Social Studies

History Invading Social Studies’ Turf in Schools

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 22, 2003 9 min read
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It has little of the drama of the great debates that persuaded the colonists to take up arms against the British more than two centuries ago. Modern-day historians and history educators have been more genteel in their attempts to wrest control of school curricula from under the dominion of the social studies.

Despite the civility of the discord, though, many observers describe a field in conflict, locked in a power struggle that has stewed and boiled for decades.

Now, history scholars are quietly celebrating what they see as signs that their campaign is having an effect.

Policymakers, discouraged by lackluster achievement in the subject, are pushing for improvements in history education, taking their lead from the recommendations historians have been pushing for more than a decade.

“This is a high point for history,” proclaimed Elaine Wrisley Reed, the executive director of the National Council for History Education, a group formed in 1990 by scholars seeking to re-enter the discussion over the K-12 history curriculum. “Never has there been so much attention placed on the teaching and learning of American history.”

But advocates of the social studies have been somewhat less encouraged by the emerging trend, which largely rejects the approach that integrates history, geography, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and law-related education. They worry that the spotlight on history could undermine efforts to create more comprehensive and engaging lessons for students.

Federal Legislation

“They’ve made a scapegoat out of social studies,” charged Ronald W. Evans, a professor of social studies education at San Diego State University, referring to historians. His book The Waron Social Studies and the Struggle for Meaningful Learning is slated to be published next year by Teachers College Press.

“The historians in the rhetorical war have the upper hand right now,” Mr. Evans said. “Things are moving toward a narrowing of the curriculum.”

One sign of history’s rising dominance came in legislation authorizing the Teaching American History Grants, which received $100 million in the 2001 federal budget. The measure states that the money is solely for programs that improve the teaching of history “not as a component of the social studies.”

In announcing the program, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., blamed the blending of history with other subjects as a contributor to the apparent decline in students’ historical knowledge.

“Too many schools today are lumping history together with other subjects and offering them as courses broadly titled ‘social studies,’” Mr. Byrd said at the time. “This conglomeration certainly does not provide the kind of focused study that history deserves and requires.”

The wave of patriotism that swept the nation after Sept. 11, 2001, further pushed the cause.

An article last spring in The Weekly Standard, for example, aimed scathing criticism at the social studies approach for promoting what the author sees as a critical view of the nation’s history and a betrayal of the Founding Fathers’ view of education. The piece, titled “Anti-Social Studies,” chastised the National Council for the Social Studies, the largest organization representing educators in the field, for its response to the terrorist attacks. The NCSS emphasized tolerance and globalism.

“If the NCSS has its way, young Americans will graduate from high school with a few hazy ideas about equality and freedom of speech, but almost no knowledge of their country’s past,” Kay S. Hymowitz wrote in the influential, Washington-based conservative magazine. “They’ll be more likely to get teary-eyed at ‘We Are the World’ than ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

Then this past September, President Bush unveiled initiatives “to improve students’ knowledge of American history, increase their civic involvement, and deepen their love for our great country.”

Social studies educators say that is precisely their aim, and have been working to dispel what they say are misconceptions. They are also trying to inform policymakers, scholars, and the public about what they do.

“Many of these critics think we don’t teach history in the social studies, and that simply isn’t true,” said Jesus Garcia, a professor of social studies at the University of Kentucky. “These folks are saying the same things we’re saying. They may be couching it in more historical terms, but we’re on the same wavelength.”

A Current-Events Approach?

Differences in pedagogical philosophy—both clear and subtle—have competed since early in the 20th century, when some educators promoted a new approach to teaching history, one that placed greater emphasis on the recent past and social perspectives to make the subject more relevant to students’ lives. The NCSS was formed in 1921 to help organize the various related disciplines in the curriculum.

Historians and social studies educators agree that teachers must go beyond historical facts and bring history to life for students. But the NCSS, based in Silver Spring, Md., is often criticized by historians as promoting a current-events approach that they claim fails to ensure that students understand the nation’s founding documents and how they have influenced events throughout U.S. history.

In recent years, the 26,000- member group has also been denounced for promoting multi-culturalism and encouraging students to draw upon personal experiences to help them understand historical events and social perspectives, approaches that social studies advocates say better prepare students for an increasingly global society.

In defense of their organization, officials say the NCSS has pushed for more substantive teacher preparation and professional development to bring greater depth to history instruction.

It has also fought for greater attention to social studies content in a curriculum increasingly focused on reading and mathematics. And while social studies proponents have promoted better assessment measures for students, they have also fought in Michigan and other states just to preserve existing state tests that include their subject areas. They argue that without gauging what students know in the social studies as part of state assessment systems, those subjects will be pushed further to the margins of the curriculum.

Meanwhile, many teachers say the current debate over whether “history” or “social studies” should predominate hasn’t made it to the school level, where many point out that history has always been the dominant discipline within social studies.

Teachers “are not asking each other, philosophically, should we be doing social studies or history,” said Daryl Fridley, a history teacher at Cape Central High School in Cape Girardeau, Mo., who is active in his local social studies council. Although he weaves geography, sociology, economics, and lessons from other disciplines into his classes, the anchor, Mr. Fridley said, is history.

“Although we call it social studies,” he said, “quite often it’s history with an occasional map thrown in.”

In the lower grades, however, the social studies approach tends to be more pervasive. Younger students often begin the study of history through the lens of their “expanding horizons,” starting with their own families or communities and broadening their outlook as they progress through the grades. In middle school, the curriculum is often organized under broad social themes, such as the environment.

In any case, even a history-centered curriculum may not help to raise achievement, some observers say, because teachers lack sufficient training in the subject. Few elementary school teachers study history in their preservice programs. In the middle and upper grades, prospective teachers often can fulfill certification requirements with a major or minor in one of the other social studies disciplines.

The federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 will require that social studies teachers hold a major or minor in history to teach the subject. Under the law, many current social studies teachers may have to go back to school for more coursework if they wish to continue to teach history.

Competing Standards

Amid growing concern more than a decade ago that history instruction was weakening, historians decided to weigh in. In a 1990 report, the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools, made up of prominent scholars and history educators, called for a restructuring of the social studies curriculum. The National Council for History Education was formed soon after to try to promote the commission’s recommendations.

The initiative by Sen. Byrd—who is well known for invoking historical parallels in his speeches on the Senate floor—renewed interest in that report, which called for a history- centered curriculum throughout K-12.

Still, shaking the NCSS’s sway over teachers will be difficult, observers say. That influence, while at its peak in the 1960s, was threatened in the 1990s, when the group was not consulted on the development of the voluntary national history standards. But the NCSS went ahead and set its own social studies standards to complement the history document.

The social studies standards ultimately eclipsed the history guidelines after the history project came under fire. In the view of many critics, the history standards concentrated on too many of America’s blemishes and promoted teaching about women and minority-group members at the expense of the white men who traditionally were at the center of history instruction.

Some critics maintain that the social studies council also has too much say in teacher preparation because of the NCSS standards’ influence on the guidelines adopted by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

A number of historians argue that the standards both for students and for teachers do not support a thorough and thoughtful approach to history.

“Everyone pays lip service to history, but the content has largely been ignored,” said Theodore K. Rabb, a history professor at Princeton University and a founder of the National Council for History Education, based in Westlake, Ohio. Social studies proponents, he said, “have become about process, and we’re about content. The way the curriculum has evolved, we learn about Indian cooking one week and Chinese cooking the next.”

Social studies advocates say such descriptions merely caricature what they see as a more holistic approach, one that rightly runs counter to traditional fact-based history lessons.

“We’ve been concerned about this less-is-better attitude,” said Mr. Garcia, an NCSS board member. With the current focus on state standards and tests that encourage memorization over critical thinking, he added, “we just race through what we call a curriculum and expect kids to learn a lot of isolated facts, and do not get down to helping kids understand in depth the critical issues.”

Some experts contend, though, that students must first master the essential history content to have a context for the issues and themes they encounter.

“The big players [in education] are finally noticing that the social studies may be an idea whose time has passed,” said David Warren Saxe, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park,and the author of the 1992 book The History of Social Studies. “Social studies is too much about students’ feelings and making their own decisions in historical matters rather than the facts and events of history.”

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