Social Studies: Amid Criticism, Still in Search of a Clear Rationale

November 28, 1984 10 min read

Washington--State legislators are increasing the amount of social studies required in schools, setting the content of courses, and demanding tests of the results. But at their annual meeting here this month, members of the National Council for the Social Studies were still arguing about what social studies is and how to teach it.

A year ago, the 17,000-member organization of educators, whose disciplines range from history to psychology, published a preliminary position statement on the social-studies curriculum in grades K through 12.

Called “In Search of a Scope and Sequence for Social Studies,” the document set forth the goals of social studies; provided a proposed sequence of courses for grades K through 12 as well as several optional sequences; and described the skills and the democratic beliefs and values that social studies should teach.

A year later, that report has still not been adopted by the ncss’s board of directors. And in workshops and testimony on the re-port presented at this month’s conference, participants found fault with both the document and the field.

‘Diffuse Nature’

“When someone says social science, I don’t know what they mean,” complained William Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, during a luncheon speech.

That kind of criticism is increasingly being leveled against the social studies by outsiders and educators. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1984.) The interdisciplinary field embraces history, psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, geography, and political science, as well as such new disciplines as women’s studies

Participants at the conference admitted that one of the biggest problems for the social studies is its “diffuse nature.” Theoretically designed as a rigorous intellectual endeavor that would allow students to approach a given topic using the resources from diverse fields, social studies has become a catch-all for courses that educators say vary widely from district to district and school to school.

According to recent reports, students consistently rank social studies as their most boring subject.

Shirley H. Engle, professor emeritus of education at Indiana University, Bloomington, said that social studies has demonstrated “a stubborn resistance to change” over the past 50 years.

Instead of being a rigorous study of the disciplines, Mr. Engle said, social studies today amounts to the exposition of “simple, watered-down, and over-simplified versions” of “truth claims.” Conclusions that are held tenuous in a discipline, he noted, are presented in classrooms as incontrovertible fact.

‘Absolutely Important’

Jean Craven, current president of the ncss and district coordinator of social studies for the Albuquerque Public Schools, said that nearly every person surveyed in her school district thought that social studies was either “absolutely important” or “very essential” to the curriculum. But she added that among teachers, “we found almost no one who has a clear idea of what an ideal social-studies program should be.”

According to the ncss report, “Social studies is a basic subject of the K-12 curriculum that (1) derives its goals from the nature of citizenship in a democratic society that is closely linked to other nations and peoples of the world; (2) draws its content primarily from history, the social sciences, and, in some respects, from the humanities and science; and (3) is taught in ways that reflect an awareness of the personal, social, and cultural experiences and developmental levels of learners.”

But members of the ncss said that description was so vague as to be meaningless. “The opening statement, rather than clarifying the nature of the social studies, confuses it even more,” said Mr. Engle.

Opposing Stances on History

Some people at the conference criticized the report for focusing too much on history and too little on anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Others took the opposite stance, complaining that history had been given short shrift.

Ms. Craven said that when she recently tried to use the report in her own school district to re-evaluate the social-studies curriculum, she found it lacked an adequate rationale for its suggested curriculum framework. It did not explain “why we should teach what we teach where we do, and what should be taught in each course.”

“What we then found,” she said, “is that we were thrown back on tradition.”

Status Quo

One of the most common complaints was that the document describes social-studies programs as they now exist in schools, rather than depicting what should exist. “What they gave us was history as usual,” said Mr. Engle.

Thomas P. Weinland, professor of curriculum instruction at the University of Connecticut’s school of education, said the document made too great an effort to be practical and to “keep things safe.” In particular, he noted its failure to take on the problem of the survey course--that course in American or world history that spans at least 200 years and has been cited as the cause of many students’ boredom.

Clair W. Keller, professor of history education at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, complained that the document also failed to address the issue of repeating American history in the 8th and 11th grades--another traditional practice that educators say contributes to students’ distaste for the field.

But William W. Joyce, professor of education at Michigan State University, praised the report as a “vital first step toward restoring order and coherence to social studies in American schools.”

He said the report’s strengths were that it was comprehensive and that it stressed new content areas such as global education, law, and economics without departing drastically from the norm.

He added, however, that while the report was “unlikely to arouse conflict and controversy at the local level,” it also “assiduously avoids many of the realities in our world today” such as war, scarce resources, and poverty.

“Conspicuously absent from the report are specific references to race, ethnicity, gender, and other value-laden topics,” he said. He also criticized the report for failing to identify, among an array of skills to which social studies can contribute, those that are the “primary and unique domain of social-studies teachers.”

Disagreement on Citizenship

Many said that the ncss report overemphasized citizenship and the inculcation of national values in the young. But an equal number argued that the document did not emphasize citizenship enough.

Several speakers noted that students are not well equipped, in skills or in knowledge, to become participating citizens in American society.

Ms. Craven said that in her district, teachers, students, administrators, and parents all ranked goals related to “citizenship transmission” as the most important purposes of social studies. They rated as “moderately important” the students’ ability to participate actively in society and to examine their society critically.

But she added that a test given to

graduating seniors showed that students knew far too little about what citizenship meant. Slightly more than half of the graduating seniors who took the examination, she said, could explain the essence of democracy, even in general terms.

Freedom of Expression

Few students completely supported the right to freedom of expression. A majority of students, for example, agreed that a member of the Communist Party should be allowed to campaign on television. But a majority of the students also expressed that a person should not be allowed to speak at a public meeting in favor of mandatory limits on family size.

Only a small proportion of students, she added, could identify even two suggested ways for preventing war, such as arms negotiations or a stronger military.

She concluded: “I don’t see the applications of their history lessons coming through. ... Kids are exposed to history and they believe it’s important, but they don’t seem able to make it important.”

Howard Mehlinger, dean of the school of education and professor of history and education at Indiana University, agreed that there are many students “who do not have the kind of background in history, geography, economics, and other fundamentals that are required to operate in our society.” But he argued that “citizenship education” is a vague term that can encompass almost anything.

“It’s a word that makes us feel comfortable,” he said. “It is precisely because it is so vague that it keeps us from going anyplace.”

He concluded that it might be a disservice for social studies to make too large a commitment to citizenship education.

Socialization vs. Criticism

Mr. Engle noted that citizenship entails two, sometimes conflicting, goals: socializing young people at the basic level needed to make democracy work, and “countersocializing” young people to be critical, independent thinkers.

Although the report acknowledges both, he and others said too little emphasis in the report and in the classroom has been placed on teaching children to confront controversy and to think critically about their society.

“The idea that education is something that must be impressed on tender minds” is the idea to which most of adults subscribe, said Mr. Engle. He added that the public climate today is “not conducive to the discussion or even the posing of controversial questions in schools.” Teachers, he said, tend to avoid any content that might occasion controversy.

‘Indoctrination’ Charged

Alison Brooks, associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University and the representative of the American Anthropological Association on an education task force composed of representatives of social-science organizations, saidss report emphasizes “indoctrination” rather than providing students with the skills needed to understand value differences.

“There’s no doubt, we need more social criticism” in schools, said3James P. Shaver, associate dean for research and professor of secondary education in the College of Education at Utah State University. But he cautioned: “I don’t think we really know how far such instruction can go and how early it can take place” without having a destructive effect on society.

He also argued that much citizenship education can be achieved within the “context and confines of the traditional social-studies courses’’ through a greater focus on current public issues. But others said a complete reconceptualization of the social-studies program was needed.

‘We’re Simply Paralyzed’

Both Mr. Mehlinger and Jean Claugus, legislative representative for the California Council on the Social Studies, said the ncss is also going to have to change if it is to have an impact on the curriculum-reform movement.

“I regret that the ncss has been unable in recent years to speak to matters of substance about social studies,” said Mr. Mehlinger. “We’re simply paralyzed when it comes to talking about matters of substance.”

He argued that the organization has no intellectual basis for discussing something like the scope-and-sequence report and is politically unwilling or unable to seek help from the outside.

“In my opinion, the council has ridden the 1960’s pendulum just about as far as it’s possible to go ...,” he concluded. “We’re partly responsible for the erosion of social studies in the curriculum.”

Long-Term Commitment

Ms. Claugus, who has spent the last few years in California’s battles over reshaping the curriculum, cautioned that the ncss has to think carefully before throwing itself into the fray of the education-reform movement, because it will require a greater degree of commitment to the organization’s policy statements than members have shown to date.

“In my perception, accountability for ncss as well as for individuals in the classroom should be looked at ... as a long-term commitment to a process of setting goals and following them,” she said. She noted that the organization had not followed through on commitments that it made in the 1970’s to citizenship education and “has failed to respond with a singleness of purpose to the lack of direction in the social studies.”

But she added that she is still optimistic that the ncss can play a role in the reform movement, and she charged the organization to hold fast to its goals for citizenship education.

Plans for the Report

According to Frances Haley, executive director of the ncss, the organization’s curriculum committee is now preparing a report for the board of directors on reactions to the scope-and-sequence document, based on testimony at the conference and feedback that the organization has solicited through its publications.

That report will be considered by the board of directors at its June 1985 meeting. At that point, the board could officially adopt the report or make recommendations for revisions. Ms. Haley said that a vote by the entire membership would not be needed to adopt the report.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as Social Studies: Amid Criticism, Still in Search of a Clear Rationale