Social Education 57(6), 1993, pp. 282-283
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Could This Be the End of History?

Lawrence W. McBride
At 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 22, 1992, the members of the house of delegates attending the National Council for the Social Studies annual meeting in Detroit voted to accept the proposed de&Mac222;nition of social studies prepared by a subcommittee appointed by the NCSS Board of Directors. The decision was made by a voice vote; my estimate of the vote was approximately two hundred in favor and &Mac222;ve opposed. It was, then, an overwhelming victory for social studies educators who have been both savaged by critics for the alleged failure of their students to know much of anything about history or geography, and ridiculed by discipline-based scholars for their inability to explain what exactly the social studies is, or are. The victory was, in my opinion, a Pyrrhic one. The new de&Mac222;nition-the &Mac222;rst of&Mac222;cial de&Mac222;nition-is liable to do more damage to NCSS than good:
Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.
The delegates were allotted a total of ten minutes to debate the merits of this de&Mac222;nition; individual speakers were allotted two minutes. As the only person who spoke in direct opposition to the measure (I believe two other delegates worried about the inclusion of religion), I would like to put my thoughts on the record because, as far as I am aware, no transcript is kept of the debates in the house of delegates. Some future historian might like to know what was said on this important occasion. Without presuming too much for my point of view, I believe that many members of NCSS, as well as those outside the organization who are interested in the issues raised in the debate, share my general concerns.

Four basic problems arise from the de&Mac222;nition: it risks further alienation of NCSS members; it will exacerbate the already inadequate professional preparation that prospective social studies teachers receive at the collegiate level; it lacks focus; and, its aims are misguided.

The &Mac222;rst problem is purely one of self-interest for NCSS. Because of the catchall nature of the de&Mac222;nition, many members who teach subject-speci&Mac222;c courses in junior high schools, high schools, and colleges may decide that this organization no longer represents their best interests. Last year, NCSS lost thousands of dollars because of declining membership. When I pointed out the falling membership &Mac222;gures and observed that history and geography teachers might be alienated by the de&Mac222;nition and might, therefore, look for a new home in other professional organizations that are subject speci&Mac222;c, one delegate replied that as far as he was concerned, they were welcome to leave. So much for the spirit of inclusion: "Social studies-love it or leave it."

The second problem-teacher preparation-also stems from the de&Mac222;nition's well-intended inclusiveness. Colleges of education, which have the chief responsibility for preparing elementary school teachers, are going to have a dif&Mac222;cult time preparing prospective teachers to become even minimally competent to teach courses that will depend on the full integration of the disciplines set forth in the de&Mac222;nition. The curriculum of many of these colleges has been criticized for at least a decade because their graduates are not required to complete a minor &Mac222;eld of study in an academic discipline. Imagine a dean of a college of education who intends to reform the social studies requirements in the teacher education program according to the new NCSS de&Mac222;nition. What courses will the students take? At what level? The problem of teacher preparation is less serious for prospective high school teachers, who generally complete an academic major and special methods classes. The problems they will face will come later, when the elementary school graduates enter high school and enroll in courses that require speci&Mac222;c knowledge and skills that are subject speci&Mac222;c. Finally, heaven forbid that state boards of education follow the NCSS lead and change their teacher certi&Mac222;cation requirements for social studies according to the new de&Mac222;nition. The de&Mac222;nition will permit just about anyone who wants a career change to argue that they are prepared to teach courses in social studies. Our &Mac222;eld could become the catch basin for the most ill-equipped generation of teachers we have seen in a long time, and just when the country needs the most quali&Mac222;ed people in the classroom.

The third problem-lack of focus-is a direct result of the de&Mac222;nition's inclusiveness. When NCSS Past President Margit McGuire, who chaired the subcommittee, introduced the measure in the house of delegates, she stated that the task of shaping the de&Mac222;nition had been dif&Mac222;cult because dozens of individuals had offered advice. She explained that the subcommittee had listened to all points of view, and that she hoped it had managed to write a de&Mac222;nition that was "something we could live with." That de&Mac222;nition presents a collective noun that give us the high common multiplier: social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and mathematics. The chief dif&Mac222;culty here is that the mechanism for integrating the various academic disciplines into a systematic approach to developing civic competence is not identi&Mac222;ed. The arti&Mac222;cial, alphabetical listing of broad categories in the de&Mac222;nition, in fact, robs the social studies of any claim to intellectual integrity as a &Mac222;eld of inquiry. When we examine the de&Mac222;nition, intended to be "something we can live with," does anyone behold "something we can be proud of"? What is the something that de&Mac222;nes the term?

One academic discipline does provide the mechanism for integrating the vast &Mac222;elds of study identi&Mac222;ed in the de&Mac222;nition. That &Mac222;eld is history, and it should be at the core of the de&Mac222;nition. Together with the closely allied &Mac222;eld of geography, history has the full capacity to synthesize the story of the human experience across space and time.

Supporters of the history-centered social studies curriculum have been attacked in public forums by NCSS leaders as being "intellectual hegemonists," "subject-matter imperialists," and "curriculum terrorists." This demagogic rhetoric, based on an inaccurate interpretation of the history of the social sciences in the twentieth century, neither raises the level of debate nor confronts two of the fundamental issues that face the profession: What is it that our students ought to know? What is the best means for them to learn it? I believe that history, taught well (i.e., when teachers integrate the structure and techniques of the various disciplines in an interesting lesson), provides the information about what students ought to know about the story of the human community. I believe, also, that history's methods of inquiry provide the systematic approach students can use to obtain that knowledge and understanding.

The fourth problem area-the primary aim of the social studies-lies in the de&Mac222;nition's attempt to clarify what it means by "civic competence." Few social studies educators, myself included, will object to the spirit of the clari&Mac222;cation statement, that it is imperative for young people to "develop the ability to make informed decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world." Some educators, however, might observe that it may not be the primary purpose of the social studies, and it is here that I question the organization's objective for what happens in my classroom. As stated, the sentence explaining the purpose of the social studies establishes a straightforward agenda that manipulates young people. It is just as manipulative as a statement that identi&Mac222;es the conservation of some mythical view of our Western heritage as the primary purpose of the social studies. In any case, this de&Mac222;nition's promotion of multiculturalism and global studies may be important, but they are secondary issues. The clari&Mac222;cation sentence should stop after the phrase "to make informed and reasoned decisions." Social studies ought to enable students, in the timeless words of the ancient oracle, "to know themselves"; and social studies educators ought to have the courage to trust their students to act on that self-knowledge in a responsible manner.

What else could the subcommittee and the house of delegates have done? When the former was ßooded by suggestions from NCSS constituent groups during the summer of 1992, it acted in the spirit of inclusiveness and decided to accommodate them all. (Law-related education was even squeezed into the de&Mac222;nition at the last moment during the measure's introduction in the house.) The house, with ten minutes of debate time and approximately 25 percent of the delegates absent from their seats, was not encouraged to engage in much serious discussion and weigh its options.

Clearly, the NCSS Board of Directors and many NCSS members were stung when the America 2000 goals singled out history and geography as core subjects and pointedly omitted the social studies. The organization has also witnessed the remarkable development of new history and geography organizations that have taken the lead from NCSS-&Mac222;rst in reforming the social studies curriculum's scope and sequence, and now in shaping the national standards and potential assessments of K-12 learning. NCSS is trying to regain lost ground. It is going to be a dif&Mac222;cult journey with the adopted de&Mac222;nition's heavy load on our backs.

Lawrence W. McBride is the executive director of the Illinois Council for the Social Studies and an Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois 61790-4420.