Rethinking History and Social Studies Curricula as Moral and Ethical Education using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As both a historian and as a scholar of religion, questions of ethics and morality are typically at the forefront of what I study and how I teach. This has, in some ways, become even more true as I have moved from teaching in higher education to teaching in the secondary school environment.

As I mentioned in my last post, there is significant disagreement among scholars and practitioners in history and social studies education about the purpose of the field and what ought to be taught in the field. However, from the various teaching methods textbooks that I have examined so far, all agree that history and the social studies should help students think deeply about questions of character, ethics, and morality. This discovery was initially quite exciting for me, and it seems universal enough of an idea that I suspect that as the devotional teaching of Christianity has been slowly removed from schools in the wake of the Supreme Court case School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp, that the social studies have become the default and de facto method of teaching about character, morality, and ethics in the public schools of the United States.

My excitement about social studies being recognized as a chief way to teach morality and ethics in schooling quickly gave way to several questions, including the question of what moral and ethical principals ought to be taught in public schools. A cursory look at my own facebook feed shows that my various friends oppose the teaching of moral and ethical systems in schools that are not their own. Some of my more generous and thoughtful friends oppose the teaching of their own moral and ethical system in schools, both because of questions of indoctrination, and because they recognize that the teaching of their moral beliefs would constitute an establishment of religion under the Constitution.

So, what is a social studies teacher to do? I have given much thought on this question, and the tentative answer that I have come to over the past academic year is that whatever moral and ethical principals I teach, they need to be acceptable to the majority of people in this country, and for them to be taught in public schools, they must be objectively secular. My mind, of course, first turned to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, but I quickly found that this foundational document, though important, just wouldn’t cut it. So much of the Constitution is worried about forms of government and governance, and not ethics and morality. It finally dawned on me that I should think bigger.

While the Constitution and Bill of Rights aren’t focused enough on ethics and morality, another foundational document for our globalized world does: the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UNUDHR was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948, three years after the horrors of the holocaust were ended, and three years after the use of nuclear weapons demonstrated to large portions of the world that ethics and morality had not kept pace with the massive technological changes sweeping over the earth.

For those of you not familiar with the UNUDHR, it enshrines rights such as:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

and, Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Using the UNUDHR as a way to organize, categorize, and evaluate the ethics and morality of certain events and actions taken by individuals and governments can provide both an excellent framework for this type of moral and ethics education, but, in the case of historical studies, can also lead to the problem of anachronism. In a future post, I will discuss how I plan to implement the UNUDHR as a moral and ethical benchmark in history and social studies classes, while also attempting to avoid the sin of presentism in the study of the past.

Rethinking My History Instruction

At the beginning of the school year, I redirected my blog towards a series that I had hoped would chronicle my first year of teaching history and government at an independent high school. I made my first post, and then immediately started having significant technical issues with my server that made further blogging impossible. Teaching five courses plus doing residential life duty kept me busy enough that I never had enough time to rectify those server problems until now during Summer break.

I learned a lot over the past year. I learned that teaching history in a college classroom does not necessarily easily translate to teaching history and government in a high school classroom — even when the course is an Advanced Placement one which, in theory, is supposed to be equivalent to taking a college course. I learned to listen to my students when they critiqued my teaching. I learned that the inequalities found in public education are even more amplified in an independent school environment. I also learned to stand back and let those who attempted to harm me to harm themselves instead. All in all, it was an interesting year.

I am spending part of my summer taking heed of some of the lessons that I have learned this year and incorporating them into my curriculum. During the year, I found that none of the current U.S. History textbooks for secondary school incorporate minority or religious voices enough to my liking. So, I will be working on reading several monographs this summer so that my social studies instruction will be more multicultural and diverse.

As I began to teach, it became apparent that I would have to sink or swim, as the mentorship that I was expecting during my first year of teaching did not materialize as promised. I began to read textbooks on teaching social studies and history in secondary schools. As I read, I found that there was little to no consensus on the purpose for the collection of courses grouped together into “the social studies.” Practitioners, teacher-educators, and education researchers hold a wide variety of understandings as to why the social studies should be taught, what they ought to include, and the methods for teaching them. Those arguments included whether or not history should be included among the social studies, or as a separate subject.

As I am a historian, I was most interested in this debate as it centered upon history. Unlike social studies, it seemed like many in education have even fewer ideas of why history ought to be taught in K-12 education. I myself had entered K-12 teach students believing that history ought to be taught for three reasons: to teach critical reading, writing, and thinking (including the ability to ask epistemological questions, especially with media, and the ability to ask ethical and moral questions),  to prepare students to study history at the college level, and to provide them with a basic narrative of why and how the United States became the way it currently is.

I specifically told my students last year that I was not teaching history and social studies to make them good citizens, but that instead I wanted to make them good thinkers. To teach “good citizenship” is, in itself, its own form of indoctrination. But furthermore, both in the context of where I currently teach (where a large minority of our students are from Asia, Africa, and Europe) and in the context of public schooling, many students–both American citizens and not–are denied the rights and privileges of citizenship because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and gender identity, or religious belief. Historically speaking, the vast majority of Americans were legally denied their citizenship rights, either because of gender, race, or sexuality. As those legal impediments have been removed, social impediments have been put into place, where many are still denied their full rights to citizenship through social and cultural measures, and through more covert legal means, as well. I have been thinking about these issues deeply over the past year, and in light that thought and this problem of American democracy, I would propose that a switch is emphasis should be made, to engaging in discourses that surround membership and participation in American society, instead of citizenship. As long as citizens continue to be denied many of their own citizenship rights, and undocumented residents of this country are denied a path to citizenship, it makes more sense to talk less about citizenship, and more about various ways of belonging and participation in society. Coincidentally, I have just been tasked with teaching “U.S. and Global Citizenship” next year, our non-AP government and politics course. I hope to use this class as a laboratory for thinking more about teaching participation and membership in a local society, as well as a global citizenship. I will address this in further blog posts.

Near the end of the school year, I began reading Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learningby Mike Maxwell. While I do not agree with all of Maxwell’s arguments, I was very much appreciative of his argument that the purpose of history education ought to be to equip students with the knowledge, thinking, and decision making skills that they can apply to future situations. Maxwell is not the first person to make this argument, as others in the larger social studies world have argued for some time that the study of history and the social sciences should prepare students to make good decisions (Such as Banks, Banks, and Clegg in Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies: Decision-Making and Citizen Action)One of Maxwell’s concurrent arguments is that current history courses cram an inappropriately large number facts for students to memorize and regurgitate in proportion to the scope of the course. Maxwell recommends that teachers scale back the number of events, names, and places that students be taught, so that students can actually learn a reasonable number of concepts that they can apply in class, and that they might actually retain over the long-term. I plan on incorporating many of Maxwell’s suggestions into my historical teaching, which I believe will not only develop decision making skills in students, but will prepare them for further study of history and the social sciences in post-secondary environments.

As I continue to rethink my curriculum and instruction and revamp my pedagogy for the next school year, I will continue to write about my thoughts. Keep an eye out for my next post, which will be about teaching global citizenship and history through a human rights framework.