What the Russian Invasion Means for Civic Education (Opinion)

Pedro Noguera, the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest issues in education. I thought readers might enjoy reading excerpts from these conversations from time to time. Today Pedro and I discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what it means for classroom discussions on current affairs and civics.

-grinding wheel

grinding wheel: Pedro, today we talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s ongoing atrocities against Ukrainian citizens, and how educators should teach about what is happening. How should conflict inform classroom conversations, especially when children come to see it if they are near an open TV or device?

Pedro: It is a critical subject. I was wondering how to get people to understand the story behind the war? You can’t really understand this war if you don’t understand how the Soviet Union fell apart. What is the historical relationship between Ukraine and Russia? What, if anything, does NATO have to do with it? This history is essential to understanding the current conflict, and many American children do not have this background. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t know this story either. Many Americans don’t understand geography well and might have trouble locating Ukraine on a map. Many people may not even know that Russia took over Crimea many years ago and they have been waging a proxy war in eastern Ukraine for years now. For teachers watching this conflict unfold and seeking to discuss it with their students in the context of current events, it will be important to contextualize and historicize what is happening.

grinding wheel: We were both social studies teachers at one time. So a lot of those conversations still land very practically for both of us. One of the things I taught in Louisiana at the time was world geography. And I was always struck by how few high school students could find Japan or Ireland on a map or who knew which countries actually made up Europe or Africa. We’re talking about essential knowledge and how important it is in an age when it’s so easy for someone to say, “Facts don’t matter. They can simply google them. But to make sense of the Russian invasion, you need to understand the geography of the former Soviet Union, what the 15 republics were, and Russia’s relationship with nations like Georgia, Kazakhstan, or Belarus. You have to know these things, and they have to be physical representations on a map. You need to understand the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and why the Poles are right to view Russian expansion with such apprehension. You can’t Google this. This gets to the heart of some of the things we discussed in our book. Is it important for students to know facts, dates and countries? It really is. That’s not all students need to know, but you need to know this stuff or you’ll be watching bombs drop on a screen and be completely at sea.

Pedro: I totally agree. At some level, if you don’t know that, you are almost illiterate. You cannot understand what is going on around you, and you certainly cannot understand this war. My daughter, who is about to turn 10, was kind of aware of what was going on, in part because she can’t help but hear me listening to the news. She recently asked me, “Should we worry about a nuclear war?” I said, “Well, maybe, because Russia has nuclear weapons, and this war might escalate.” I also told him that I thought the Russians were unlikely to use nuclear weapons as the fallout could affect them as well. I was glad she was curious. Once we have their attention, there is an opportunity to deepen understanding, because, like you, I agree that the content of what is happening is really important. You cannot make sense of these events as they unfold just by watching the news every once in a while. You actually have to open a book and understand the geography and history behind this conflict.

grinding wheel: For me, it’s a limit of the “topical” state of mind. I’m all for schools approaching current events in a thoughtful way, but if you’ve never heard of Ukraine or Russia and don’t know anything about the background or the history, then the discussion will focus primarily on emotion and empathy rather than learning. And it seems to me that schools have to be in the business of learning. This means that children need an architecture on which to put the video they see or the terms they hear. If the first time you hear about Russia or Ukraine or the Cold War is when you’re having a conversation on the news about the invasion that happened, in a sense , it’s too late, because the children have no framework they must make sense of it. Debates about relevance, civic-mindedness, and engagement have placed much emphasis on the teaching method, which risks undermining the what. It’s a problem.

Pedro: For many children, especially younger ones, it helps to learn about events like this war through the eyes of another child. Unfortunately, many children have already been killed in this conflict. Children understand immediately when they know that children like them are dying and being forced to flee their homes. This is why a book like A girl’s diary of Anne Frank is so powerful. Many children can relate to Anne as a child who was forced to live in hiding during World War II. Through her words, they understand the fear she and others felt of being sent to concentration camps. When they learn that this is finally happening to Anne, they understand on a deep level how war, racism and intolerance affect people’s lives, including children. One of my graduate students at USC sent us photos from a teacher in Ukraine of children who are currently living in bunkers. Sharing images like these with children allows them to imagine what it must be like to be there now. When we can make a human connection to a conflict like this, it becomes more meaningful.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 10 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Ukraine, Russia, and Civics.”

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