By Noelle Trejo

So often we neglect our community ties and focus our loyalties on national citizenship, turning our attention toward the large-scale needs of a country and away from our own neighbors. 

Noelle Trejo

We can see this reflected in our own lives and the lives of our children, as public school curricula contain U.S. history classes and state history classes, but we are rarely ensuring that children know the history of their hometowns.

Without an opportunity to create a local identity and foster a sense of belonging to their own city, students are unprepared to participate as community citizens when they come of age. It is of the utmost importance that Americans refine the citizenship education of future generations to the local scale to nurture empathy and involvement in our youth. 

The history of American public education runs parallel to the history of national identity in the United States. During major national and international crises, our nation has historically ensured that K-12 education is infused with patriotic messaging, causing students to associate authority and respectability with national identity.

This larger-than-life nationalism and national education for children is damaging for our students, our communities, and to creating strong national citizens. Instead, parents and teachers involved with public education should urge a curriculum which is more immediately usable to students in their day-to-day lives — one which prioritizes local community-building and community-based learning.

National identity remains a crucial part of encouraging involvement in a democratic government and should by no means be forgotten in the public education system. But fostering local loyalties and community-based identity allows adolescent students a way to practice citizenship skills on a smaller scale, preparing them to put such skills to use on a national level in adulthood. 

In other words, teens must be taught to swim in the shallow end before being dropped into the depths of American identity and political systems.

Having personally experienced both public education concerned with national identity and college courses concerned with my hometown, I know that the transformative nature of community education cannot be understated. High school government classes may have taught me about checks and balances, but they were ineffective in teaching me what it means to be a part of a whole, and to be a citizen with the motivation to participate in a democratic society.

In taking a course on the architecture and urbanism of El Paso, however, I was able to see bullet holes left in the sides of our downtown buildings during the Mexican Revolution. I toured the home of one of our most famous local architects, Henry C. Trost. I was even able to tour homes in my own neighborhood, realizing I lived not outside of history, but at its heart. 

The history of my city and of my community was no longer some distant, abstract idea, but something which belonged to me and in which I now feel I am a stakeholder. I came to understand that I can and should care to create change in my own town. This experience encouraged me to feel greater empathy and interest in our governmental systems than the Texas public K-12 education ever did.

Today’s K-12 emphasis on national identity dates back to a global crisis which is no longer our reality. In the aftermath of the world wars and during the Cold War, the public educational system echoed the structure and sentiments of military training facilities, effectively priming students to be soldiers against the supposed Communist threat.

We see remnants of it in the physical and cultural structure of the public school, with students often seated in alphabetized rows, in the compulsory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by minors, and even JROTC clubs which create a high-school-to-armed-forces pipeline.

University of Texas at Austin Professor Julia L. Mickenburg argued that this “citizenship education,” was created with the purpose of “validat(ing) the Cold War status quo,” by which she means the racial, gender, and economic status quo. Yet the state of Texas has taken no steps to revamp or modernize this outdated curriculum despite the distance we now have from the Cold War. 

During the Great Depression, educational theorist John Dewey argued for education that made it the responsibility of the teacher to “arrange conditions that are conducive to community activity” and to making better citizens “by the mere fact that all are engaged in communal projects” 

Dewey’s proposed adjustments remain relevant 85 years after he wrote of them. This shift in curricula, then, ultimately becomes a matter of priorities — do the American people wish to prioritize tradition and stagnation over the growth of their children and students?

If the answer is no, then the path forward is clear: including locally relevant material in public school curricula to ensure student investment in their communities. 

For El Paso, a historically rich and culturally diverse city, many options present themselves as ripe for the picking, including Mexican revolutionary history in our Downtown region, Indigenous history at major sites like Hueco Tanks, architectural history in our historic districts, biological and geological research in the Chihuahuan desert (the most biodiverse desert in the Western Hemisphere), and more.

Noelle Trejo is an M.A. student in English and American Literature at the University of Texas at El Paso.