Hornbeck to Research how Social Studies Teachers Perceive Democracy

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – There is discourse and political divide surrounding the United States government, its constitutional foundations and philosophical underpinnings. How does this climate shape how social studies and government teachers perceive democracy and convey that perception to students? This is what Dr. Dustin Hornbeck, an assistant professor within the College of Education (COE) at the University of Memphis, has begun to look into, hoping to use teachers’ perspectives to help fill a gap in the literature about conceptions of U.S. democracy.Dr. Dustin Hornbeck

“By a number of measures, democracy or the concept that many describe as democracy in the U.S., is in a state of decline. Journalists and political experts have claimed that U.S. and global liberal democracy is in a precarious situation,” Hornbeck explained.

To back this, Hornbeck cites a 2020 study by Lee Drutman, Joe Goldman and Larry Diamond. Its data shows that from 2006-19, the number of Americans who believed democracy was the best form of government dropped from 94% to 71%. What’s more is another study by Christopher Classen in July of 2019 showed that from 1995-2017 Americans who were against a government led by a “strong leader” who didn’t need to deal with Congress or elections dropped from 75% to 62%. Considering the decline, Hornbeck was curious about the way that social studies teachers perceive and teach about this subject, since these courses are often the first point of contact for future voting citizens about this subject matter. His research is titled, “Conceptualizing U.S. Democracy: Insights from Secondary Social Studies Teachers.”

Hornbeck was recently awarded a faculty research grant by COE to pursue this research. His focus will be on Tennessee high school teachers, working to understand how they and their school districts teach about the concept of democracy, along with other concepts of American governance. The guiding research question is: How do high school social studies teachers address the concept of democracy in the United States in their courses?

“Social studies teachers are important because they teach future citizens about the governmental and civic aims of the nation, state and locality,” said Hornbeck. “They also navigate complicated political standards and curricula controlled by politicians, making their perceptions important in restrictive political moments.” 

Hornbeck is currently an assistant professor of Leadership and Policy Studies within COE’s Department of Leadership.