Question & Answer: Novelist--and Ex-Educator--Muses on Curriculum Debates
James A. Michener is internationally known for the dozens of popular books he has written, beginning in 1947 with Tales of the South Pacific. What is less well known is that, prior to publication of that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the author also had a bright career as a social-studies educator.
Mr. Michener began teaching in the 1920's at the Hill School, an elite private school in Pottstown, Pa. He also taught at a Quaker school, a university laboratory school, and, finally, as a teacher educator at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Throughout those years, he was immersed in his profession, taking part in national professional organizations and summer-study programs and writing essays on social-studies education for national journals.
In recognition of Mr. Michener's work in the field, the National Council for the Social Studies in June published a collection of his writings on social-studies education. (See excerpts, page 68.) The organization also announced plans to establish a $5,000 social-studies writing prize in his name.
Now working on his 41st book, Mr. Michener discussed his views on current controversies in social-studies education with Assistant Editor Debra Viadero.
Q. How has the field changed since you began teaching?
A. Radically. I was at the cutting edge of the whole thing. When I started, it was all history and a little geography and a little economics. I was in the forefront at Harvard and in Colorado [at College High School, a laboratory school at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley] of attempts to broaden the scope to take in the workings of society. And I was a very rigorous teacher and had enormous respect for the subject matter.
Now we get to the difficult part. Because the schools themselves grew sloppy, did not demand high performance and sort of lost their bearings, they came under heavy fire, which still continues, and, in that, the social studies again became targets for attack--especially the poor teaching of history and geography. You can't make up an easy test in newspapers about whether you know anything in English or in other subjects. But you can just get a map and ask a kid where Oklahoma is, and if he doesn't [know] it proves he's an idiot.
At this stage in the review of education processes, nationalism and exhibitionist patriotism come into play. The attack on social studies today is intensified by those two factors.
I believe that some of the attack is justifiable. We do not teach enough history and, for the last 60 years, we've done an abominable job in teaching geography.My writing as an adult is extremely heavily based on history and social geography. ... My students in the old days got a good education in those two fields.
It's very easy to say today we ought to go back only to the teaching of those two fields. I think that would be a mistake.
Q. I assume you are talking about the Bradley Commission's call for more emphasis on history in social studies and the emphasis on history and geography in California's new social-studies framework?
A. Yes. To say that history and geography supersede the study of contemporary life, sociology, cities, new patterns of courtship and marriage, the dreadful problem of drugs, the appalling problem of teenage pregnancy, to say that memorization of lists of dates and state capitals would rectify all that, just doesn't make sense to me.
I have written more history and more geography than almost any American alive and I cherish those fields, but I do not believe they're the answer to all of education. They should be taught. They should be taught rigorously, but only within a balance.
Q. There is a lot of controversy in the field now over the extent to which social-studies teaching should focus on the contributions of minorities and non-Western cultures. I'd like to hear your opinion on that issue.
A. I have pondered that one a great deal. I have two comments.
The complaint at Duke and Stanford that college students study only the works of dead, white men is justifiable. If that means that the enormous contributions of Asia and Africa are overlooked or not given their due weight, or if it means that the work of women and blacks and other minorities in the United States are ignored or denigrated, the complaint is justified.
Again, I'm something of a witness in this because I have written about many other cultures, other religions, other ways of life, and I have certainly testified in all my books on contributions that women have made.
But, if the recommendations for a new curriculum require the abandonment of the demonstrated background of our historical development, then I really must complain that that's stupid. The city of Athens is of greater intellectual significance in the development of the world than some crossroads in central Australia or some village along the Congo. To deny that historical genesis and growth is really to distort history.
So I would certainly want people to be as aware of the great cultures of Asia as I have been, or the significance of the movements of Genghis Khan or Islam knocking on the doors of central Europe as I have had to be. I think the present debate is very vivid and a lot of good will come out of it.
Q. Is there a middle ground between those viewpoints?
A. We haven't found it yet.
Q. Early in the 1940's, you were writing essays advocating a community-survey approach for social-studies education in which students would choose a community issue, research it, and offer possible solutions. That is exactly the kind of hands-on strategy many prominent educators are advocating now. How do you explain why so much of what you wrote then still seems relevant today?
A. You must remember in those days I was writing in the depths of the Great Depression and we were really concerned about the safety of society and the integrity of it. I like very much that pattern of getting children involved. ... I had a fabulously good education in grade schools in this country and abroad. I was in 18th-century terminology a "learned man." ... Plus, there is the fact I have always speculated about the future.