An Author's View of Social Studies

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In June, the National Council for the Social Studies honored one of the country's most distinguished writers of fiction with the publication of a volume collecting his lesser-known but equally influential works in the field of social-studies scholarship. (See related interview on page 8.) The following excerpts from James A. Michener on the Social Studies give a sampling of the range and freshness of this best-selling author's thoughts over almost 50 years on the subject matter he taught in high school and in college, and later found a global audience for in his books:

Every working hour I am conscious of the fact that I am a trained social-studies scholar. Even the art books which I have published in Asia have stressed the social backgrounds of the artists and I am as deeply involved in the field today as I was when I first started. My reading is in this field; my research is usually upon topics wholly social in origin or largely so. Today the field seems richer than when I started, more rewarding, and certainly more necessary to the functioning of our society.

--"The Mature Social Studies Teacher," Social Education, November 1970.

It is difficult to describe the ideal teacher. The art of great teaching is a chimerical thing which sometimes eludes analysis. Let an investigator identify a characteristic which he believes basic to good teaching and immediately a score of excellent instructors can be found who ignore his precept. Teaching is individual; creative teaching establishes its own rules. Yet there are standards which most excellent teachers meet. ...

The social-studies teacher should think of himself as a pilot aiding his students in their journey through a largely unknown world. True, he will find some students with an unusual fund of information, but he will find just as many who comprehend little or nothing of their world and its relationships. It is the teacher's job both to supply the opportunity for acquiring information and to be the catalytic agency that precipitates present knowledge into meaningful understandings and generalizations. ...

--"The Beginning Teacher," Chapter 1 of In-Service Growth of Social Studies Teachers, 1939.

There is in music something elemental, something belonging definitely to place and national culture. Sibelius, Brahms, Cesar Franck, Smetana, Ferdie Grofe, Delius, Strauss, and de Falla all are perfect examples of composers whose work bears indelibly the stamp of their nation. I sometimes feel that it is more important for students to meet with these men than with another book on a foreign country. ...

--"Music and the Social Studies," The Social Studies, January 1937.

The more I work in the social-studies field the more convinced I become that geography is the foundation of all. When I call it the queenly science I do not visualize a bright-eyed young woman recently a princess but rather an elderly, somewhat beat-up dowager, knowing in the ways of power.

When I begin work on a new area--something I have been called upon to do rather frequently in my adult life--I invariably start with the best geography I can find. This takes precedence over everything else, even history, because I need to ground myself in the fundamentals which have governed and in a sense limited human development. (The second book I read is a cultural history, something like Parrington if I can find it, but such books have not been written about many parts of the earth, so that frequently I have to do without; in such cases I try the best available history of literature, sometimes with good results.) Most geography books, like most geography courses, are drab affairs and a waste of time. ... However, even the poorest regional geography is better than none at all; it at least delimits the field, fixes certain relationships, and drives the reader to a contemplation of his own.

The virtue of the geographical approach is that it forces the reader to relate man to his environment. It forestalls loose generalization founded mainly on good intentions or hope. It gives a solid footing to speculation and reminds the reader that he is dealing with real human beings who are just as circumscribed as he.

--"The Mature Social Studies Teacher," Social Education, November 1970.

During recent weeks a surprising number of schoolteachers have announced that any teachers detected discussing the war in their classrooms will be in danger of immediate dismissal. These statements are presumably the result of a laudable desire to keep the schools free of hysterical disturbances. Many citizens will sympathize with such a desire, but everyone deeply concerned with the perpetuation of democracy should censure the mistaken steps which have been taken to ensure freedom from hysteria. At this time discussion of America's attitude toward the war should not be stifled by the schools. It should be encouraged.

If democracy is forced to jettison its primary principles, there is some question as to whether or not it will have sufficient strength to survive. If its basic tenets are to be killed at their roots in the school, it is probable that democracy is already defunct and that it is publishing its bankruptcy to the world.

--"Discussion in the Schools," Social Education, January 1940.

All men and women, especially young men and women, ought to feel themselves engaged in an endless war against ignorance, for it is through our defeat of ignorance that we have achieved our great triumphs as human beings.

What we face today, to my amazement, is a phenomenon for which I am not prepared, a counterrevolution against intelligence and especially against science. It disturbs me mightily, even though I am not a scientist and not obligated to the scientific approach.

Our job as educated men and women is to ensure that the scientific approach, which has served us so well, is not dissipated. I do not want to see it rest only in the hands of the highly educated 10 or 15 or 20 percent of scientifically trained people. It must have a broader base than that, or scientists become an elite, off to one side, treasured in moments of crisis, ignored when things are going well, indulged as exotics.

--"James A. Michener Comments on 'The Anti-Science Epidemic,"' Social Education, May 1980.

Social-studies curriculum makers must soon decide how sincerely they believe that their field can contribute to the education of young men and women who in all probability will face and live through a life of rather continuous change. Specifically, how important is training in democracy? Shall children be taught the necessity for certain economic readjustments? Shall the social studies undertake the difficult task of encouraging students to consider objectively the alternatives to present political patterns? Shall children be taught to adjust to the alternately minor and major sociological disruptions at present under way? Shall the social studies assume direct responsibility for the inculcation of the habits of good citizenship?

--"The Problem of the Social Studies," in The Future of the Social Studies, Curriculum Series: Number One, 1939.

First of all, the social studies ought to instruct the child and help him or her discover the nature of American political life--the system of checks and balances, federalism, just taxation. The whole structure of American life ought to be understood. The more it's understood, the better.

Students have to know something but maybe it is even more important that they receive from the teacher a sense of enthusiasm about participating in the body politic. I think that is the mark of a good educator. Furthermore, the social-studies educator should assist in cultivating, protecting, and advancing society.

--"James A. Michener: Reaffirmations of a Permanent Liberal," by Cleta Galvez-Hjornevik, Social Education, April/May 1987.

I have always believed that an event has not happened until it has passed through the mind of a creative artist able to explain its significance. I suppose that is why from the earliest times we have had the narrators who sat around the campfires at night to recount the heroic adventures of that day. Because these adventures really did not happen until they were crystallized into words and comprehensions.

--"James A. Michener Comments on Words and Exploration," Social Education, May 1977.

Vol. 10, Issue 40, Page 68

Published in Print: July 31, 1991, as Commentary: An Author's View of Social Studies
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