For The Social Studies: A Time-Up, Not An Overhaul

November 01, 1989 2 min read
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For years, critics have called for a massive overhaul of the social studies, arguing that greater emphasis should be given to history and geography. Now, a report by a special task force concurs with some earlier criticisms, but, surprisingly, concludes that a tune-up probably will do.

“Radical curriculum change is not needed in the schools,’' states the preliminary draft of the report, prepared by the curriculum task force of the National Commission on Social Studies. (The final report is scheduled for release this month.)

However, the report does recommend renewed emphasis on history and geography as the “matrix or framework for social studies.’' Critics have noted a steady drift away from this basic core, and toward a more fragmented approach in which other disciplines--sociology, law, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology, for example--have come to hold almost equal sway. Over the last decade and a half, the emphasis has shifted from the mastery of basic facts--when the Civil War was fought, for example--to the analysis of social issues.

This subtle shift is reflected even in the content of standardized tests, says Jean Craven, social studies coordinator for the Albuquerque, N.M., school district and co-chairman of the task force. ``Many teachers have taken that to mean that they don’t have to teach history or geography very strongly because they aren’t going to be tested on it,’' she says. ``You have to work toward the social issues.’'

Concepts from political science, economics, and other social sciences shouldn’t be overlooked, however. On the contrary, they should be blended into the basic core of history and geography at every grade level, according to the task force.

Other recommendations:

  • A three-year course in world history for high school students. In grades 9 through 11, teachers would present the United States’ experience ``within the general story of humanity.’' This controversial proposal runs counter to the arguments of such critics as former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett, who once urged schools to place the greatest emphasis on the history of Western civilization. The task force concluded that students should be ``prepared to live well and wisely in a changing world, ready to play their part as citizens of our country, as members of the local community, and as sharers in the human adventure on earth.’' In 12th grade, students would study American government and economics, sociology and psychology, or community service.
  • Increased emphasis on the teaching of social studies in the early grades. This would include a full year each of U.S. history, world history, and geography in grades 4 through 6, and courses on the local community and the nation in grades 7 and 8. In kindergarten through grade 3, schools would be encouraged to condense the current “expanding environment’’ approach--in which students progress gradually from the study of self to the study of the world--in order to move more quickly to advanced topics.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as For The Social Studies: A Time-Up, Not An Overhaul


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