Educators, Take Note: The Census Is a Very Big Deal

Teaching and Learning

Educators, Take Note: The Census Is a Very Big Deal

By Rachel Burstein     Jan 31, 2020

Educators, Take Note: The Census Is a Very Big Deal
Taking the census / after sketch by Thomas Worth

This article is part of the guide: Represent: Why the Census Matters—in 2020 and Beyond .

An 1870 illustration in Harper’s Magazine shows a serious-looking man with a ledger balanced on bended knee. He writes furiously as a crowd of people—children, adults, well-attired townfolk and field hands with tattered clothes—looks on. The scene is not in an office, and the man is not seated at a desk. Instead, he is among the people he is surveying, treating each in turn, outside on the porch of a building. Entitled “Taking the Census,” the illustration celebrates the promise of the census at a critical moment in its history.

More Than Just a Number

At its most basic level, the census is a simple count of the nation’s population, constitutionally-mandated to occur every 10 years. But it is a count that impacts how many members each state has in the House of Representatives. In short, it is a count that determines power.

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution lays out that power in black and white:

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…”

In other words, the more people a state has, the greater its representation in the U.S. Congress.

The 1870 census depicted in Harper’s was the first conducted after the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which changed how apportionment occurred. Previously, the Constitution prescribed a compromise formula for determining the population for apportionment: the total number of free people plus three-fifths of the number of enslaved people. In practice, this gave southern states disproportionate influence in the federal government relative to their voting population. With the 14th Amendment, representation in the U.S. Congress would now be based on “the whole number of persons in each state.”

The illustration celebrated the census’ new ability to deliver on its radical promise. In the frame is an African American boy, wholly within the census taker’s sight—perhaps for the first time if he was previously enslaved. The image shows a democratic ideal in which every person—regardless of station, citizenship or voting status—is afforded a place on a ledger, a place in the historical record, a chance to contribute equally to the representation of his or her state.

An Opportunity for Social Studies Teachers

This is familiar territory for history and civics teachers. Social studies teachers routinely ask students to examine governmental structures and systems; identify the impact of Constitutional changes; investigate narratives about the meaning of belonging in an evolving nation; and urge civic engagement and activism. In short, social studies teachers already know how important the census is. But there’s more to it than that.

The 2020 census offers a rare opportunity to teach historiography alongside history. By historiography I mean the practices through which scholars construct historical narratives to interpret events of the past. But I also mean the opportunity for students to fit themselves—and people like themselves—into a narrative, to see themselves as historical actors in their own right.

The census is unlike any other historical document. First, it is not static. Instead, it comes in 10-year installments, providing a snapshot of a moment and allowing us to track demographic changes over time. Second, it captures many, many voices—ideally all of our voices—all at once. It is neither the provenance of elites whose records have been saved, nor an intellectual class with the education and means to produce texts for posterity. Instead, the census ledgers show the names of both illiterate and literate people, noncitizens and citizens, children and adults.

It isn’t just the listing of the names, though. The census can also tell us something about who the people of the past were and who we are today—both at the individual level and in the aggregate. In addition, the census creates a picture of the community, allowing us to put individuals into a larger context.

Learning Who We Are From the Census

How does this work in the classroom? There are all the obvious ways: charts showing changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States over time, graphs documenting the growing urbanization of our nation, lists of occupations at particular moments in our nation’s history, the age and sex of American residents. It won’t take an educator long to figure out ways to use such rich materials, whether through lessons on reading graphs or discussions of demographic changes.

Teachers may discuss the meaty politics of the 2020 census itself. Civics teachers can lead discussions on the fallout from the protracted legal battle over whether to include a census question on citizenship status. Or they might engage a class in debate over the policy of counting prisoners toward the population of prison locations rather than toward the population of prisoners’ hometowns.

The census can also give us insight into the details of everyday people’s lives. A professor of mine used to tell the story of how his grandfather reported his occupation to a census taker. He was a tailor—a highly-skilled position—in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, but his occupation is listed as “sweatshop worker” on the census. That was the grandfather’s wry take on the conditions of his labor.

Or the census might be used to solve the puzzle of how a couple met. A student could pair city plans charting the physical location of addresses with census rolls, learning that a couple who is listed as married on one census lived in apartments across the street from one another in the previous census.

An Opportunity for All Teachers

Teachers in all subject areas can benefit from using the census in their lessons:

Of course, the census is far more than a great teaching tool. It is an instrument of apportionment, with significant implications for our communities. Teachers are integral to building community. That’s why it’s so essential that they urge their students and families to fully participate in the census, in 2020 and beyond.

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Represent: Why the Census Matters—in 2020 and Beyond

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