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To Gain 'Unity,' Council Defines 'Social Studies'

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DETROIT--The National Council for the Social Studies, voting here Nov. 22 during its annual convention, has agreed on a definition for "social studies'' for the first time in its 71-year history.

Under the definition, social studies is described as the "integrated study of the social sciences and the humanities to promote civic competence.'' The resolution also cites a variety of specific disciplines that social studies draws from.

"I think we've seen over the years that we don't get on a lot of agendas because our field tends to be so broad,'' Patricia Nickell, an instructional-support-services director from Lexington, Ky., said in explaining the rationale for the move. "There's a real need for greater unity and consensus among the constituencies that make up the organization.''

The term "social studies'' was first coined near the turn of the century. Since that time, said educators meeting here at the Nov. 20-23 convention, efforts to define their field have largely proved unsuccessful.

"I can even remember debates over whether social studies was a singular or plural noun,'' said C. Frederick Risinger, a former president of the N.C.S.S. and the director of the social-studies-development center at Indiana University.

Over the years, he said, members of the organization also struggled over the relative weight to give various disciplines in their field, such as history and citizenship education, and over what disciplines to include under the social-studies umbrella.

The adoption of the definition comes as the N.C.S.S. is drawing up national standards for the social studies--an effort to give the field greater coherence and visibility at a time when separate projects are under way to set standards for history, civics, geography, and economics. The standards initiatives were a prime topic at the convention. (See story, page 5.)

Embraces Numerous Subjects

In schools, the new definition states, social studies draws in a "coordinated, systematic'' way from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law-related education, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology. Appropriate content may also be drawn from the humanities, mathematics, and science, it adds.

Over all, however, the definition says, the primary purpose of social studies in school is "to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.''

Although adopted overwhelmingly by the council's several hundred voting delegates, the definition was not without its detractors.

"I'm wondering how colleges of education are going to train teachers to master this diverse field of study,'' said Lawrence McBride, a delegate from New Jersey. "People from social studies are going to need an 8-by-10 index card to explain who they are.''

Other delegates countered that the field is necessarily integrative.

"It is a diverse, interdependent world we live in, and we must give students all of those things,'' one delegate said.

Added Patricia E. Baker, a college social-studies teacher from Brockport, N.Y.: "This is a long-overdue attempt to get a definition everybody can live with. It's not perfect.''

Colorado Plans Dropped

In other business, the delegates voted to cancel plans to hold the council's 1994 annual conference in Denver, in protest against a ballot measure passed in Colorado last month that bars the enactment of civil-rights protections specifically for homosexuals.

The N.C.S.S. resolution, which was overwhelmingly approved by the delegates, also would prohibit the organization from meeting in other states that are deemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The National Council of Teachers of English, meeting in Louisville, Ky., late last month, approved a similar resolution.

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