Education Opinion

I Heart Social Studies

By Nancy Flanagan — March 17, 2013 3 min read
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So y’all know what STEM is, of course. Conversations about whether STEM’s “engineering” component is just a convenient vowel or truly another gaping hole in the shabby American curriculum are long past. Everybody’s talking STEAM now--A is for Arts. STEAMed up! That’s the ticket!

My friend Sam Chaltain recently tweeted that, maybe, what we really need is STREAM-- expanding the acronym to include Reading. (Welcome back, reading!) Actually, I tweeted back, isn’t STREAM what we used to call a “well-rounded” education?

But--thinking it over--I was wrong. In addition to science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and mathematics, any definition of a complete educational package would have to include social studies. And stop your sneering. “Social studies” is a perfectly good umbrella term for an incredibly wide-ranging collective of knowledge and competencies--despite its recent, policy-driven depreciation in the curricular pantheon.

Here, off the top of my head, are some of the things that fall into the realm of social studies: History, political science, geography and culture, religion, psychology, anthropology, humanities, government, economics, philosophy, archeology, sociology, and topics in social theory like globalization, health care, justice, wealth and poverty, ethnicity and gender. Not to mention education.

In fact, if the process of becoming educated-- the competencies necessary to live as a productive, even successful human being--were organized into four equal “core” categories, it’s hard to see how you could pack all essential human understandings into one quartile division, called “social studies.” Can you be a thriving American citizen without some knowledge of the law, political models, cultural norms, human relationships and the revolutionary formation of our nation? Isn’t that at least as important as a working affiliation with algebra?

How did social studies sink to the bottom of the curricular heap? And why?

When Michigan adopted a “merit curriculum”in 2006, demanding that every high school graduate meet rigorous disciplinary requirements, one of the selling points was this: prior to 2006, the only legal requirement for graduation from a public high school in Michigan was a course in civics. This fact was presented as proof positive that MI school curriculums were stuck in a darker age--perhaps a time when we imagined the central goal of public schooling was creating good citizens. How archaic!

So now, we’re shaving time from social studies and science to focus on raising math scores. We have Common Core State (sic) Standards for Language Arts and Math, and a draft of Science Standards--but no formal standards for social studies. Qualitative research in the social sciences has been pushed aside in favor of quantification. And there’s a national call tode-emphasize stories that illustrate the human condition, the personal narrative, in favor of facts and data.

Curriculum does change over time. Wade around in the Committee of Ten Report from 1893, when Latin and Greek were the preeminent subjects and higher mathematics an afterthought, if you want to see how our definition of essential content has shifted. Then take a look at The 13 Most Useless Majors, from Philosophy to Journalism and see what’s being valued these days--the enlargement of human understanding vs. comparison of starting salaries. No contest.

It is possible to construe this lack of interest in social studies and humanities as a dark and deliberate goal: If we don’t teach our children democratic values, appreciation of individual worth and dignity, or the essential importance of building community--well, then there will never be a revolution against power and resource hoarding. Let them eat tests.

A less intentional--but still sinister--reason might be the fact that as a nation, we still have no clue, let alone consensus, about the purpose of public education. Is it building democratic equality? Job training? Credential collecting?

Until we have that straight, there is unlikely to be a backlash against quantification and standardization. I don’t foresee Rupert Murdoch funding a campaign to restore civic education. It’s ironic that Arne Duncan calls education the civil rights issue of our generation in a time when elementary teachers don’t “have time” to study civil rights.

Social studies. Don’t leave school without ‘em.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.