A cup of coffee and a Paulo Freire quote, "The educator has a duty to not be neutral."

Book Review: On Tyranny – A Great Reminder of Why Civics Matters

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Book cover of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder.

Today is Constitution Day, so I thought it would be timely to share a book review of a quick read that you might enjoy – On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder.

In On Tyranny, Tim Snyder draws on the history of the 20th century to share some lessons for those concerned about the future of democracy. He tends to focus on Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, although he sprinkles in some other references here and there.

It’s a quick read, and it’s one that is particularly relevant today. Although you may find some excerpts to use in your classes, I wouldn’t assign it to your students in its totality.

His thesis is that we are in danger today of falling into an authoritarian regime, and he is critical at points of President Trump. While I don’t disagree with him, it may be a bit too critical and controversial to use in class unless you are going to present an opposite viewpoint with it.

But the reason I’m sharing it is that I think it is an excellent read for civic educators. Ultimately, it is a reminder of how important civics education is. He has identified weaknesses of democracies throughout history, and a robust program of civics education is the antidote.

As an example, here are three of his lessons that speak to this point.

Lesson 5: Remember Professional Ethics

When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.

This lesson reminds us that character education isn’t just an afterthought. It is of the utmost importance.

Think about the focus of most schools today: college and career readiness. What’s the point of preparing a student to be a lawyer or a businessperson if you’re not going to give them the tools to make ethical decisions?

In this lesson, Snyder discusses how lawyers and other professionals played a key role in the establishment of the Nazi regime. They were intelligent and skilled, but they had lost their way ethically and so their skills were used for evil purposes.

Education without ethics is dangerous.

A man reading the business section of a newspaper.

Lesson 11: Investigate

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigate journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns (some of which come from abroad). Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.

This lesson speaks directly to the topic of media literacy and digital literacy.

Fake news is increasingly prevalent, and social media has increased the natural echo chamber effect that leads people to consume media that they agree with. He also makes the keen observation that most forms of media are becoming increasingly perfunctory.

One research based method of improving civics education is to teach about current events. But it’s also important to remember to teach students to be thoughtful and critical consumers of information – not mindless consumers.

Lesson 13: Practice Corporeal Politics

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

In the 2018 election, I was volunteering with the Mikie Sherrill campaign at a staging location for canvassers. On election day, two high school seniors came in to canvass. I couldn’t think of a better experience for them to understand the political process.

But this lesson doesn’t just mean to get out and join a campaign. Just getting out of the house and joining an organization – like the PTA or a Young Professionals group – is important to the fabric of civil society.

That’s why other research based methods for improving civics include experiential learning and extracurricular activities.

Read, Reflect, and Act Accordingly

At the end of the day, I would highly recommend the book to anyone who is committed to civics education. It is a poignant reminder of what is at stake and an argument for focusing more on civics throughout a child’s educational career.

As a social studies teacher and a student of history, I appreciated the historical examples and references. I wouldn’t say that I learned anything earth shatteringly new, but he wove the examples together into a clear and concise argument.

The other thing I really appreciated was his reference to other thinkers and writers. I took note of a few things he mentioned and added them to my reading list for later.

Check out On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder on Amazon.

It’s a short read – a little over 100 pages – and so you won’t need to carve out much time. In fact, the audio book is only a little over an hour long. You can get a free trial of Audible and get the audiobook for free.

And if, after reading this, you’re looking for some suggestions on what to do… check out this list of six research based methods of improving civics education. That’s a good starting point for how you can make a different in your classroom and in your school.

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