Social Studies

‘Contrarians’ Launch Salvo At Social Studies

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 03, 2003 3 min read
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A group of self-described social studies “contrarians” is challenging the field’s guiding tenets in an attempt to “reclaim” history and civics education from what its members see as a “muddled, ineffectual curricular and pedagogical wasteland.”

The 149-page volume the group has published reflects the growing debate over the curriculum and the rift between advocates of a history-centered curriculum and those who back the broader social studies approach.(“History Invading Social Studies’ Turf in Schools,” Jan. 22, 2003.)

The field “eschews substantive content and subordinates a focus on effective practice to educational and political correctness,” editors James S. Leming and Lucien Ellington write in the introduction to the book. “Through close association with the social studies establishment and years of reflection upon the dominant belief structures of the field, we have become convinced that social studies is in crisis.”

Publications from the “Back To Basics: Reclaiming Social Studies” project are available from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

But proponents of social studies dispute those claims, and they say that their critics are ill-informed about the best way to teach history, as well as civics, geography, economics, and other social sciences. The contrarians, they argue, tend to promote narrow and dry methods for teaching history and overlook developmental and instructional issues.

“This report is largely fiction,” said Peggy Altoff, a social studies supervisor in Colorado Springs District 11 in Colorado. “I don’t think we have any differences over the goals of social studies and the essential content, but we differ on how best to get students to that point.”

Events, Issues, People

Published by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which supports a traditional approach to teaching history and democratic values, the collection kicks off the Washington-based organization’s campaign to restructure the curriculum based on the “key events, issues, and people in America’s past, how our government works, our rights and responsibilities as citizens, and how our predecessors fought to defend democracy.”

Chester E. Finn Jr.

The authors target much of the blame at the National Council for the Social Studies, the largest organization for educators in the field, for its academic and professional standards. Those guidelines integrate history and the other subjects and organize them around broad themes. They also emphasize the need to teach children to think critically in order to participate fully in democracy.

Most of the contributors to the Fordham collection are members of the NCSS, and several have served in its leadership ranks.

The Silver Spring, Md.-based NCSS has come under attack by conservative pundits for resources it published in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Its materials emphasized tolerance and multiple views of the causes of the terrorism.

“We’ve known that history and civics knowledge has been a problem for a long time,” said the Fordham Foundation’s president, Chester E. Finn Jr. “But after 9/11, we’d begun to understand there is a much deeper and pernicious intellectual corruption within the world of social studies.”

‘A Lightning Rod’

Some NCSS officials, however, contend that what Mr. Finn and the authors seem to oppose is any view that doesn’t reflect their own.

Despite the conflict, some social studies supporters say they welcome open debate among NCSS members and hope the contrarian view will help inform the field.

“This would be a really wonderful jumping-off place for a discussion about where the social studies should go,” said Merry Merryfield, a professor of social studies and global education at Ohio State University in Columbus. “Sometimes a report like this acts as a lightning rod to get people thinking and taking action.”

Another publication updates Fordham’s guide for teaching children about terrorism. In “Terrorists, Despots, and Democracy: What Our Children Need to Know,” educators and commentators ponder their visions of democracy and patriotism.

The group includes William J. Bennett, a U.S. secretary of education under President Reagan; the author Richard Rodriguez; and Lynne V. Cheney, a former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities who was a critic of the national history standards in the mid-1990s.

Later this year, the foundation plans to release a review of state standards in U.S. history.

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