The Importance of Teaching Financial Literacy in Middle Schools

 by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director

The new state mandate to teach financial literacy in middle schools was passed on January 3, 2019 and becomes required instruction in September. The law passed 38-0 in our State Senate and 76-1 in the New Jersey Assembly. The most likely reason for an almost unanimous vote is the multiple financial crises affecting all income areas of residents in our state. Although New Jersey has the fifth highest per capita income in the United States at $67,609 and some of the highest property values, residents are struggling with debt at $62,300 per capita.

Figure 1: Per capita personal income in the United States in 2018, by state (in U.S. dollars) (  )

Reasons for the New Financial Literacy Law

The alarm was sounded by a report in July 2014 from the Federal Reserve Bank that perhaps 52% of Americans have less than $400 in emergency savings: “Only 48 percent of respondents said that they would completely cover a hypothetical emergency expense costing $400 without selling something or borrowing money.”

Although statistics can be distorted, they are still important and helpful. The data supports the need for financial education in grades K-12. Retirement savings are low and almost non-existent by younger workers, identified as “Millennials” (1980-2000) who are likely the parents of our students. According to a 2019 survey by Merrill Lynch 7 out of 10 millennials ages 18-34 received financial support from their parents in the last year. The primary reason for this is personal debt.

As a retired baby boomer, I remember when

• the owner of the corner grocery store would total the prices on a paper bag

• my parents received S&H green stamps as a reward for shopping

• my grandparents did not have a checking account and kept their savings in the basement

• only male students on my college campus had credit cards

• leaving school during my lunch hour to bring my pay check to the bank.

Financial matters were simpler, the line to deposit or cash a check was long, and money changed hands less frequently than it does today.

The technology of the ATM, direct deposit, PayPal, Apple Pay and a host of other fee-based services takes our money with its “invisible hand.” We are faced with up to 20 automatic deductions from our salaries within hours or days from earning it. For example, a person who uses an ATM machine with a fee of $3.00 a transaction is likely to pay more than $150 on weekly withdrawals over a year. If an organization collects $40,000 through PayPal or another provider, they will pay 2.9% per transaction or almost $1,200 in fees! New Jersey required the teaching of financial literacy K-12 in the 2009 Learning Outcomes and mandated a semester course as a requirement for high school graduation. New Jersey has 117 Learning Outcomes for teaching financial literacy in Grades K-12 in seven content areas of income and careers, money management, credit and debt, planning, saving, and investing, being a critical consumer, civic financial responsibility, and insuring and protecting.

Based on a survey of 65,000 college students administered by USA Today in 2014: “Students who took a class did better on the survey’s financial knowledge questions, were found to be more averse to debt, more likely to pay credit card bills on time, and less likely to go over their credit limit…The study, which is in its second year, is the first comprehensive analysis of the impact of high school financial literacy education on not only knowledge but attitudes and behaviors.”

The National Financial Literacy Report compiled by Champlain College (2017) identified only five states with a requirement of a ‘stand alone’ semester course and an effective curriculum that includes activities, relevance, and specific benchmarks. New Jersey received a grade of “B” while 27 states and the District of Columbia, a majority, received grades of C, D, and F.

As you will see in this report (  ), a B grade does not necessarily mean that a state requires an adequate level of instruction. The Center estimates that half of “Grade B” states allocated less than one-quarter of a half-year course in high school to personal finance topics. This means that students in 8 of these “Grade B” states received between 7 and 13 hours of personal finance instruction in four years of high school. The report identified only11 states that required 15 or more hours of personal finance education in high school.

What Does the New Financial Literacy Law Require?

The legislation mandates that students receive instruction based on the NJ Learning Outcomes for Financial Literacy (9.1) in Grades 6, 7, and 8. The new mandate does not quantify the number of hours of instruction and it specifically requires instruction in each grade level rather than a semester or year course in any one grade. Schools should embrace this as an opportunity to establish positive student behaviors and engage students in decision-making and problem solving. In a school with a curriculum focusing on the application of real life situations, students in Grades K-5 are learning to respect money and understanding how our economy functions, middle school students are applying personal financial lessons to what they are studying in social studies and math and using the tools of technology to analyze their decisions and solutions to problems, and high school students are demonstrating competence as financial planners using scenarios and presentations.

Where Should Financial Literacy be Taught?

Many districts teach financial literacy in social studies, business or family and consumer science courses, math classes, or computer technology courses. The new law suggests a fragmented approach by requiring instruction for a few days or weeks in Grades 6, 7, and 8 without identifying the courses where it will be implemented or the amount of instructional time that is appropriate. Another perspective on this limited approach is to translate five days of instruction in 40-minute periods to about three hours of instruction. The research suggests that effective instruction is best taught in a semester course with 15 or more hours of instruction. There are currently 58 mandated Learning Outcomes for teaching financial literacy in Grades 6-8 and if one class period was allocated for each Learning Outcome, students would need over 30 hours of instruction, instead of 9 hours over three years! The National Financial Literacy Report is critical of instruction that is limited to one quarter or less, or the equivalent of 30 hours of instruction.

A study by The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) in January 2015 of three states (Georgia, Texas, Idaho) cited evidence of changes in financial decision-making by students in Texas and Georgia which required a half-year course for graduation, teacher training, clearly stated learning outcomes, and state and/or national assessments:

Based on our analysis, we conclude that exposure to the types of high school personal financial education mandated by these three states improves credit scores and reduces delinquency rates for young adults.

The research strongly indicates that it is important to talk about money with students, provide activities that encourage problem solving and decision-making, application of math skills, and relevance to what is taught or a student’s personal situation. Although credit cards, auto insurance, college loans, savings, and developing a personal budget are the most likely financial decisions for high school students in the next five years, there are also opportunities for personal application in a history or economics course which includes lessons on inflation, trade, national debt, and the inequality of income. Their parents are likely discussing banking, budgeting, mortgages, college expenses, investments and their grandparents are concerned with Social Security, retirement planning, and insurance. Even if students are not directly involved with these personal matters, they are aware of them.

How Should Financial Literacy be Taught?

After accepting the importance of financial education and its relationship to your district’s mission statement, the first step is for the curriculum team in your district and school to decide the best way to effectively deliver instruction on the required NJ Learning Outcomes. Piaget’s theories provide a significant understanding that middle school students are exploring and challenging theories about how the world works. Effective instruction leading to changed behaviors must be relevant, make applications to their prior knowledge and provide opportunities for inquiry, research, debate, and presentation. Instead of a checklist based on core content or the completion of a number of activity sheets, consider how scenarios, simulations, speakers, decision-making, and problem-solving impact enduring understandings and new behaviors regarding saving, spending, investing, and planning.

The second step is to identify the resources for these strategies. Consider planning your curriculum with the assistance of college professors, professional organizations, local banks and entrepreneurs. They require discernment, planning and customizing to your student population. Although there are many resources available on the internet and from banks, investment firms, and entrepreneurs, a serious concern is that some of these resources are simply not effective, do not support student inquiry and are missing applications to prior knowledge. The Council on Economic Education has developed lessons with application to economics and history that are also adaptable to financial literacy concepts. An organization in New York City, Working in Support of Educators (W!SE) has developed a best practices curriculum with assessments. A benefit of the W!SE program is that its effectiveness is demonstrated in many different states and in urban and suburban districts. The New Jersey Council on Economic Education offers professional development programs, webinars, and assistance. See the Works Cited section at the end of this article for their websites.

The third step is to provide meaningful and effective professional development for your teachers. When possible, professional development opportunities should be offered to every teacher in the district. Professional development is affordable and practical by using experienced teachers of financial literacy and economics in your district. Also, banks are required under the Community Reinvestment Act to support financial education in the areas where they are located and colleges and investment firms (real estate, insurance, Chamber of Commerce, etc.) have extensive experience and resources that can lead to a best practices model curriculum for your students. Consider a partnership or collaborative dialogue to get started.

The Importance of Assessments

A critical part of a best practice curriculum on financial literacy includes assessments that engage students in demonstrating their level of competency in addressing problems relating to financial decision making. One concern of the critics who are opposed to requiring financial literacy in schools is that it is not effective and has not produced significant changes in student’s behavior because it lacks relevance to the decisions that make in middle school and high school. A recent article in the Washington Post (April 23, 2019) stated that financial literacy is a “waste of time” and a poor financial decision:

That’s because financial education simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t change behavior — as numerous studies have shown. Indeed, the fact that giving people information does not, by itself, change how they act is one of the most firmly established in social science, whether the subject is the dangers of drug use, the value of getting vaccinated or the calories in a restaurant’s bacon cheeseburger. The same is true of finance.”

Assessments can provide important answers to the debate on the efficacy of financial literacy instruction in grades K-12, especially when assessments involve more than one classroom or school and are validated by an outside professional organization or college faculty. Questions requiring an explanation are best for assessing what students have learned and how they are thinking. An example that includes multiple scenarios is: Select three (3) scenarios below and answer the question with a complete explanation as to which type of insurance policy (if any) is covered and a detailed explanation of the reasons. •

Scenario No. 1: A fire from another apartment destroys much of your apartment and your belongings. Whose insurance (yours of your landlord’s) pays for what? •

Scenario No. 2: You are negligent and leave food on your hot stove, starting a fire. Whose policy pays and what is covered? Are you liable for damage to the apartment building? •

Scenario No. 3: Your landlord is negligent in not repairing a plumbing problem you’ve been reporting, and a pipe bursts. Whose insurance (yours or your landlord’s) pays and what is covered?

Scenario No. 4: Someone trips and falls in your apartment and is injured. Does you renter’s liability pay for the injury, or your landlord’s?

• Scenario No. 5: Your apartment is broken into and your computer, television, and some jewelry are stolen. Are you covered?

Scenario No. 6: Your landlord claims you have damaged the apartment and is keeping part of your security deposit. Will the renter’s insurance cover this loss?

Scenario No. 7: Your washing machine overflows, flooding the basement.

Although multiple choice questions may not always represent higher cognitive skills, Working in Support of Educators (W!SE) provides valuable multiple choice assessments as part of their financial literacy certification test for students. The depth of learning comes with their rich data base of practice questions because the choices lead to deeper student inquiry and research. One benefit of using their multiple choice assessments is that these questions have been tested for reliability and validity and can be used objectively to measure local performance with other classes, schools or states.

Educators should also think about the importance of a longitudinal study of students taking financial literacy classes over time. Even if the evidence collected is anecdotal, it is helpful to collect data about financial decisions while students are still in school. For example, if financial literacy is taught in Grades 9 or 10, students in Grades 11 and 12 might be administered some of the questions they answered in Grades 9 or 10 to see if their answers remained consistent or if they improved or regressed.


Federal Reserve Bank. (2014) Report on the economic well-being of U.S. households in 2013. Retrieved from  

Consumer Debt in New Jersey. (2015). Debt – $62,300. Retrieved from  

Malcolm, H. (2014). Financial literacy education has lasting impact. USA Today. Retrieved from   

Champlain College (2017). National Financial Literacy Report. Retrieved from   

FINRA Investor Education Foundation. (2015). State financial education mandates: It’s all in the implementation. Retrieved from   

Herron, J. (2019). Millennials still lean on parents for money but want financial independence, survey says. USA Today.  Retrieved from    

Apartment Hunters. (2019). Renter’s insurance policy scenarios. Retrieved from   

Working in Support of Education. (2019). Financial literacy. Retrieved from    

Council on Economic Education. (2019). K-12 resources. Retrieved from      

New Jersey Council on Economic Education. (2019). Personal finance for New Jersey middle school teachers. Retrieved from   

Ogden, T. (2019). More states are forcing students to study personal finance. It’s a waste of time.

Ogden, T. (2019). More states are forcing students to study personal finance. It’s a waste of time. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Retrieved from   

Engaging K-6 Students in History: The Nutley History Fair

Engaging K-6 Students in History: The Nutley History Fair

Hank Bitten,Executive Director, New Jersey Council for the Social Studies

The Nutley Academic Booster Club (ABC) ( provides an opportunity for students in their K-6 elementary schools to participate in a science and history fair in alternating years each March. The article below reflects on my observations as a judge in the 2018 History Fair for K-6 students. I judged the student entries for Grades 4 and 6.

The History Fair is held in the high school gymnasium with tables for students in each grade to display their research based projects. Students arrive before 9:00 a.m. to setup their displays with their parents and program begins at 10:00 a.m. with judging the K-1 and 2-3 students. Judging for the students in grades 4-6 begins at 11:30 a.m. and the program ends by 2:00 p.m.. The rubric allocates the majority of points on an interview with students about their research and knowledge of their topic:

  • Understanding and Clarity (30%)
  • Historical Content (30%)
  • Creativity (30%)
  • Technical Skills (10%)

There are two teams of judges who interview each student. The students have an opportunity to engage in a conversation for about ten minutes with the judges about their project, what they learned, their research, and why their subject is important to world history, American history, New Jersey history, or local history. Exhibits include posters, demonstrations, media, and experiments.

Nutley Fair-1

Some of the exhibits I judged were on the history of ballet, gymnastics as an Olympic sport, the life of Katherine Johnson, Sally Ride, the inventions of Thomas Edison, the history of Lego, the culture of death in China, Brazil, and Africa, the Aztec civilization, Anne Frank, and the architecture of the Taj Mahal. At several exhibits, the students were dressed in historical era clothing or as a gymnast, ballerina, or entrepreneur.

Parents are permitted to guide their children and work with them on their project but each student must explain the story and historical information on their own. The Nutley Academic Booster Club (ABC) recognizes the top three student winners in each grade and there is a public recognition at a later date. All students receive certificates.

Research for young students leaves a positive impact and nurtures their interest and engagement with history as they are talking about their topics with their families for several weeks, learning how to make an abstract topic into a visual presentation, understanding the importance of asking questions, using print and non-print resources, books and websites, interviews and museum resources, and speaking with adults about what they learned.

Nutley Fair-2

In the gym, the Nutley Historical Society has displays of local history, including information about the public schools, teachers and relatives observe and take hundreds of pictures, and there is plenty of food and fun contributing to this memorable experience. Even though only a few students in each grade receive one of the top three awards (there were 21 prizes for about 100 entries), every student developed a special and positive relationship with their person or historical event.

Consider planning a history fair program in your school or public school district!

This is How You Get Gun Control

This Is How You Get Gun Control

Bruce W. Dearstyne
The New York State Office of State History and the State Archives
Reprinted with permission from the History News Network

“We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around,” Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program a few days later. It was a wrenching reminder of how long politicians have ducked responsibility for curbing killers using assault rifles.

We have reached a critical point in our history when students need to implore lawmakers to protect them from gunfire in their own schools.

President Trump’s endorsement of stronger background checks and raising the age to purchase guns seem like positive steps. But his – and the NRA’s – proposal to arm classroom teachers raises the specter of gunmen armed with assault rifles shooting it out with classroom teachers armed with handguns.

The nation needs common-sense gun control that is compatible with the Second Amendment.

The story of the Sullivan Gun Control Act, passed by the New York State legislature in 1911, is worth studying for insights into how public pressure and political leadership could produce what is needed.

By the early 20th century, many New York political leaders, newspapers, and individual citizens were concerned with rising gun violence, particularly in New York City. Several factors aligned to escalate and transform that concern into support for gun control legislation.

Shooting a mayor provokes public outrage

On August 9, 1910, New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor was waiting to board a ship for a trip to Europe. He was suddenly approached by James J. Gallagher, who had been discharged from his position as a New York City dock night watchman for dereliction of his duty earlier in the year. Gallagher’s repeated appeals to the mayor for reinstatement had gotten no results.

Gallagher shot the mayor in the neck and also wounded the city sanitation commissioner who was there to see the mayor off. A New York World photographer happened to be there for what he had assumed would be a routine photo of the mayor. Instead, he snapped a picture of a bloodied Gaynor reeling from the shot. The photo made the front pages of city newspapers and was widely reprinted. It was a graphic representation of the horror of gun violence.

Gaynor survived but the bullet lodged in his neck and could not be removed. It caused him pain and discomfort until his death in 1913. Gallagher insisted that his being fired justified his assault on the mayor and that shooting public officials was defensible “if you have a grievance and can’t right it any other way.” He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and died there in 1913.

Killing a prominent writer provokes even more outrage

David Graham Phillips was a prominent New York City novelist in the early 20th century. On January 23, 1911, Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, an eccentric violinist and music teacher, walked up to Phillips on the sidewalk near Gramercy Park. People standing nearby heard him cry out “I’ve been waiting for six months to get you” and then “Here you go!” as he shot the novelist five times. He then muttered “Here I go!” before shooting and killing himself. Phillips died of his wounds the next day.

Police searched Goldsborough’s apartment; from diaries and papers they learned he had become obsessed with one of Phillips’ novels, The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig. He believed it drew on Goldsborough family history, portraying it in an unflattering way. Goldsborough also believed Phillips could read his mind. Actually, Phillips’s novel was complete fiction rather than based on any actual people. Press accounts concluded Goldsborough was mentally deranged. The shootings of Gaynor and Phillips escalated public demand for gun control.

A coroner presents data

Support for gun control also came from an unlikely source, the New York City coroner’s office. George LeBrun, a senior administrator in the office, complied annual reports on deaths in the city in the early 20th century. The report released in January 1911 documented an alarming rise in gun-related killings. Gun violence was reaching epidemic levels. “The increase of homicide by shooting indicates the urgent necessity of the proper authorities taking some measure for the regulation of the indiscriminate sale and carrying of firearms,” the report insisted. “ The press picked up the sense of alarm, for instance, in a New York Times article on January 30 entitled, “Revolver Killings Fast Increasing.”

A politician takes the lead

Timothy Sullivan, a Democratic state senator from the Bowery area of Manhattan, was shocked at the Gaynor and Phillips shootings. But he was even more alarmed about a rising tide of gang-related shootings in his own district.

Sullivan, often known by his nickname “Big Tim,” was a no do-gooder reformer. He was a Tammany Hall regular who was involved with gambling, prostitution, and corruption. But he was also genuinely concerned with the welfare of his constituents. Tammany Hall itself was becoming more reform-minded.

Sullivan introduced a bill in the 1911 legislature to require licenses issued by judges or police for New Yorkers to possess firearms small enough to be concealed. Possession of such firearms without a license would be defined as a misdemeanor, and carrying one without a license was defined as a felony. Sellers were required to keep records of firearms transactions. The bill had other provisions as well.

Sullivan explained that there were three types of “gun toters.” The first category was professional criminals. The second consisted of people who were deranged or committed gun violence in fits of rage. His law would help in both those areas, he said.

But Sullivan said he was more concerned with a third category: “young fellows who carry guns around in their pockets all the time not because they are murderers or criminals but because the other fellows do it and they want to be able to protect themselves…. [T]hose boys aren’t all bad but … just carrying their guns around makes them itch to use them.”

Public opinion pressures the legislature

Sullivan’s bill was opposed by some gun owners and gun manufacturers. One upstate legislator told Sullivan that “your bill won’t stop murders. You can’t force a burglar to get a license to use a gun.” Others warned that criminals would get guns from other states.

But opponents were overshadowed by the voices of citizens who were fed up with gun violence, particularly people in New York City. Sullivan capitalized on public sentiment.

“This is a bill against murder,” he insisted in an impassioned plea for his bill in the Senate on May 11.

He pointed out that gun control was supported by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, department store owner John Wanamaker, several other wealthy and prominent New Yorkers, the city police department, and a number of judges. Law enforcement officers spoke out in favor of Sullivan’s bill. New York County Republican District Attorney (later governor) Charles Whitman said that “carrying a weapon is an invitation to a crime. Reduce the weapons carried and you will reduce crimes of violence. There isn’t any debating that point.” Public opinion swung behind the proposed legislation.

Bipartisan support for the bill

Democrats controlled the legislature but Sullivan lobbied his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to support his bill. It came to be viewed as a bipartisan measure. Legislators, sensing public outrage at gun assaults, expressed support. After all, who wanted to be seen as opposing something that promised to save people’s lives? The Sullivan Act passed easily, garnering 46 of 51 votes in the Senate and 148 out of 150 in the Assembly, with both Democrats and Republicans in support. Democratic governor John A. Dix signed it into law. It took effect at midnight on August 31, 1911.

Insights from history

Critics soon charged that the law was selectively enforced, with police targeting immigrants and minority groups and planting guns on people they wanted to arrest for other reasons. It was challenged in court but upheld. Its impact on reducing gun-related crime has been questioned. As Patrick Charles explains in his new book, Armed in America: A History of Gun Rights from Colonial Militias to Concealed Carry, its passage inspired organized resistance to gun control in other states. But its basic provisions are still in place.

The Sullivan Act is not perfect by any means, but its passage sent a message that New Yorkers were determined to curb gun violence. The history of its passage offers three insights for today.

  • One, high-profile killings shock people into demanding action.
  • Two, public pressure is needed to get legislation passed, but in turn, the public’s perception is shaped by the media and political leaders who frame the issue and insist on action.
  • Three, compromise is possible. The Sullivan Act does not prevent people from getting concealed weapons, but it does require them to go through a process to do so.

Responses to Bruce Dearstyne

Nicole Waid, SUNY Oneonta, responds: The debate over the regulation of firearms has risen in intensity since the mass shooting that occurred February 14th at Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida. The nation perpetually grapples over the intent of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. Some believe the right to bear arms is something that should never be curtailed. Others feel that the founders could have never envisioned the technological advances that would make firearms more efficient and deadly. As the nation processes mass shootings in schools the debate, there is a range of solutions offered ranging from thoughts and prayers to enhanced background checks and banning assault-style weapons. The discourse between the different factions of politicians supported by the NRA and people who want sensible gun control measures to protect students in schools becomes a counterproductive cycle. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting seems to have something different which previous school shootings did not have. The children who lost their lives in Columbine did not have social media capabilities to speak out about the school shooting. The children who perished in the Sandy Hook school shooting were young elementary students, so they were not able to advocate for themselves. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, in contrast, are well-educated students with capabilities to disseminate their message about the need for gun control measures on social media. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have been thrust into the spotlight and sparked a nationwide movement to protest gun violence with a series of marches across the nation. The students had a well-defined set of objectives and tried to advocate for themselves when lawmakers have failed them. There has been considerable blowback on these students becoming targets of pro-gun activists, and the NRA. The students who are speaking out are accused of being coached by and George Soros. The reality of the situation is that the students had effective social studies teachers who explained Constitutional principles to them and how they apply to their everyday lives.

Simon Burke a transplanted American living in Paris comments: “In a modern society where it seems to be easier for the bad guys to get guns than it is for the good guys (this excludes law enforcement), the only logical solution I see to end gun violence is to remove guns from general circulation. Basically, a ‘no badge no gun’ policy. Sure, exceptions for those living in rural areas needing firearms could be argued (defense against wild animals, limited to bolt-action/barrel breaching weapons, etc.), but what real-life use do automatic and concealed weapons have for civilians? None whatsoever. Australia, a country with striking social, economic, and historical similarities to the U.S. banned guns in the mid 90’s. Guess what? zero mass shootings since. I think a case study of Australia’s gun policy could be interesting. Other countries’ policies could be explored as well, but I think Australia is particularly interesting because of the similarities between our two countries.”

Carolyn Ramos: Purchasing weapons should be banned to anyone who is not properly trained or educated. That legislatures are considering arming teachers is absolutely outrageous. As an educator in an early childhood program, I would never want my own students to fear me because I carry a weapon. There are thousands of under-funded public schools in this country. Schools need new books, new desks, smart boards, laptops, tablets, and supplies, not teachers with guns. Is this country telling our children that violence is the only way to solve our problems? That shooting is the only alternative here?

Bar Hidden Weapons On Sullivan’s Plea New York Times, May 11, 1911.ALBANY, May 10. —

In spite of opposition from manufacturers of firearms, the Senate to-day passed Senator Timothy D. Sullivan’s bill restricting the sale and use of dangerous weapons. Only five Senators voted against the measure after the Bowery Senator had made a characteristic appeal in its favor.The Sullivan bill makes the carrying of concealed weapons a felony, requires those using revolvers and small arms to obtain licenses from police Magistrates, and provides for the registration by dealers in firearms of all persons who buy revolvers or similar weapons. Senator Ferris, the only member who spoke in opposition, offered an amendment removing the licensing feature. This, he said, was unworkable and would prove a hardship to those who desired to have pistols in their homes for their protection.“Have you a gun factory in your district?” Senator Sullivan asked of Senator Ferris, who represents Oneida County. “There is a factory there,” was the reply. “Would you oppose this bill if that were not so?” “That fact is not my reason for opposing the bill in its present form,” Senator Ferris said. “Your bill won’t stop murders. You can’t force a burglar to get a license to use a gun. He’ll get one from another state.”“I want to make it so the young thugs in my district will get three years for carrying dangerous weapons instead of getting a sentence in the electric chair a year from now,” said Senator Sullivan. “The manufacturers oppose my bill because they know that if we pass it other States will follow suit.”

The Case of the Participation in Government Research Paper in New York State

Policy Analysis as an Exit Criteria:

The Case of the Participation in Government Research Paper in New York State

Nancy Hinkley, Cornell University & Casey Jakubowski,

State University of New York-Albany

Imagine the most difficult task you have faced in your life. For many students, writing an essay is one of the most challenging undertakings of their school academic career. Imagine that essay is then morphed into a research paper, a required hurdle for graduation. That is the reality facing students in New York State schools. In this reflective essay, two experienced teachers, one social studies, and one special education, examine issues created by the capstone research report for students with a learning disabilities in a rural high school setting.


In the early part of the 2000s, we were paired instructors in special education mainstream inclusion classes in a small, rural, upstate school district in New York. The school district is classified as rural under the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) coding. In order to protect confidentiality, we do not identify the specific school district. New York State classifies the district as a high needs district to the resources it can generate. Over half of the students in the district are considered living in poverty based upon the federal Free and Reduced Lunch rate. The district has a students with disabilities classification rate between 10-20 percent. The district’s graduation rate for students with disabilities is between 40-60 percent. The district has had some struggles, with declining population, damage due to natural disasters, and a poor economic outlook as major employers have left the area. Students and families within this area tend to be transient, moving between neighboring districts with frequency.

Nancy has over 20 years of experience in education, while Casey was in the early stages of his career. Both of the instructors have a keen interest in social studies, and were paired in a Global History and Geography class for 10th grade students. Both teachers hold certifications in social studies for New York State. Collaboration efforts extended beyond regular co-teaching assignments. One target focus was the 12th grade students assigned to the state mandated Participation in Government class. Casey was the primary instructor of record, while Nancy was the special education department’s case manager for the students and had resource room/ consultation functions for more than 20 seniors that academic year. Nancy had noticed a number of seniors were struggling with the capstone paper requirement for the Participation in Government class. Nancy asked Casey to visit the resource room and add content specific guidance to students, as he was the instructor of record for the class. Both instructors noticed a number of roadblocks to the successful completion of the capstone paper requirement for Participation in Government.

We wanted to relate this story to social studies teachers, as well as special education professionals in light of the increased rigor and alternative pathways for graduation now available to students in high school. With programs such as New Visions in Government, and the Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) based programs in New York State, we hope that the requirements for graduation via the Participation in Government course is accessible to students with disabilities. The high stakes testing which has traditionally kept students from graduating, namely the Global History and Geography exam, has been shortened. In light of recent political occurrences, it is especially important for students to understanding the basics of citizenship and participation. In the next section, the authors describe the research paper requirements necessary for graduation.

Research paper requirements

The research paper is a capstone requirement in the New York State Social Studies scope and sequence for our particular district. The research paper asks students to select a public policy issue and research it. Research involves discovering historical background on the policy issue. The policy issue can be local, countywide, state level, or national in nature. The paper requires students to research the alternatives to the policy. The paper should provide alternatives in support and opposition to a proposed policy solution. Usually the requirements for the public policy research paper are set locally. The teacher or the department will establish minimum length requirements for the paper, the number of sources required, and if graphs or charts are required. Usually, the public policy paper is structured as a semester long assignment for the students in the senior year Participation in Government class. The course included readings from Coplin & O’leary (1988) as the core textbook. The ½ credit course is one semester in length. For many teachers, the frustration that students experience while completing the paper has resulted in the creation of a step by step guide to the research and writing process that the student must undertake as they develop this final, culminating project for their social studies career. The step-by-step manual is an attempt by schools to scaffold the research requirements into manageable sections during the semester. This follows best practice advice on how to teach adolescents to write (Graham & MacArthur, 2013).

The step by step guide is divided into parts that are the foci of the writing stages for the paper. Usually the completed packet is submitted along with the final paper to the teacher at the end of the semester. The stages of the packet begin with the selection of a public policy problem that the student can select. In some schools, the teacher or department may provide the students with a list of topics This part of the packet may involve having students explore some initial encyclopedia/ internet search level examination of their potential topics. Usually the teacher will require the students to submit three potential topics with a justification about why those topics were selected.

The second stage of the process is the initial research part of the paper. After students have selected topics that can be researched, the packet will then require students to provide at least three to five sources, properly cited using MLA style citations, and at least two quotes per source. The thinking behind this strategy is encouraging students to learn how to properly identify sources and cite quotes. Usually at this stage, the teacher will pair with the school or community librarians to work with students on the research aspect of the paper. This section of the package is then expanded to ask students to look at multiple types of sources, including books, articles, internet databases and other sources that may be encountered in undergraduate research papers.

The third stage of the packet involves having students contact public officials to conduct interviews or communicate in the form of a letter or e-mail exchange. During this period, students who have been keeping up with the efforts are finding the paper beginning to coalesce around their selected topic, and the research helps inform the creation of questions. In some schools, the students may be asked to conduct surveys within the school or community to gauge public opinion on the public policy issue. This process requires students to research, on a lower level, surveys and types of questions that will help in the public policy issue process.

The fourth stage of the paper process is the crafting of the actual paper. Students are led through writing exercises in order to craft topic sentences, supporting detail sentences, and paragraph structure. This part of the public policy research packet will ask students to submit draft paragraphs to the teacher in order to receive feedback on the structure, grammar, and progress of the research paper. As many researchers have found, students find writing difficult, and students with difficulties find this stage of the process extremely difficult.

The fifth stage of the public policy research paper is the verbal presentation to the class. Students are expected to prepare a five to ten minute presentation about their public policy issue, the alternatives, and their recommendations for the policy issue. Students are encouraged to use PowerPoint or other presentation software to enliven the presentation. The teacher and classmates may ask questions that the student will need to answer. For students who have difficulty with verbal communication, this can be a difficult process.

Comparisons across the state

How do schools across New York State handle the Participation in Government capstone course? The answer is it varies from district to district.

From Casey’s personal experience, graduating from a suburban Western New York school district which sent a number of students on to four year colleges, a research paper was required. The class needed to select a public policy issue and discuss its root causes and implementation strategies.

When Casey worked at a small Western New York rural district, there was no paper required for the course. Students there were expected to take quizzes, discuss current events and pass a final exam. This 50 question multiple choice exam covered material presented in class and via lecture.

During visits to 15 high schools with ‘accountability status’ between 2007-2013, only one required a research paper, and that research paper was reserved for the Advanced Placement and Syracuse University Project advance sections of the participation in government classes. In the other classrooms, current events binders, issues presentations, and campaign posters were most often used as methods to check for understanding. Many of the teachers, when asked about their Participation in Government courses felt they needed to educate students about the basics of voting and the basics of local government. In poorer areas, there was often a focus on interactions with police, the courts, and with student’s personal experiences in the local enforcement system.

In one large urban district in New York State, the policies for participation in government vary across schools and teachers. In this district, the Participation in Government teachers are often assigned last minute, and are rated on the Annual Professional Performance Review for students in the Global History or United States history classes. The department meetings in this district, as well as the district wide professional development often focus on the middle and high school levels, specifically the Regents tested curriculum.

Surveying the online syllabus of 30 districts across New York State, in 2017, we discovered that most classes required a project for a passing grade, but almost none of the syllabus required a policy analysis paper like what was required for our student. The syllabus were gathered as follows: five from the western New York area, five from the central/ southern tier area, five from New York City, five from Long Island, 5 from the Capitol/ Adirondack region, and 5 from the Finger lakes region.

We have often thought there are some serious issues that should be considered in the design of a course at the high school level that required students to write a research paper. Yes, we admit that it is an important and relevant skill for students to acquire before college. The Common Core Learning Standards (NGA, 2010) for writing do require students to become proficient in writing research papers as part of the expectations adopted by the Board of Regents. The New York State Social Studies Frameworks adopted in 2014 (NYSED, 2014) contain the social studies practices, which reference the ability of students to convey knowledge in written form. We have often asked ourselves if there is an alternative to the social studies research paper.

A Research perspective

From a special education standpoint, the paper is a perfect storm of issues that can hinder students, especially at a critical juncture of their school careers. Research indicates students who have been identified as having a learning difficulty are more at risk of exiting high school before they have obtained their graduation credential (Schargel & Smink, 2013). Bender (2004) identifies reading and writing difficulties as one of the most common manifestations of Learning disabilities in students. The idea of writing a large research paper is a daunting task to students who struggle with the basics of writing. There are many moving pieces to writing a paper for a high school student which include the following:

  1. Idea generation
  2. Research and sourcing
  3. Story mapping
  4. Paragraph construction
  5. Sentence construction
  6. Word Choice
  7. Editing for content
  8. Editing for construction
  9. Presentation (Terego, 2005).

These moving pieces must often occur in situations where a content area teacher, such as a social studies teacher, has not been trained in teaching writing to adolescent learners. Often content teachers are unable to diagnose writing problems, offer effective direct instruction, and assist students in meeting the expectations of the task: produce a research paper (Graham, et al, 2014). This leads to a mutually frustrating situation, as students who experience scholastic difficulties in writing are asked by teacher to write a significant paper. Further exasperating the problem, many of the teachers are ill prepared to teach the writing process (Lucas & Passe, 2017).

Actions taken

Besides one-to-one coaching, Casey was unsure on how to better assist the students with special learning needs in his classroom. Nancy, realizing her senior students were becoming increasingly frustrated at the project, began meeting with Casey to implement a strategic intervention plan for the students who needed extra help. Our first step was to meet on a regular, weekly basis to discuss student’s progress, their frustrations, and what we, as instructors could do to help.

The two teachers then examined some of the issues which emerged as students were writing their research paper. Nancy and Casey engaged in Self Study/ reflective practice in order to better serve the needs of the students.   A self-study as defined in Kline and Soejatminah’s (2016) work contains five elements: “it is self-initiated and focused; it is improvement-aimed; it is interactive; it includes multiple, mainly qualitative methods; and it defines validity based on trustworthiness” (p. 162). Over the course of the fall semester of that year, we engaged in daily dialogues with each other. These dialogues were structured as mentoring sessions that were initiated through the school district’s efforts to pair an experienced teacher with a novice teacher. Additional dialogues included interaction with other members of the special education staff at the high school, and some discussions with members of the social studies department. Almost every teacher and teacher’s assistant in the two departments were available for conversations due to the small size of the departments. Our self study was designed less as a practitioner research project but more as an instructional improvement project in order to serve our highest priority stakeholders: at-risk special education students in a rural community in upstate New York.

In the class, we decided to move to a consultation model, where teams of students were given opportunities to meet with us in a setting where Casey helped with the content, and Nancy helped with the writing process. Students were asked, in teams, to read a paragraph the other student team member had written and make comments on the flow and content. This workshop approach, with two teachers available for support allowed students time in class to hone writing abilities.

We then invited students to come in during lunch and after school to receive more individual writing assistance with the paper. We also teamed with ELA teachers and the librarian at the school to offer “expert” assistance in writing and research. After school, students could access Casey for content, Nancy for scaffolding the assignment, the librarian for research help, and the ELA teacher for writing support.

The experience we reported here is an attempt to reflect upon and improve professional practice by an experienced and novice teacher working with at risk populations. We, as a team, were trying to ensure students who faced obstacles to graduation could have an opportunity to become successful. Further, we were aware of a situation which Deshler, Robinson, & Mellard, (2009) describe as the special education practitioner becoming the content area “tutor” that helped students with special needs “survive” content classes. We actively sought to ensure that both Casey and Nancy were equals, co-teachers, presenting and guiding students without differentiation of their classroom value to the students.


Without a doubt, the national attention payed to civics education is important, and frankly overdue. As social studies teachers across New York State realize, civics education is layered into the Common Core aligned state learning standards. With partnerships with librarians, media specialists, and the English departments become more critical now more than ever we must ensure students aren’t left behind. Engaging in citizenship by more than voting is important. The fundamentals and processes which are covered in the Participation and Government class help students master skills necessary for adulthood. The major concern is the level of support given to students to complete a research paper during the class, especially with students with disabilities. It is critical and important that if a large research paper is required, then sufficient co-planning, scaffolding, and feedback are marshaled between the two teachers. As practitioners, our best thinking is needed in this area.


Bender, W. N. (2004). Learning disabilities: Characteristics, identification, and teaching strategies. Allyn & Bacon.
Copeland, W. & O’Leary (1989). Effective Participation in Government. Washington: Policy Studies Association.
Deshler, D. D., Robinson, S., & Mellard, D. F. (2009). Instructional principles for optimizing outcomes for adolescents with learning disabilities. Classroom strategies for struggling learners, 173-189.
Graham, S., & MacArthur, C. A. (Eds.). (2013). Best practices in writing instruction. Guilford Press.
Graham, S., Capizzi, A., Harris, K. R., Hebert, M., & Morphy, P. (2014). Teaching writing to middle school students: A national survey. Reading and Writing, 27(6), 1015-1042.
Kline, J., & Soejatminah, S. (2016). “Becoming” Teacher Education Researchers in Diverse Rural Communities. In Self-studies in Rural Teacher Education (pp. 157-178). Springer International Publishing.
Lucas, A. G., & Passe, J. (2017). Are social studies methods textbooks preparing teachers to support students with disabilities in social studies classrooms?. The Journal of Social Studies Research41(2), 141-153.
National Governors Association (2010). Common Core State Learning Standards. Washington, D.C.
NYSED (2014). New York State Social Studies Frameworks. Albany, NY
Schargel, F., & Smink, J. (2013). Helping students graduate: A strategic approach to dropout prevention. Routledge.
Terego, A. (2005). Essay Writing for High School Students, Lawrenceville, NJ.

You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

Derek Pearce, James Madison High School, Brooklyn, NY

American historian and activist Howard Zinn, who passed in 2010, released his memoirs in 1994 under the title “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train”. While I am sure Zinn’s words are open to interpretation, I have always taken them as a challenge: to what extent are you willing to allow history to unfold around you before taking action? For Zinn, these words were used to confront his students about their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Then, like now, there is a serious debate in teaching circles about how involved educators should be when social issues are discussed in the classroom. “How can you,” one might ask, “tell your students what you believe without influencing them?” The answer, of course, is that you can’t. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.

In the wake of the Parkland Shooting, I temporarily put my freshman global history curriculum on hold. Instead of examining the historical contributions of the 14th century West African emperor Mansa Musa, we spent several days analyzing the details of the Parkland Shooting, the virtues of the Second Amendment, and the state of gun control in the United States. Musa, I assured myself, would understand. During the discussions that inevitably follow these sorts of lessons, my students predictably asked me to weigh-in on the debate. What I told them was that I supported the common sense measures proposed by the student survivors of the Parkland shooting. That I had read dozens of sources, listened to hours of news radio during my commute, read the online platform created by the Parkland survivors, weighed the evidence, and had decided that I agreed. For the homework assignment that night they had to find the website created by the Parkland students and write a response to their simple three-point petition letter. The following day, my students arrived to find the classroom arranged in a large circle with only a single question written on the board: “Should we march?” I was referring to the “March For Our Lives” event being held on the west side of Manhattan the following day. In each of my five classes, a gradual consensus emerged over the course of the forty-five minute discussion. Some were opposed to the Second Amendment and some were not. Some wanted to ban all privately owned guns and some did not. Some thought the march would be effective and some did not. But everyone agreed that the status quo was not tenable. Everyone agreed that something needed to be done.

I ended that class with a challenge that I think Howard Zinn would have appreciated. I told my students that I would be waiting on the corner of Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street from 8AM to 8:30 AM to march in support of the petition created by the Parkland students. I then asked, “Would anyone care to join me?” Of the dozens of students that agreed, only four showed up. Alas, social activists or not, they are still very much thirteen and fourteen year olds. But the four who did show up arrived with homemade signs, orange t-shirts, and painted faces. They marched and chanted and took pictures and posted on Snapchat. They met other high school students and debated policy on the streets. They laughed and joked and left the event an hour early to eat fast food. But they marched.

I don’t know if the lessons influenced their opinions. I don’t know how much the Parkland Shooting affected them personally or whether or not they really care. I don’t know if any of them would have marched if I hadn’t challenged them. I don’t know if they will continue to be activists or if they just wanted to get some good pictures for Instagram. But I do know one thing: the train is moving, and I am definitely not neutral.

Responses to Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Responses to Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

In On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2017), historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on 20th century Eastern European history, expresses his concerns with 21st century developments in the United States and Europe. Snyder is the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. The brief book, only 126 pages, was written during the first year of the Trump presidency. While it clearly responds to events taking place and governmental decisions, it does not actually mention Donald Trump. Snyder explains that history does not repeat itself, but it does familiarize, instruct, and warn.

Snyder argues that the founders of the United States, the revolutionary generation that wrote the Constitution and created the new nation, were fundamentally concerned with the threat of tyranny. In the eighteenth century the threat came from monarchy. In the twentieth century he argues it came from fascism, Nazism, and Stalinist communism. Snyder worries that in the twenty-first century the threat to democracy will come from virulent nationalist populism. He sees the potential for the rise of authoritarianism in the United States as a response to a real or perceived danger and quotes James Madison that tyranny arises “on some favorable emergency.” He also quotes Hannah Arendt who wrote that after the Reichstag fire in Germany “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.”

The lessons Snyder highlights include the need to defend democratic institutions from domestic threats, the challenge not to automatically obey governments, the requirement that Americans champion belief in truth, and a call to take responsibility for events and conditions around the world. Ultimately, Snyder’s book is a call for active citizenship and resistance against tyranny by advocates of democracy and liberty.

We asked social studies teachers what should be our responses to current events in the United States and how should these events influence what and how we teach?

Carolyn Herbst, ATSS/UFT (adapted from a speech she gave to the American Society for Yad Vashem in March 2018): I cannot help but see connections between the United States reaction to refugees from Nazism in Europe, and the current United States reaction to the mass movement of refugees from around the world due to wars, famine, dysfunctional governments, political turmoil and ethnic cleansing. In the 1930s the United States shut its doors to Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Hitler. By the 1940s it was too late. Only after World War II did the United States, in shame, agree to accept Jewish survivors. The anti-Semitic atmosphere in the United States, fuelling oppressive immigration quota laws in the 1920s is a blot in United States history.

Today, the shameful atmosphere in the United States toward the immigration of refugees trying to escape all manner of horrors around the world is another shameful blot in United States history. As someone deeply imbued with the events of Jewish and Jewish-American history, as someone deeply imbued with the events of global history, as someone deeply imbued with the events of American political, social and cultural history, as a citizen of the United States, a resident of multi-cultural New York City, as an educator deeply involved with public education in New York City serving students and their families from all over the world, I cannot but help draw these connections.

We have children in New York City schools, we have licensed teachers in the New York City school system, who live in dread of what is coming next in terms of what will happen to them and their families in terms of deportation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and the changing with the wind positions on DACA Dreamers in Congress. This should not be.

We have always been a nation of immigrants and have always been much stronger for it. Immigrants, our own family members, have and continue to make positive contributions to the basic strong fabric of life in The United States. Yet just as the United States succumbed to irrational immigration laws of the 1920s we are doing the same again today. Let us give lessons to our children that what happened in the United States just prior to the Holocaust should not be repeated today.

Anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States is not dead. Anti-Semitism is rearing its head in new ways. Holocaust Denial is a new form of anti-Semitism. Calls for divestiture of Israeli investments is a new form of anti-Semitism. Attacks on Jews, on Jewish stores and on synagogues are occurring in increasing numbers. Swastikas are appearing painted on buildings. In the United States swastikas are appearing on signs and banners at “America First” rallies. Every time I enter one of the Jewish themed museums in New York City with a police car or police officers stationed in front for protection I am reminded of it.

In the United States anti-Semitism has become entwined with attacks on other hate-group targets: Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans. An attack on one minority group is an attack on all. We must not succumb to this. We must be ever vigilant.

Thomas Masterson, Glen Cove Middle School: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny is a harrowing book that pokes and prods at very vulnerable places. It provides a historical and theoretical explanation for many crises facing the United States and for understanding news and opinion. Too much of what Snyder warns against is plausible in the current political climate. I was most struck by the chapter “Believe in Truth.” In the media, we see people, including high-ranking government officials, dismissing arguments as “fake news” despite evidence because the information does not fit their preconceptions and beliefs. Differences of opinion based on evidence and analysis are legitimate, but there is no such thing as “alternative facts.” I agree with Snyder’s assertion that “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” and as teachers, we must equip and challenge students to reject unsubstantiated claims. Whatever our political leanings, we must advocate for truth, reason, opinions based on evidence, and open dialogue.

Kyle Novak, Hofstra University: This book is a warning to Americans, but also the rest of the democratic world. Although he does not mention Donald Trump directly, I believe Snyder is responding to the Trump presidency. He wants Americans to be vigilant in defense of democracy and constitutional government, which he sees as fragile and imperiled. One of his greatest concerns is the emergence of paramilitary groups, which we saw in Charlottesville and may be behind gun advocacy.

Mark Vasco, Bethpage High School: Snyder’s background as a historian of central and eastern Europe during the 20th century well equips him to examine potential threats to democracy in the United States. His underlying message in all twenty lessons is that citizens in a democratic society cannot be passive. They must actively involve themselves in defense of things that matter, even when inconvenient or when standing out places you at risk. Snyder is especially concerned with dishonesty in the highest office, as the “Big Lie” was a tool used by Nazis in Germany during the 1930s to undermine democratic institutions and faith in government. Almost 80% of Trump’s campaign pronouncements were false, and this trends continued during his first year in office. While I find Snyder’s concerns to be a little exaggerated, I do agree that our current electoral system is flawed and that teachers have to better prepare students to recognize “fake news.”

Alyssa Knipfing, Oceanside High School: I disagree overwhelmingly with the political views that shape Snyder’s essentially ideological manifesto. He has structured a false comparison between the election of Donald Trump and his first year in office with Adolf Hitler’s ascendency to power in Germany and the emergence of totalitarian regimes. The United States is not the German Third Reich, American government is not crippled, and Donald Trump is not a proto-fascist who seized power intent on undermining democratic institutions. I concede that much in the United States needs repair, but Snyder’s views are too radical and do not hold up to scrutiny. One thing I do agree with is the call for active citizenship and we are witnessing that in the mobilization of young people to demand gun reform in the United States. Their ability to organize a campaign could never happen in a totalitarian society.

Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here

Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here

Alan Singer, Hofstra University

Sinclair Lewis titled his 1935 novel about a fascist threat to the United States It Can’t Happen Here. The novel tells the story of “Buzz” Windrip, who defeats Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1936 after a campaign based on stoking fear, promising unlikely economic reform, and championing patriotism and “traditional” values. Philip Roth developed a similar theme in his 2004 novel The Plot against America. This time it is 1940 and FDR is defeated for reelection by the real life aviation hero and pro-German “America First” anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh. Both books are works of fiction, but the domestic fascist threat to the United States prior to World War II was all too real. Unfortunately, and frighteningly, it may be all too real in the United States again today.

On February 20, 1939, an estimated 22,000 American fascists held a pro-German, pro-Nazi rally in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The rally coincided with George Washington’s Birthday and was advertised by the German American Bund as “True Americanism and George Washington Birthday Exercises.” A 30-foot high image of Washington was on the podium spanned by Nazi swastikas.

James Wheeler-Hill, the national secretary of the Bund, opened the Nazi celebration by welcoming “My fellow Christian Americans.” Speakers denounced the press, radio, and cinema for being in “hands of the Jews” and demanded a “white, gentile-ruled USA.” To demonstrate their patriotism, the assemblage pledged allegiance to the American flag and stood respectfully for The Star-Spangled Banner — while offering the Nazi Sieg Heil right-armed raised palm out, salute. Over 1,700 New York City police officers were assigned to patrol the Garden and nearby streets to prevent clashes with counter-protesters.

While historians continue to debate the precise conditions that contribute to the rise of fascism and what makes particular countries especially at-risk, during World War II the United States War Department saw domestic fascism as a genuine threat to American democracy. In 1945, it issued a memorandum called “Fascism!“ where it addressed the prospects of domestic fascism. “At various times in our history, we have had sorry instances of mob sadism, lynchings, vigilantism, terror, and suppression of civil liberties. We have had our hooded gangs, Black Legions, Silver Shirts, and racial and religious bigots. All of them, in the name of Americanism, have used undemocratic methods and doctrines which experience has shown can be properly identified as ‘fascist.’” The War Department warned, “An American Fascist seeking power would not proclaim that he is a Fascist. Fascism always camouflages its plans and purposes . . . It would work under the guise of ‘super-patriotism’ and ‘super-Americanism’”

The memo concluded, “The germ of Fascism cannot be quarantined in a Munich Brown House or a balcony in Rome. If we want to make certain that Fascism does not come to America, we must make certain that it does not thrive anywhere in the world.”

In medical terms, fascism can best be described as a syndrome rather than as disease. It is identified by a number of indices or symptoms, and not one specific descriptor. Historian John McNeill of Georgetown University argues that previous fascist movements have to one extent or another been rooted in an ideology of hyper-nationalism or super-patriotism, promoted militarism, glorified masculinity, violence, and youth, worshiped a cult of the powerful leader, and idealized a mystical national “golden age” in the past that could be reborn. As mass movements they often defined themselves by what they were not, immigrants, communists, socialists, homosexuals, or Jews. Fascist leaders and political parties tended toward the theatrical and were prone to purge any dissidents. Although frequently used as synonyms, Fascism and Nazism are not the same thing. Nazism was an especially virulent anti-Semitic variety of fascism.

What McNeil leaves out, and what I think is even more important, are the economic causes of fascism within capitalist societies that enable fascist movements to achieve power. They are nearly always the product of economic distress, either of a particular group, or the entire country. Successful fascist movements involve alliances of the dispossessed with powerful business and financial interests that use mass movements to pacify discontent, to displace blame for social distress onto easily victimized scapegoats, and to eliminate radical alternatives. In Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s socialists, communists, and labor unionists were the first targets of the fascists.

In the United States today we witness some of these same tendencies with nasty verbal attacks on Muslims, inner-city minorities, immigrants, and political opponents, and as rightwing populism is used by wealthy capitalists and their supporters as a way to eliminate regulations on industry and finance and to reduce taxes on corporations and the mega-rich. The Constitution was designed by the nation’s founders with a series of checks and balances to prevent a movement like fascism from taking power. However the checks and balances system may not be working as one party, a party influenced by extreme rightwing forces, controls all three branches of the national government and a majority of state houses and has been using that unblocked power to suppress opposition votes.

Today fascist and neo-fascist movements are on the upswing as populist discontent, often manipulated by powerful economic interests, embraces militant nationalism and scapegoats immigrants, cosmopolitans (including Jews, gays, and left-intellectuals), and ethnic and religious minorities for economic stagnation, income inequality, unwanted cultural change, and their sense of displacement. While hatred and bigotry are frightening by themselves, the greater concern is that these movements could propel anti-democratic forces into power as they did in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and in Russia in recent decades. Benito Mussolini in 1922, Adolf Hitler in 1933, and Vladimir Putin in 1999 all rose to power through legitimate means and then moved to undermine democracy.

In the United States the ugliness of the alt-right and neo-Nazi groups was on display at their August 2017 “Unite the Right“ rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. Marchers carried Nazi-style torches and chanted “White Lives Matter” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Although President Donald Trump denounced the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke claimed Trump inspired the rally and called his election a “turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back.”

In recent months tens of thousands of rightwing Poles with allies from Slovakia, Hungary, and Spain, marched in Warsaw under banners declaring “Europe Will Be White” and “Pray for Islamic Holocaust.” Demonstrators chanted “Pure Poland, White Poland” and “Refugees Get Out.” Weeks earlier, outrage when images of Anne Frank were used to insult members of an Italian soccer team based in Rome, exposed a history of anti-Semitic and racist taunting at matches. In recent elections, openly fascist or neo-fascist political parties have made significant inroads in Germany (Alternative für Deutschland); Hungary (Jobbik); France (Front National); Greece (Golden Dawn); the Netherlands (Partij voor de Vrijheid); Italy (Lega Nord); Denmark (Danish People’s Party); and Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs). Rightwing “populism” in these countries and the United States share many of the same anti-democratic, anti-intellectual qualities as the Islamic fundamentalist movements they denounce and use as a ploy to rally supporters.

Populism has gotten a bad name because of these developments. But populism is not inherently rightwing, anti-intellectual, and anti-democratic. The labor movement of the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and women’s rights movements for the last two hundred years have all been populist movements promoting democratic values and social justice.

Fascism did not arrive in the United States with the election of Donald Trump. However, it is worth quoting the War Department memo again as a conclusion to this blog.

“Fascism is not the easiest thing to identify and analyze; nor, once in power, is it easy to destroy.” However, according to the War Department, “it is important for our future and that of the world that as many as possible understand the causes and practices of fascism in order to combat.” The memo stressed four points:

  • Fascism is more apt to come to power in time of economic crisis;
  • Fascism inevitably leads to war;
  • it can come in any country;
  • We can best combat it by making our democracy work.