Core Principles for Teaching about Freedom and Democracy in US History | Facing History & Ourselves
 Magnifying Glass Over United States Map

Core Principles for Teaching about Freedom and Democracy in US History

Facing History outlines four ways to help your students connect with our C3-aligned US history inquiry.

In Facing History’s new inquiry entitled In Pursuit of Democracy and Freedom, students explore the compelling question, “How can we make real the ideals of democracy and freedom?” 

This conceptual inquiry draws from students’s lived experiences by asking them to think critically about what democracy and freedom mean in US history and in their own lives. This is an important exercise for students today, who are coming of age amid political polarization, economic inequality, ongoing public health crises, and climate change. As they navigate their place in the world, many often wonder about their role in the project of democracy and whether or not it “matters.” 

The following principles underlie our approach to teaching about democracy and freedom in a way that is authentic and meaningful to all students. These principles are not content-specific and can be used as a lens to evaluate your own US History materials and themes. 

  1. Meet students where they are
    Only by acknowledging what many students already know from their own lives—that progress toward greater freedom, equality, and justice is not linear or inevitable—can we teach the history of the United States in a way that is authentic and meaningful to all students. Only if students see their story as part of the story of the United States will they envision themselves as the founders and caretakers of the future of the nation’s democracy.  
  2. Use the study of history to reveal the messy work of democracy
    The study of history illuminates key aspects of democracy that are missing when the functions of government are taught in the abstract. Our resources on the founding era, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement, to name just a few, reveal the complex social and political context in which governments function: the conflicts, choices, institutions, historical legacies, and human behaviors that shape – and sometimes distort – the democratic process. 
  3. Emphasize social-emotional learning skills 
    In addition to laws, political parties, and elections, democracy depends on how citizens relate to one another. Democracy can’t thrive when citizens define who is included and who is excluded from the polity on the basis of attributes like race, or language, or when they fail to see the humanity in those with whom they share a community and a country.  We understand that empathy, respect for difference, and perspective-taking are not only social-emotional skills but also key qualities of responsible citizenship, because they support students’ ability to imagine and act on a notion of the “common good.”  
  4. Provide models of civic choices
    While principles such as equality, human rights, and consent of the governed were features features of the nation’s original documents, there has never been a point in our history when they were extended or applied equally to all Americans. Nevertheless, throughout US history, these ideals have been seized upon by groups and individuals to assert their own rights and expand the definition of who is included in the phrase “we the people.” Studying these groups and individuals helps students discover the power of their own choice to participate today. 

Facing History believes that building students’s civic capacity begins in the classroom. We see schools as a microcosm of democracy—a place where young people should learn that they belong, that they have a stake, and that their voices matter. According to this view, students are not just “future voters,” but also citizens in the here and now.

By emphasizing civic agency and the eternal struggle for freedom and democracy, our US history resources can both inform and inspire students as they prepare to make their mark on the world today. Historian George Lipsitz explains what he hopes students, informed by a rigorous study of history, will think when confronted by present-day injustice: “We know this place; we've been here before. We come from a tradition. People of all colors and all races come from a tradition of social justice in which ordinary men and women thought it was worth risking everything to create a fair and democratic society.” 1

  • 1George Lipsitz, interview, The Legacies of Reconstruction (Facing History & Ourselves), accessed April 7, 2022.

Integrate themes of democracy & freedom throughout your US history course with our US History Curriculum Collection.

Explore the Collection

You might also be interested in…

More Like This Ideas this Week