Executive Director at ConSource
This month’s member spotlight is on Julie Silverbrook, the Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project, www.ConSource.org. ConSource is a non-profit devoted to educating lawyers, judges, teachers, and students about the United States Constitutional History. Before joining ConSource, Julie founded and directed the award-winning constitutional literacy program Constitutional Conversations.
Q: Tell us about ConSource.
Silverbrook: We are a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization devoted to teaching citizens of all ages more about the history of the U.S. Constitution. The backbone of all of our work is our digital library of historical documents tracing the creation, ratification, and amendment of the Constitution. Our work spans three different core areas: (1) our free digital library of primary source documents; (2) our K-12 educational programs, which include the development of free curricular resources for teachers, as well as teacher professional development programs; and (3) community/public education. All of these aspects of our work are designed to enhance citizen understanding of the Constitution and its history.
Q: How has the organization grown under your leadership?
Silverbrook: We’re doing a lot more work in K-12 civic education. We also continue to do significant work in our other core programmatic areas: digital collections and public educational programs. The expansion of our K-12 civic and history education programs stems from my own personal commitment to reviving civic education in this country. It is based on my fundamental belief, to paraphrase John Jay, that “knowledge is the soul of a republic.” Citizens need to understand our system of government, and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. In Ben Franklin’s words, it’s only a Republic, if we can keep it. To keep it, citizens actually need to understand it and actively participate.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of original source documents as part of civic learning?
Silverbrook: There’s a great quote by Thomas Paine, who wrote Common Sense: “It is by tracing things to their origins that we learn to understand them. And it is by keeping that line and that origin always in view that we never forget them.” To understand where we are as a nation today, you need to understand where we started. Our shared history — the good, the bad, and the ugly — is what connects all of us together. Our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are the charters of our shared civic history and civic “faith.”
By studying that shared history, the development of our key institutions, and how we’ve made our union more perfect over time, our citizens develop not only civic knowledge but also civic values, skills, and dispositions. Peeling back all of the window dressing that is often present in textbooks, and taking citizens, especially students, back to the primary sources allows them to experience and engage with history in a much more personal and direct way. It is not a passive way to learn history, it is engaging and learner-centric.
A close reading of primary source documents also helps develop key 21st-century skills like critical thinking, reading comprehension, and the value of negotiation and compromise. It can also assist with media literacy, an area that has received increasing attention as concerns have risen about fake, biased, and unreliable news. When you read an historical document you must ask — What were the intentions of the person writing this? What type of document is this? Is it a letter or a newspaper article attempting to persuade someone to do something specific? For instance, the Federalist papers (known back then as The Federalist) were not dispassionate explanations of the Constitution text. They were direct responses to a fairly robust anti-Federalist sentiment that threatened to derail the ratification process in key states like New York. It’s important to understand why a document was written, to consider it in context with the individual author’s other views and the political context of the time. To ask yourself is this purely factual or does the author have an underlying motive (are they seeking to persuade me to view things a certain way?). You can learn all of these skills by analyzing a primary source document. That analysis is never a singular act. It requires a learner to dig deeper, to cross-reference that document with other documents. It is an invitation to learn more and to further develop your own analytical abilities.
Q: What are the challenges around teaching that content to young people today?
Silverbrook: Student-centric learning is inherently empowering. That’s one of the motivations behind our “Choosing to Make a Nation” curriculum. History does not need to be dry and the story does not need to be told solely by a teacher standing in front of a classroom lecturing from a textbook. Instead, it can and should be student-centered, and interactive. ConSource’s “Choosing to Make a Nation Curriculum” is premised on the idea that history is the chronicle of choices made by actors/agents/protagonists in specific contexts. Students understand choices — they make them all the time.
These lessons involve students by placing them in the shoes of historical people and asking: “What might you do in such instances?” For these exercises to be historical (more than affirmations of individual whims), we needed to provide context: what was the issue, the problem to be solved? What were the existing realities/constraints that limited possibilities? With those in mind, what were the available options? For each option, how did people view the possibilities for the desired outcome? What were the potential dangers?
When studying battles, we see how generals evaluate troop strengths, positioning, logistics, morale, and so on. In fact, all historical actors do this — not just leading political figures, but ordinary people and collective bodies. In Revolutionary times, people often made decisions in groups, both indoors (town meetings, caucuses, conventions, congresses) and “out-of-doors,” as they said at the times, informal gatherings that protested authority or enforced popular will. Individuals, forced to navigate the troubled waters of those days, also faced momentous decisions. Our task is to introduce students to historical protagonists who confronted such choices. Points of decision create teachable moments.
We help students imagine, from a distant time, the hopes of these people, but also their constraints. With these protagonists, students explore the available options. Having skin in the game, they will better understand why people acted as they did. They will think more deeply about the paths actually taken — how events ensued, the consequences of decisions, and the subsequent issues these created. Students also get to compare how and why their choices might differ from those of the historical actors. By exercising individual and group decision-making skills within political contexts, they prepare for civic life.
Q: How do you teach that these historic documents are still culturally relevant to today’s youth?
Silverbrook: The other thing that is important for anyone teaching history is the primary sources we select. We have to be conscious that we are using primary sources that bring in the voices of women, people of color, people of varying socio-economic backgrounds, etc. We can bring in those voices and spotlight the voices of people who look different than the typical profile of what we envision as our nation’s founders.
Q: Do you find that it’s difficult for students to get past the differences between themselves and the historical actors with whom they are typically presented?
Silverbrook: Students bring it up, but the invitation to compare what you would decide using the same evidence that they had in front of them — plus your modern sensibilities — it naturally comes out that those decision-makers had very different life experiences because of demographics, time period, etc. There is an invitation to deal with those sorts of issues. Rather than viewing that as a barrier, it is advantageous to provide an open and safe place for students to talk about some of those differences. It is something we are attuned to and care about. The key is providing students the opportunity to use their voice — which a student-centered curriculum allows you to do — and to compare and contrast that to the actual historical voices. And in some cases, you might find that you are in total agreement with someone who was very different from you. That can be really empowering. Or, you can totally disagree. This curriculum challenges the teacher to pose the question rather than papering over the differences.
Q: Speaking of diversity, can you talk about how civic education — and the civic education movement — needs to be nonpartisan or multi-partisan?
Silverbrook: If you look at the polling that has been done about whether we teach enough history and civics in American classrooms, you see bi-partisan support for this. I have spoken with policymakers and funders on the right, left, and center. They all think civic education is really important, and they want to see across the board a multi-partisan investment. They want people of all political stripes to come together and agree on the fact that we are not achieving the historic civic mission of schools. And this is causing pathologies within our democratic form of government. We have seen a global decline in democratic values. There is broad support for the idea that better civic education is the cure for a lot of the systemic problems that have challenged how our system of government is supposed to work — including increased political polarization, the coarsening of our political rhetoric, and political gridlock, among others.
There is a feeling that if you have a more informed citizenry, the political discourse would be more reasoned and deliberative, rather than flash in the pan talking points on Twitter that can be not only polarized but ill-informed and really personal in nature. There can and should be broad agreement about how the system is supposed to work, but that requires citizens to understand the democratic processes established by our system of government.
There is broad support for increasing resources for civic education programmers who are developing high-quality classroom resources and teacher professional development. There’s also a recognition that states and schools need to prioritize civic education.
At the same time that we’re seeing a push to revive civics in the K-12 space, we’re seeing a parallel effort in post-secondary education. We’ve seen colleges on all levels take this on — from community colleges to elite universities. We’ve seen other institutions, such as public libraries and other community spaces, take on this important role of preparing citizens for informed and active engagement throughout the course of their lifetimes.
We need to figure out how to empower parents on this, too. How do we encourage and empower all families to discuss things like a Supreme Court decision or piece of legislation around their dinner table?
There really is support for this from across the political spectrum. And that is why I think a big tent movement, such as CivXNow is so important. On almost no issue do you see so much agreement on the fact that we need to increase the overall investment made to civic education. You’ll see differences in what people from different parts of the country and with different viewpoints will want to invest in, but the universally held view is that we must restore the historic civic mission of schools and we almost be investing in community civic education and engagement.
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about where there might be disagreements within that big tent, and how do you get past those?
Silverbrook: There will always be differences in opinion in terms of what gets included, what doesn’t get included, how much you emphasize certain parts of the curriculum over others. Those are inherently political decisions, even if as curriculum providers we do not intend them to be and we all work to present materials in a politically neutral way. With that said, I do think there’s consensus in core areas — (1) we need to increase overall classroom time for civic education; (2) we need to improve understanding of how democratic institutions work, how they change over time, etc; (3) we need to prepare citizens for informed engagement. What that engagement looks like is not up to us. That’s up to the young people we are teaching. Our role as civic educators is to provide young people with the tools to meaningfully engage.
Letting a lot of these knottier issues get worked out at the local level makes the most sense. These should be state, local, and district choices. These actors are best able to determine exactly what works for their communities. What we can do at the national level is to provide guidance, resources, etc.
But the spine of a good civic education, I do believe that’s something we all agree upon.
Share insights from Julie on social media:
“To understand where we are as a nation today, you need to understand where we started. Our shared history — the good, the bad, and the ugly — is what connects all of us together.” @JMSilverbrook #CivXNow
“There really is support for [civic education] from across the political spectrum. And that is why I think a big tent movement, such as #CivXNow is so important. On almost no issue do you see so much agreement…” @JMSilverbrook
“(1) we need to increase overall classroom time for civic education; (2) we need to improve understanding of how democratic institutions work, how they change over time, etc; (3) we need to prepare citizens for informed engagement.”@JMSilverbrook #CivXNow
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Post originally from Wednesday, April 17th, 2019 CivXNow Coalition Newsletter