The U.S. Constitution (iStock)

What are the most important things young people should be learning in school today?

As we are living in some rather extraordinary times, I thought it would be interesting to hear from historians on what teachers should be focusing on right now. Here’s some of the responses, and I will be adding to the list in the coming days.

WALTER ISAACSON

Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane University and the author of a number of best-selling books about pivotal historical figures. They include his most recent book, “Leonardo da Vinci,” as well as “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution," “Steve Jobs," “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” and “Kissinger: A Biography.” He is also the coauthor of “The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made," and is a former chairman of CNN as well as a former editor of Time magazine,

Schools should be nurturing curiosity, rather than dampening the curiosity that comes naturally in our wonder years.  Leonardo da Vinci was the person in history who was most passionately curious about everything there was to know about every subject that was knowable. That led him to love both the arts and sciences, the humanities and technology. Thus he became the world’s most creative genius, because he had a marvelous feel for the patterns that ripple throughout creation.

KEN BURNS:

Burns is an award-winning filmmaker who is known for using archival footage and photographs in his multi-part documentaries, which include “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The War,” “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea," “Prohibition,” “The Roosevelts,” and “The Vietnam War.”

Some thoughts for students ... and teachers who are confronted with a difficult but hugely exciting time to help educate them: respect people with different opinions, read everything you can find, follow your passion and listen even when you disagree.

TALITHA LeFLOURIA

LeFlouria is the Lisa Smith Discovery associate professor in African and African American Studies at the University of Virginia, who specializes in mass incarceration, modern slavery, race and medicine, and black women in America. She is the author of the award-winning “Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South,” and a forthcoming book on black women and mass incarceration. She serves on the board of directors of the organizations Historians Against Slavery and the Association of Black Women Historians.

Kids should be taught about slavery’s demise. But they should also learn about its evolution and its legacies. This is the most important thing kids should be learning in school today.

They should know that slavery didn’t end after the Civil War. It evolved. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution legally abolished slavery, “except as a punishment for a crime.” This clause enabled “slavery by another name” to continue through the prison system. 

From the late 1860s until the 1920s (and even today!), thousands of African American men, women, and youth were virtually re-enslaved through a system known as convict leasing. If an individual was convicted of a felony offense, he or she would be forcibly leased to a private company or factory by the state for a fee.  

Although leased convicts were not slaves in the legal sense of the word, their lived experiences resembled the enslaved. They worked from sunup to sundown; they were beaten and flogged, and the women were raped; their humanity was denied; they were severely punished if they escaped; they were separated from their families; and many were made to serve life sentences. 

Leased convicts helped build modern America. They deserve to be included in our history books.

ALEX KERSHAW

Kershaw is a historian and the author of 10 books, including the New York Times best-sellers on World War II: “The Bedford Boys,” “The Longest Winter” and “Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris.” He has also written biographies of Jack London, Raoul Wallenberg and Robert Capa. And his most recently completed work is “Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich University.”

As a British immigrant to the U.S., I would suggest that the most important lesson to teach from American history today is that diversity has always been the country’s greatest strength. It is a nation of immigrants, of all faiths, drawn from around the globe. It is a nation based on the most noble of ideals. Every one of us should have equal rights. Any form of racism, sexism and indeed nationalism is profoundly unAmerican.

SOPHIA ROSENFELD

Rosenfeld is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books including “Democracy and Truth: A Short History,” which will be published in December, and the award-winning “Common Sense: A Political History.” She teaches European intellectual and cultural history with a special emphasis on the Enlightenment, the trans-Atlantic Age of Revolutions, and the legacy of the eighteenth century for modern democracy.

Rather than highlight a specific moment in history looking for lessons for our crazy present, I would try to teach students something about the nature and history of truth.   And I’d do so in such a way as to simultaneously highlight some basic principles of democracy.  

First, students need to learn how historians establish factual knowledge about the past—whether that means the existence of the Crusades or the unemployment rate last year.   Evidence collection, interpretation, verification: these are all vital skills (more so than ever in the age of the internet and social media) that students can only learn from doing themselves.  So is distinguishing proven truths, or knowledge, from falsehoods or unproven beliefs.  I would also make sure that students understand how essential agreement about basic facts is for determining effective policy and even for engaging in productive political debates with people holding different values, two key democratic activities.  

But I’d also go back to the moment of the Federalist Papers and the writing of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights to emphasize that one of the unusual qualities of modern democracy is its insistence on an open-ended view of truth.  No single person or organization, from a church to the federal government, gets to say definitively what counts as truth.  Moreover, even the most long-held truths are always potentially subject to revision.  So I’d also take the opportunity, with students of any age, to show on what grounds truths, whether they are scientific or historical or both, can be legitimately questioned and reformulated.  And I’d show the ways this process too is part of the history of democracy.  

History education matters right now, and one big reason is because it teaches citizens-in-training both how to establish truth and how to take a critical eye to much of what passes for it in the world today.

JAMES GROSSMAN

Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. A former vice president of research and education at the independent Newberry Library in Chicago, he has taught at the University of Chicago and the University of California at San Diego. His work has focused on American urban history, African American history, ethnicity, higher education, and the place of history in public culture. He is a former editor of the award-winning series, “Historical Studies of Urban America,” and the author of “Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration” and “A Chance to Make Good: African Americans, 1900-1929.”

The most important lesson this fall, common to all classrooms, is an appreciation for evidence. All disciplines have standards of evidence. The power of liberal education lies, in part, in the diversity of these standards, in the different ways disciplines require that an argument be woven, substantiated, and articulated.

Consider the simple question that can be posed from kindergarten to a PhD dissertation defense: “How do you know that?” From the earliest age, a child can learn that assertion is not enough. “Because I say so,” offers no reason to raise one narrative, argument, or claim above another. “I read it on the internet” isn’t much better. Education is a process by which a student learns how to find, sift, and organize evidence while at the same time gaining the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate evidence and identify claims based on mere assertion. All students should also learn that “How do you know that?” is a legitimate question, rather than an existential challenge.

Eventually students should acquire an understanding of context: in this case, the difference between the nature of evidence in a laboratory, a courtroom, a debate forum, or a legislative hearing. These spaces map roughly onto disciplines – sciences, law, rhetoric, political science. Other disciplines take their evidence from texts, or from works of art and music. Students at all levels can learn to use these different forms of evidence to build stories about past and present, near and far. And in each case, an instructor can ask them “how do you know that?”

As a historian, I look for evidence from the past, an activity (and then a skill) accessible to students from an early age given the cornucopia of available digitized visual sources. Our evidence, like our rules for using it, differs from colleagues in other disciplines. Unlike a scientist we cannot create evidence, other than perhaps oral histories. Nor can we replicate data, and hence must learn to balance intellectual confidence with uncertainty. We invoke – carefully and critically – evidence that would be dismissed as “hearsay” in a court of law. We look for the most compelling narrative, a tapestry of disparate sources that can be quantitative, visual, material, written, or oral; ours is a standard more attainable than a courtroom’s requirement of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

These different forms, protocols, and standards of evidence enable students eventually to choose which modes they find most interesting. Careers are built on such choices. But so are communities and civic cultures. The voter needs to respect evidence every bit as much as the civil engineer and the physician. That respect begins in the classroom.

JACK SCHNEIDER

Jack Schneider is an education historian who is assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is “Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality.” He is also co-host of the education policy podcast Have You Heard. Follow him on Twitter: @Edu_Historian.

Everybody loves to tell teachers what to do. If we charged a dollar every time someone wanted to pontificate about classroom instruction, we'd have no problem adequately funding our schools.  

That said, I would encourage teachers to include something in the curriculum that hasn’t traditionally been there — instruction in the meaning and origins of public education.

Knowing the history of an institution is always important for those implicated in its operation. Without such knowledge, an organization's activities can seem natural and preordained. In fact, they are neither. What seems normal today is merely a reflection of cultural acclimation. In order to recognize the water in which we metaphorically swim, we must examine how things once were, why they evolved as they did, and how else they might have been.

But there is a new reason to collectively reflect on the concept and practice of public education. For the past several decades, public schools have been subject to what David Berliner and Bruce Biddle once called a manufactured crisis. And though many of us have become inured to it, others — teachers, students, families — have been deeply affected by the rhetoric of catastrophe in public education. In the the past two years, this assault has taken on new intensity. Though they have not said it so plainly, our present Secretary of Education and her allies would like nothing better than to dismantle the public education system.

The origins of public schools and their evolution across roughly two centuries may be worth a bit of instructional time — in this present moment, at least. Why did Americans create taxpayer-supported schools? What were the alternatives? Whom have they served over the years? How have they changed? There are plenty of dogmatic assertions about these matters. But the truth is more complicated than the claims of critics and cynics. And though our schools have flaws — segregation being the most troubling of them — those shortcomings are best understood in the context of a discussion grounded in fact. 

Attending a public school need not be a point of pride for young people. Yet it is unquestionably a right, and it might even be a privilege. So this fall, I would encourage teachers to take some time in class to talk about why we’re all here, engaging in this exercise that we’ve been repeating across the generations. After all, the public schools belong to us. Insofar as that’s the case, they are as we have made them: full of promise, possibility, and problems. Just like America.

(Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly repeated one of the quotes. James Grossman’s is now correct.)