Social Education 57(2), 1993, pp. 57
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
For approximately seventy-five years a subject field called social studies has existed, and for seventy years National Council for the Social Studies has worked to promote teaching and learning in that field. One could certainly argue, therefore, that there is a history, and there is a body. But is there a consensus on basic ideas that support that body? that professional organization? that field? Educators have argued about the meaning of social studies since its inception.
NCSS's own Defining the Social Studies begins with, "The field of social studies is so caught up in ambiguity, inconsistency, and contradiction that it represents a complex educational enigma....If the social studies is what the scholars in the field say it is, it is a schizophrenic bastard child" (Barr, Barth, and Shermis 1977, 1). The failure to arrive at a clear consensus about agreed-upon basic beliefs of social studies and standards setting has opened the field to critics who see a loose federation of so-called experts who simply do not understand, according to Chester Finn (1988, 15), "what most parents and citizens expect [students] to know."
Finn (1988, 16) clearly makes the case for critics:
The great dismal swamp of today's school curriculum is not reading or writing, not math or science, not even foreign language study. It is social studies, a field that has been getting slimier and more tangled ever since it changed its name from "history" around 1916.
Finn (1988, 16), although uninformed, continues:
Even as social studies has become a grab bag of current events, ersatz social science, one-worldism, and opinion-mongering by uninformed children and half-informed adults [social studies teachers], it has not played a very large role in the education of young Americans.
Finn and other equally vocal contemporary critics have dismissed the social studies movement-their own version of the field-because they have found nothing to suggest a coherent set of beliefs. The critics actually do not attack ideas as much as they attack the notion of a grab bag-that is, they perceive social studies as flesh without bones, random ideas without coherence. They strike at social studies as they might at a bowl of jelly-all form with no substance, an easy target to hit, a target that yet has no official definition and lacks an announced set of easily understood basic beliefs and standards. Charlotte Crabtree, for example, is so confident that social studies has no standards that she has invited NCSS to participate in replacing social studies with K-12 history standards, anticipating that national testing will follow those standards within two years.1
Social studies educators cannot safely dismiss Finn, Diane Ravitch, Crabtree, the Department of Education, the Bush administration, or social studies' traditional critics from the social sciences and humanities because they command the public's attention and are backed by federal money, state governors, and President George Bush.
The present attack on social studies centers on the assumption that teachers lack a belief in democracy and that they are unwilling to meet the critics' standards. Many critics perceive the school as a church, the history book as the Bible, and the teacher as an indoctrinator of a "passion for democracy" (Finn 1988, 16). Those critics have clearly announced that they do not want to hear what they believe to be negative thoughts from social studies advocates. Those negative thoughts include integration of the social sciences and humanities, global studies, multicultural education, diversity, and the name social studies. What they want to hear is U.S. history, geography, unity, democracy, internationalism, and the "American" (that is, Eurocentric) way. Again, Finn (1988, 16) makes the point: "The social studies establishment remains enamored of process, problem solving, and globalism." He concludes that "this field, in other words, is probably incapable of reforming itself."
Social Studies Is the Twentieth Century Reform of Citizenship Education
Just why does Finn believe that social studies has no consistent core of beliefs, no standards? Why does he think social studies was created in the first place if, in fact, it has no substance? Perhaps he believes that social studies was created on a whim, or simply the work of misguided academics, a conspiracy, or plot. Or maybe even a subversion of the American way which fits the critics' thoughts about John Dewey during the Red scare of the 1920s. Whatever the reason, social studies, for Finn, has decreased citizens' passion for democracy.
Perhaps he assigns evil intent to the field because it is a product of the Progressive Era. Social studies was and is the reform of citizenship education as practiced before the turn of the twentieth century. One might suspect Finn complains that the twentieth century reform of citizenship education was unnecessary, and thus returning to a disciplined study of U.S. history and geography as the major source of a school's formal citizenship program is the proper approach. Why be concerned about Finn's vision? The answer is clear: his vision will become reality when national standards are set in 1992 and national testing of history and geography begins in 1993 as prescribed in America 2000's goal 3 (U.S. Department of Education 1991). In short, it is Finn's vision of citizenship education that will be tested.
The New Political Reform: America 2000's Goal 3
How would Finn reform social studies? First, he would declare the past seventy-five years of social studies a mistake and substitute a political reform consistent with America 2000's goal 3, which reads as follows:
By the year 2000, American students will leave Grades 4, 8 and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, sciences, history, and geography and every school will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy.
Finn's reform would focus on a passion for democracy, a passion best served by teaching history and geography as separate disciplines.
Critics declare that the social studies as a reform movement is over-and it did not work because it was never accepted by classroom teachers. What should replace social studies? The critics' answer is clear. It is time to return to a pre-social studies era, those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century days when citizens knew their history and their democracy, and practiced unity and liberty. The argument continues, "the survival of democracy 'depends on our transmitting to each new generation the political vision of liberty and equality that unites us as Americans'" (Finn 1988, 16). Finn (1988, 15) offers an insight into what would replace social studies: citizenship education, he explains, is not so much a process of decision making but rather a "job of forging historically knowledgeable citizens with a passion for democracy." In short, Finn believes that students should be taught not current contemporary issues and persistent problems in a global context, but historical content within a Western civilization context, arranged in linear chronology, and tested nationally at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. Thus, according to this argument, properly trained citizens are those who can recall and recite the key historical events and geographic background selected for a national test.
Inculcating a passion for democracy, if not a passion for the Western world, is an old idea. Most cultures throughout the world transmit their beliefs and values on the grounds that a culture has a right to initiate its youth. Critics point out that if social studies was really citizenship education with the goal of forging a passion for democracy then students could identify the shape of the United States on a world map, college students could find Japan or the Middle East on a world map, and 11th graders would know how many senators represent each state, that Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War, and that selected Supreme Court decisions are important to know. In short, Finn's passion for democracy requires a historically knowledgeable citizen-a citizen who can be educated if the school system would only concentrate on U.S. history, Western civilization, and geography.
What Are Basic Beliefs?
There is a history and there is a body, but is social studies worth saving? The field is the twentieth-century educational reform of nineteenth-century citizenship education. But is the field, as has been described, "so caught up in ambiguity, inconsistency, and contradiction" that it has no basic beliefs (Barr, Barth, and Shermis 1977, 1)? In short, what have the critics ignored or dismissed as fundamental to the development of social studies? There are at least four basic beliefs.
1.Social studies is citizenship education.
2.Social sciences and humanities concepts are integrated across disciplines for instructional purposes.
3.The proper content of the social studies is persistent and contemporary social and personal conflicts, issues, and problems expressed as concepts, topics, and themes.
4.Citizenship education requires the practice of problem solving and decision making throughout a social studies curriculum.
If these are the basic beliefs, then this definition of social studies would logically follow:
Social studies is the interdisciplinary integration of social science and humanities concepts for the purpose of practicing problem solving and decision making for developing citizenship skills on critical social issues.
The field must now find a consensus on beliefs and definition. Whether the beliefs and definition above are generally accepted is beside the point. This is an era of accountability and the critics of social studies are rapidly, under America 2000's goal 3, setting standards that will be tested nationally. Can the field fail to respond to this challenge? Social studies standards must also be a part of the educational reform agenda; without those standards, the field will become history.
Is Social Studies Worth Saving?
In conclusion, America 2000's goal 3 is the latest proposal on the reform of social studies. It is social studies, according to its critics, that has condemned the nation for the past seven decades to mediocrity. Lack of knowledge about history, geography, and all the other social sciences and humanities can be directly attributed to a lack of rigorous and conscientious treatment in the nation's classrooms. The critics maintain that teachers should support a Eurocentric perspective, democracy, and the American way. Social studies, according to the critics, is the dismal swamp of education-a grab bag of diversity, globalism, and one-worldism incapable of reforming itself. Basic beliefs about social studies do not exist, social studies as a reform is a failure, and it is time to try something new-such as returning to the time when citizens were loyal to traditional political institutions and democracy.
Social studies educators, expressing an alternative view, know that beliefs about the field were fashioned in the early years of the twentieth century and reflect the progressive thought of that era. The new reform proposals under goal 3 will significantly change the character of social studies, perhaps eliminating the field entirely. What should be the role of social studies teachers? Do they have faith in the beliefs that support the social studies or should they trade that faith for a redefinition of citizenship education as history and geography? Do they believe that looking backward into the nineteenth century for answers will push us forward into the twenty-first? Do social studies teachers know what the field stands for? Are they ready to identify basic beliefs? Do they want to set standards for citizenship education? Or do they step aside, allowing the critics to define those standards? Is social studies worth saving?
1Crabtree, Charlotte (Director, National Center of History in the Schools). Letter to all members of the NCSS Board of Directors, 14 November 1991.References
Barr, Robert D., James L. Barth, and S. Samuel Shermis. Defining the Social Studies. Bulletin no. 51. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1977.Finn, Chester E., Jr. "The Social Studies Debacle among the Educationaloids." The American Spectator (May 1988): 15-16.U.S. Department of Education. America 2000: An Education Strategy. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1991.James L. Barth is Professor of Social Studies Education at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana 47907.