Jul. 3—Around Independence Day, Elizabeth Dubrulle sometimes finds herself reflecting on just how radical the idea of America was in 1776—the idea that with enough education and regard for the social contract, people could govern themselves.
But Dubrulle, the director of education and public programs for the New Hampshire Historical Society, says the schoolchildren who come to the historical society for field trips seem to know less and less about the founding of the country and the functioning of our democracy.
“We noticed a real drop-off in what kids knew when they came to us, and we started asking classroom teachers about it,” Dubrulle said.
High school student Hunter Porter said he had not received much education in the way American government works — and even less about how state and local government function — until he took an Advanced Placement course at Nashua High School South.
This summer, Porter plans to continue learning about government as a member of the newly re-formed Mayor’s Youth Council in Nashua, while Dubrulle and the historical society work to raise awareness of guidelines they have created for spending more time teaching history and other social studies in schools.
The historical society’s guidelines don’t veer into content, but deal with structure — like going back over topics as students get older and can digest more complicated content, rather than teaching history beginning with the American Revolution in elementary school, dealing with the Civil War sometime in middle school and never coming back to those subjects in high school.
Dubrulle worried that without circling back, students might be left with oversimplified understandings of our country’s history and founding ideals — which might leave them less than ideally prepared to participate in democracy and understand the world.
“One thing that’s gained is perspective,” Dubrulle said of studying history. “Our country has always faced challenges, and we have always worked through them by our commitment to these principles and ideas, the rule of law and the social contract.”
Teaching social studies can help reinforce lessons for other subjects, Dubrulle said, but the subject has been given less attention over the years. Elementary school teachers especially have been less and less able to spend time on social studies, Dubrulle said. The standardized testing regimes of the past 20 years have emphasized English and math, with science becoming a focus.
Social studies are not on standardized tests in New Hampshire, Dubrulle said. History, civics, economics and sociology have not been packaged into a catchy acronym like STEM, which has come to stand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“This has been going on for decades, but now we’re seeing the rubber hit the road because we have generations of kids who never learned about compromise, the social contract, the common good,” Dubrulle said. “It really tugs at society and the whole way of government.”
Hands on democracy
Part of the plan for the Mayor’s Youth Council in Nashua is to show teenagers how local government works, to help them understand how they can have an impact in their communities.
Asma Akbar, an intern in Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess’ office, worked to organize the youth council this summer after participating in a similar initiative herself four years ago.
Akbar said she hopes the high school students who participate in the council walk away with knowledge they can use to advocate for their priorities with elected officials and with their fellow citizens, and an understanding of how issues advance through city government.
“As a high-schooler and middle-schooler, I did not understand how city government worked,” Akbar said.
Porter said his classmates don’t have much knowledge of government below the federal level, either.
Participating in the Mayor’s Youth Council in Nashua this summer is one way to get a close look at the way government works — especially local government, Porter said.
“Local and state politics, that’s where we see it most affecting our lives,” Porter said.
Almost all of his knowledge of local government has been picked up outside the classroom, Porter said, working with the high school chapters of political parties and now the youth council.
He said he wished there was more time spent in class learning about local government, because it might help people who aren’t politically involved to understand the power they have in our system.
For example, Porter said a lot of his friends don’t know that most areas in Nashua have three state representatives — three people residents can work with to advocate for their issues in the state house, who tend to be relatively accessible, particularly compared to , say, a Supreme Court justice.
“We can have so much involvement and engagement with our representatives,” Porter said, especially in New Hampshire.
Knowing the way to make their voices heard might help people feel less cynical and frustrated, Porter said.
“I think that if they did, they could feel more hopeful about actually being able to change things.”