the Social Studies. In conversations with a number of them (including some who are old friends), there is a sense of deepening worry that America's political polarization will lead to more pressure from certain groups to change curriculum to fit an ideological lens.

To be sure, curriculum, content standards, and textbook adoption have been politicized for years, and it's not just limited to states like Louisiana (where Gov. Bobby Jindal is suing to prevent Common Core) and Texas. As Bradley Fogo of the Stanford History Education Group noted in his dissertation several years ago, even seemingly progressive states such as California allowed outside groups to help write or review their frameworks while keeping others out.

Still, the climate has gotten worse, particularly when teaching about religion. Some specialists note that world religion teachers will avoid teaching about faiths such as Islam out of fear that angry parents will retaliate. In other cases, local school administrators have tried to get their teachers to endorse Christianity within their classrooms.

For groups such as the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), this is a deeply disturbing trend that must be reversed. In order for educators to counter the onslaught of ideological groups, they must be aware of the resources and allies at their disposal to ensure an accurate, up-to-date, and inclusive approach to social studies education.

I've told educators many times that inclusive and culturally sensitive pedagogy doesn't mean sacrificing accuracy; in fact, they go hand-in-hand. Moreover, the First Amendment protects educators when it comes to teaching about religion, particularly about the faiths that some communities find unpopular.

Here are some important things for specialists to know to make for a more inclusive approach to drafting content standards and revising curriculum.

  1. Expand the pool of academic experts to include scholars whose expertise on specific religions is derived from both study and practice. While there are a number of great religion scholars who happen to be outside of the faith groups they study, having a scholar-practitioner included in the conversation can often ensure an empathetic perspective when materials are being vetted.

  • Build relationships with local and state board of education members who understand the importance of an accurate social studies education. In my travels across the country, I have met many of them who know just how difficult of a job social studies specialists have in crafting standards and curriculum.
  • Draw from allies who are not only good at training educators on how to teach about religion, but know how to develop talking points to deal with angry parents. The First Amendment Center, Face To Faith, Tanenbaum, and Project Interfaith are just a few of the organizations doing great work in this regard, even in some of the most socially conservative school districts.
  • Don't shut out community groups in curriculum-building efforts. Just because a group airs their concerns about content, having a conversation with their representatives can be a great way to defuse tensions over how subjects such as religion are taught. Moreover, make sure parents understand why a better understanding of history from multiple perspectives is important for their children.
  • Push for more professional development so that teachers have applied best practices when teaching about different faiths and cultures.
  • As we continue to become a more global society, it's imperative that we develop curriculum and standards that reflect a broader understanding of the world around us. Social studies specialists should know that they've got plenty of support in their quest to be factually accurate, apolitical, and inclusive in curriculum and content development.