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President Heafner's Message: "Social Studies Educators as the Voice of Democracy: A Call to Action"

As President of National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), I have the honor of speaking to social studies teachers across the country. Attending state conferences of Affiliated Councils affords the opportunity to meet countless exceptional social studies educators who passionately share the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of history, geography, civics, economics, and the humanities with students in their PK-16 classrooms. For this issue of The Social Studies Professional (TSSP), I celebrate social studies teachers and applaud their personal and professional investment in the education of our children and youth. I also challenge social studies educators as the voices of democracy to push to the forefront critical dialogue in social studies and to question what and how we teach. 

The most recent issue of Social Education, the flagship journal of NCSS, includes an article by Christine Stanton, a friend and colleague I had the opportunity to spend time with a few weeks ago at Montana Council for the Social Studies.  Christine, who grew up on a family farm in Wyoming that adjoined the Piikani (Blackfeet) reservation, shares a story of an early-career conversation with a reservation community in which she expressed frustration with her ignorance and acknowledged that an indigenous teacher would be better qualified to create change.  A Northern Arapaho leader responded, “Well, of course. But now that you know about this, you can’t just do nothing” (Stanton, 2019, 282).

Conversations with Christine and reading her research reveals how she grapples with a conflicting and contradicting history of being a settler. She profoundly articulates the importance of facing history and coming to terms with the painful realities of her settler history, which affects her teaching and research.  She acknowledges that while she is unable to undo centuries of oppression, she can, as a teacher, raise awareness, and in my view, become a voice of democracy.  

For far too long, social studies educators have been complicit with an educational system that has responded to the minority experience with either active suppression or chronic apathy.  As I have observed by visiting classrooms across the country, listening to state social studies conference speakers, attending numerous presentations, and conversing with educators, PK-16 social studies teachers are confronting the past and present, exploring the complexity and difficulty of our histories, identities, schools, and classrooms.  Collectively we are building a network of voices of democracy who seek to unsettle curriculum and pedagogy to cultivate empathy, foster respect for diverse perspectives, and inform actions for a more equitable, inclusive, and just society.  

As John Dewey wrote, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” I underscore the significant contributions that good quality social studies education with professional educators like those I have met can make to meeting the many challenges that democracy and our freedoms are facing. We want our students to grow up in a democratic society. We want them to become active citizens capable of making wise choices. We want to enable them to promote, protect, and achieve the values which constitute the basis of democracy and its institutions. Yet, when I consider the percentage of teachers who are members of Affiliated Councils and of NCSS, the combined numbers of these ambitious educators seem quite small in comparison to the overall teaching force in PK-12 schools.  While many ambitious social studies teachers are turning toward inquiry, discussing hard history, teaching tolerance, and promoting informed action, there are many more teachers in our schools that continue with status quo social studies. What are we doing to advocate for a more critical social studies that faces our conflicting historical, political, economic, and civic narratives? How are we advocating for unsettling the structures, curricula, and pedagogies in our schools and districts to ensure equity, justice, and inclusion for all students?

Moreover, media sources claim that Americans don’t possess the social studies knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens in a globally diverse society. Educational scholars contend that this is an issue of legacy practices in how social studies is taught, as well as the crowding out of social studies in elementary curriculum. Under the tyranny of coverage, social studies is made dull and robbed of its capacity to make sense of an uncomfortable past, a chaotic present, and an inchoate future. Out of fear, educators avoid studying race or confronting the dueling consciousness of racism and anti-racism in America and around the world. An unwillingness to risk the reproach of communities has silenced curricular topics such as LGBT+ history, immigration, and human rights. Sentiments of lack of expertise have stood in the way of teaching topics (e.g., teaching about religion) that are essential to understanding human interaction.

NCSS contends that presentations of controversial and difficult “topics within the ideals of academic freedom are fundamental to the advancement of truth and understanding of humanity” (NCSS, 2016, 186).  Social studies content bears the responsibility to “explicitly present and emphasize accurate narratives of the lives, experiences, and histories” of all people (NCSS, 2018, 1) and to unsettle a curriculum that ignores and forgets institutional, structural, and individual racism which ensures inequality and de jure segregation (Rothstein, 2017).  If we do not confront the truth in our social studies classrooms, the foundations of democracy will further be eroded.   

When French thinker Baron de Montesquieu pioneered the notion of separation of powers in 1748 in his book The Spirit of the Laws, he believed that the hard architecture of political institutions might be enough to constrain overreaching power.  His views suggested that constitutional design was similar to an engineering problem, a challenge of crafting institutions so that ambition could be used to counter ambition, even when political leaders caved Machiavelli’s axiom of power. Many of our founders believed this as well; however, history, contemporary politics, and growing economic inequalities teach another lesson that reveals the contradictions that lie in the shadows of democracy. The silencing of this past and the power and privilege exercised through current political and economic practices put democracy on unstable ground. 

In 2019 Freedom House authored a report, Democracy in Retreat, documenting the overall 26% increase in not free countries and the 44% decrease in free countries between 2005 and 2018.  The report claims a retreat of democracy and the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe. Peter Levisky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die reason that the lessons of history and civics reveal the fragility of democracy and oblivious weaknesses of democratic institutions. They contend that democracies do not die in darkness, they falter in plain sight with the consent of the governed.  Recognizing these vulnerabilities, Kenneth C. Davis (2019) in a recent issue of Social Education and an NCSS webinar argues that democracy is not a spectator sport, and social studies has a responsibility to safeguard it. The real safeguard of democracy is education and that the ability of our schools, colleges, and universities to fulfill that role will largely depend on the social studies teaching profession.  Knowledge of social studies must serve as an anchor in a time when fake news and misinformation assail us. Social studies must be a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring and a vehicle for establishing a common bond when social divisions are deep, and polarization occupies public discourse. What social studies we teach and how we teach it matters.  The chronic dysfunction of civics and history knowledge has reached a new critical mass. This is our Sputnik moment for schools to promote social studies, and more specifically, mutual respect, forbearance, civic engagement, and deliberative skills—skills our democracy depends on to survive and thrive. Ken Davis (2019) suggests, “It is simple. If we don’t understand how democracy works, it may stop working” (183).  Sam Wineburg (2019) echoes these sentiments in our digital civic spaces, “The threat to democracy by digitally credulous citizenry is nothing less than an issue of national defense. Teaching it as anything but guarantees further erosion of democratic society” (n.p.).  

This Sputnik moment comprises not only uncertainty, but also opportunity for social studies. In 2016, NCSS called for a more inclusive, intentional, and historically accurate curriculum, as evidenced by Principle Two in the NCSS Code of Ethics for the Social Studies Profession (2016), “It is the ethical responsibility of social studies professionals to provide to every student the knowledge, skills, experiences, and attitudes necessary to function as an effective participant in a democratic system.” As social studies educators committed to critical inquiry as well as human rights and democratic governance, we must challenge and push against curriculum as a wary defense of the status quo. The language of democracy we convey in social studies is of acute importance. Susan Hopgood and Fred van Leeuen’s 2019 book, On Education and Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession, begins with a foreword by Timothy Snyder, who identifies fundamental learnings for safeguarding democracy: 

Democracy depends upon a world of facts. If the people are to rule, they must believe in this world and believe that they share it with others who feel the same way. 

Democracy depends upon a world of numbers, where citizens can understand what it means when a small percentage of people control a large percentage of the wealth. 

Democracy depends upon a world of language, which allows people to see one another as equals with different experiences and values that they can share in speech and writing in a common public sphere. 

Democracy depends upon a world of culture, in which people can share what they know and feel through symbols that are common and cherished and sustained. 

Democracy depends upon a world of history, where the past instructs about dangers but also about possibilities, where we can see ourselves together, making decisions that matter for the future. 

Democracy depends upon a common world that we can all try to understand together. If the people are to rule, which is what democracy means, the people must see and grasp and share and improve the world around them (2019, 7-8). 

“All of this is possible, but none of it is automatic. Such a world can only be made by teachers, administrators, and the schools that support them. If we want democracy, we have to demand it, and we have to be able to educate children who will make and remake it” (2019, 8).  These safeguards of democracy should be foundational in the social studies we teach.

As the young aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville stated, “Nothing is more wonderful than being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom” (Democracy in America). Democracy requires continuous effort to thrive, and a constant willingness to broaden and deepen the application of democratic principles through a willingness to face our history, to be unsettled by the past, and to ensure all students voices are honored, and to empower students with reasoning, agency, and intellectual capacities to take informed action. The future of democracy depends on our ability to show that democracy is more than a set of bare-minimum defenses against the worst abuses of authoritarians. Democracy is a guarantee of the freedom to choose and live out one’s destiny. It is the promise of unalienable rights for all. 

We, as social studies educators, must demonstrate that the full promise of democracy can be realized. 19th-century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre said, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” It is important that we understand that if our students deserve better, being passive and simply saying no will lead nowhere; we need to do something about it. We must systematically imbue the next generation of citizens “with the experiences and values that motivate them to become civically engaged, and with the knowledge and skills that will allow them to do so effectively…. If schools can better educate students on the workings of political institutions, train them to engage in substantive dialogues on controversial political issues, and instill in them the values and skills they need to be effective political participants, in time a new generation of activist voters” will be capable of safeguarding democracy (Rebell, 2018, 30).  

We must also ask: how can I change? Even the language we use, the beliefs we express about students’ abilities, and the behaviors we exhibit in our teaching must be examined.  Social studies educators have a responsibility to learn and to act. We must deepen our knowledge and confront our histories and biases so that we can create a more accurate learning experience and embrace our roles as agents for social change. As Christine Stanton reminds us, “…now that you know about this, you can’t just do nothing.” Extraordinary times require acts of extraordinary people; and, teachers are extraordinary people. It is with our collective, informed action, a product of social studies, and critical inquiry as purported by NCSS, that we safeguard democracy. After all, we and our students are the voices of democracy.  



Davis, K. C. (2019).  Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport: The Role of Social Studies in Safeguarding the Republic.  Social Education, 83(4), 180-187.

Freedom House. (2019). Democracy in Retreat.  Available

Hopgood, S., & van Leeuen, F. (2019). On Education and Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession. Brussels, Belgium: Creative Commons. Available

Levisky, P., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How Democracies Die. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC. 

National Council for the Social Studies. (2016). Academic Freedom and the Social Studies Educator. Social Education, 80(3), 186. Available

National Council for the Social Studies. (2014). Human Rights Education: A Necessity for Effective Social and Civic Learning. Available

National Council for the Social Studies. (2018). Toward Responsibility: Social Studies Education that Respects and Affirms Indigenous Peoples and Nations. Available

Rebell, M. A. (2018).  Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation.  Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 

Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.  New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation.  

Stanton, C. (2019).  “Now You Can’t Just Do Nothing”: Unsettling the Settler Self Within Social Studies Education.  Social Education, 83(5), 282-289.

Wineburg, S. (2019, February 12). The internet is sowing mass confusion. We must rethink how we teach kids every subject. USA Today. Available: