Social Education 57(6), 1993, pp. 315-317
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
The letter concluded: "My main reasons [for retiring early] are closely related to the new classroom climate which you have so aptly described."
That's it! That is exactly what we have been trying to say. The classroom climate has gradually changed in public schools across the United States during the last fifteen years in ways that most educational reformers fail to address. It is our conviction that no amount of content reform-including establishment of "world-class standards" (whatever those are) as announced in America 2000 (1991), or federally funded and mandated national testing-will have any significant effect on a classroom of estranged students.
No Trigger to Pull
On the other hand, even though we have spent most of the last thirty years trying to improve methodology among social studies teachers, both in training and in practice, we are equally convinced that there is not much a teacher can do that will affect alienated students. We are not sure there is any trigger a teacher can pull that will significantly change the value nonparticipating students place on their classrooms. We do not take this position lightly; we are fully aware that simply making this statement will offend both the content and methodology crusaders.
Please be assured that we have carefully examined the positions of both the content and pedagogue crusaders for several years. The debate was succinctly summarized recently by John Leo and Larry Cuban in the following exchange. Leo (1992), commenting on "The Sorry State of Teachers" for U.S. News and World Report, championed the cause of content crusaders by pointing out that:
(1) schools of education are child-centered (for the uninitiated, "child-centered" implies lack of content),
(2) they produce teachers who don't know much,
(3) they are more concerned with the emotional well-being of students than their learning anything,
(4) their insistence upon equality hurts everyone as it keeps us from maintaining any significant standards and discourages individual achievement.
Cuban (1992) championed the cause of pedagogy in his recent article in Education Week, in which he reminded his content colleagues that:
(1) how teachers teach largely determines what students learn,
(2) content is always secondary to the person doing the teaching,
(3) the research clearly indicates that the official curriculum is not what teachers teach-never has been,
(4) what teachers teach (or think they are teaching) is not necessarily what their students are learning.
We recognize that both camps have legitimate concerns. What we have been trying to say in our previous articles, however, is that both content and method crusaders seem to miss the essential fact that the culture in which the public schools exist has changed dramatically and that the externalities that made public schools relatively successful for half a century no longer exist in many places. Dewey's pedagogical reforms earlier in the century received some critical support because the culture into which they were introduced shared a common body of knowledge and appeared to value education. We are not sure that a majority of U.S. citizens ever valued education highly, but fifty years ago those who did not simply dropped out of the school system for jobs on the farm or at the local factory. Those with enough money chose private schools. In both cases, public schools were left primarily with students from homes with middle-class values and, consequently, were relatively fruitful as middle-class schools. Today's public school classrooms are often dominated by students from homes that do not value education but have nevertheless remained in school for a number of noneducational reasons.
The present dilemma is not necessarily the result of focusing on methods at the expense of content or vice versa, but, rather, exists because public school teachers have essentially lost their support base. Thirty years ago, new teachers entered their first classrooms knowing that parents, the community, and even the students wanted them to succeed. The support base for public school teachers today is at best fragmented, at worst nonexistent.
The obvious effects of divorce and the looseness of commitment in family structures have given schools a clientele made up of individuals accountable only to themselves. The disappearance of a sense of community accompanied by the devaluation of education in the United States are indicators of the depth of the problem. The end result is that many students do not value that which happens in the classroom. Increasingly, public school students seem to have an agenda different than the school's. Their agenda is the result of factors beyond adolescent hormones and generation gaps, yet it reflects (as it always does) what is happening all around them. Somewhere between the absurdities of Woodstock and the fanaticism of the Moral Majority, many people in the United States fulfilled Huxley's prophetic work in Brave New World (1953, 155) when their values "shifted the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness." Some schools were created in which students faced no failure, no consequences, and no concept of cause and effect-all of which weakens the teaching of social studies.
A Shared Body of Knowledge
For human beings to communicate, they must have a shared body of knowledge. Some concern exists that no such body of knowledge exists in our country today. In fact, public schools may have contributed to that lack of commonalities. Recognizing that knowledge is increasing faster than we can record it, some students have found it easier to choose knowing nothing than to sort it all out. Indeed, teachers themselves are often overwhelmed by the prospect of sorting it all out. In addition, the political concept of multiculturalism has forced public schools to attempt to appease and accommodate the agenda of every recognized minority group with something called political correctness at the expense, at times, of shared values-such as the value of education-upon which the public school system was intended to operate. We recognize that multicultural education was the direction in which citizens in a democracy needed to go given our history of prejudice and bigotry, but the cost to public schools has been high. What was once common knowledge is gone. There are very few givens in the public school classroom today, and genuine communication between teacher and student becomes ever more difficult.
Reforming the Collective Memory of the Nation
One of the major concerns of educators is that educational reform based on national standards in U.S. and world history, geography, civics, and social studies can dangerously degenerate into manipulating the collective memory of the nation. Will public schools now be called upon to sanitize political thought much as the networks did during recent political conflicts in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf? Will a study of the world become only a treatment of Eurocentric history? Will U.S. history become exclusively a chronological retelling of traditions that support the myths of national glory? Will civics continue to recall the structure and function of state and national government? Will social studies teachers eventually prepare students for performance on mandatory national tests as the final act in the manipulation of the collective memory of the nation?
We live in an age of "me first" and "in your face," characterized by indifference to the social and political welfare of the community. The goal of social studies as citizenship education was based upon a faith that students would ask questions, identify problems, and grasp issues as they sought solutions to personal and shared problems. Many of today's students fail to ask political and social questions, see no issues, and (like many of their adult counterparts) refuse to acknowledge any common problems. In short, they are not thoughtful about the collective memory of their country. No problem, no consequences, no pain. This is not a school problem, it is an American problem.
Adolescence and Genuine Maturity
In some ways, public schools seem to encourage continuing adolescence. Adolescents undoubtedly experience sexual activity, drugs and alcohol, and a number of hedonistic activities at an earlier age than previously. Genuine maturity, defined as taking responsibility for one's actions and the resulting consequences and having some shared concern about the welfare of others, is foreign to many school students. Public schools, along with the culture as a whole, do not encourage students to grow up.
Given the public schools as we now know them, and barring the reconstruction of these schools to handle all the social and economic ills of the community, we believe the proper response lies not in adopting more content at the expense of methodology or stressing better pedagogy while minimizing content, but in honestly assessing the culture in which the schools operate. We must consider what the public schools might most effectively do and then pursue those activities while rejecting the idea that we can solve all of society's problems.
The alienated, the at risk, the nonparticipating students, the disinterested, and the uninterested have fairly well defied most public school attempts to reach them, but not for lack of suggestions. Having discussed with our colleagues as honestly as possible the culture in which schools operate, noting the disaffection of many students in social studies classes, we believe the following suggestions on what schools might most effectively do have merit.
Suggestions to Consider
1. Any consideration must start with the relationship between the family, the school, and the community. Perhaps much of what makes for students' alienation in social studies courses, for this is the subject that should address growth and development as a member of society, is directly tied to the schools' isolation from the family and community. In sum, a social studies program is not likely to be effective if completely separate from the culture, the family, and the community. Any attempt to reform social studies should clearly be based upon establishing strong connections with the very institutions that are now thought to be in decline. Social studies works best when there exists a sense of family and community. In other words, the social studies curriculum must use the institutions available to it or, at least, offer an investigation of possible substitutes. The social studies program must establish connections with the institutions it serves.
Some thoughtful critics have suggested that evaluation of students' performance in social studies should include portfolio assessment that contains class work and materials that comment on activities at home and in the community (Stevens and Price 1992, 22). If, in fact, social studies should not be exclusively reflective of school performance, then why not include a wider variety of citizen experience that reflects upon family and community activities.
2. A recent interesting movement, recycled from the 1930s and 1950s, to lessen the isolation of the school from the community has been the fashioning of social studies courses to encourage internships or other service experience within the community. School districts and states have begun to mandate community service as a requisite for high school graduation on the grounds that the present "me" generation needs experiences in giving back to the community, thus recognizing the potential power of one citizen to contribute to the public good. Some districts require students to complete thirty-six hours of community service outside the classroom as part of their social studies program. Maryland is the most recent state to adopt a controversial community service program as an appropriate experience for all students. We see this as a positive movement toward reconnecting social studies with its family and community roots.
3. Social studies is constantly being asked to teach students to value learning that the community at large does not appear to value. Educators have been beaten about the head by Ravitch and Finn (1987) since the late 1980s with the accusation that social studies students really do not know very much about the history of their country or the structures of their government. No particular evidence is available that their parents or their grandparents, or for that matter most citizens, are particularly knowledgeable about their country's history or their government structure. Although Finn, Ravitch, and select social science disciplinarians may deplore the lack of learning and remembering of history and social science content, that content does not seem to be valued by the community as a whole, nor can the school make that knowledge valuable as the core of citizenship education just by repeating it year after year.
Those who have made comparative studies between past and present performance on what students know suggest that "scores typically favor the now" (Bracey 1992, 107). The students who come to school ready, willing, and able seem to do as well or better than their predecessors. Of course, where schools are experiencing the greatest sense of alienation in the classroom is with those who are not prepared to take advantage of the school experience. This suggests that our society has a place for traditional schools as well as alternative schools. It is abundantly obvious that a single social studies classroom cannot meet the significantly different needs and interests of students. Perhaps it is time to revive the alternative school movement that just barely began to take root in the early 1970s only to be abandoned by the end of the decade.
4. Remove nonparticipating students from public school classrooms-not the slow learner, not the disadvantaged, not necessarily the discipline problem, but the flagrant nonparticipant. Nonparticipating students are really not that difficult to identify. They are students who are often absent, rarely attempt to complete assignments, sleep through class, or generally spend their time terrorizing the classroom. In short, the students who, if removed, would make it possible for the teacher to instruct the class once again. There must be some alternative institutions available-the traditional classroom that is terrorized by the few is not the proper place. Alternative settings must be found.
5. Address the values question honestly and forthrightly. Fear of protest or lawsuits or of teaching the wrong values have rendered the public schools morally impotent. Richard Pratte (1991) explains:
Schools can't change society by themselves. But they have a role to play in inculcating youngsters with a caring ethic. We have to create dispositions in students to be benevolent. It sounds corny, but it means we have to teach children that they are their brother's and sister's keepers.
Pratte's notion of inculcating youngsters is arguable, but it is somewhat important that our future citizens consider their values and beliefs just as we would want them to consider cause and effect and the consequence of their actions. We are not value free, we cannot be value free. Surely the curriculum materials we use are not value free. Surely the families, the culture, the community from which the students emerge are not value free. Thus, how can social studies, the course that examines the connections between self and the world, stand aloof from a consideration of those ideas that provide the basis for judgment.
Summary and Conclusion
Social studies is a field at risk, not because of the suggested America 2000 educational reforms that deny the existence of social studies, but because the field is slowly losing its reason to exist. The old arguments between content and methodology are tired and become irrelevant. Many students do not understand social studies at its best as much more than an impediment to graduation, and do not find any meaning or reason for the entire social studies curriculum at its worst.
We suggest that the field find its roots in family, community, and the school-hardly an original suggestion, but one that has tended to be ignored. Many a social studies program has become isolated from the only roots that can give it meaning. The practice of citizenship skills and attitudes are not to be left to chance but, rather, should be developed in a real and meaningful service to family, school, and community.
Bracey, Gerald W. "The Condition of Public Education." Phi Delta Kappan 74, no. 2 (October 1992): 104-17.Cuban, Larry. "Please, No More Facts: Just Better Teaching." Education Week (11 March 1992): 40.Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Bantam Books, 1953.Leo, John. "The Sorry State of Teachers." U.S. News and World Report (27 April 1992): 28.Pratte, Richard. "Land of the Free, Home of the Indifferent." Ohio State Quest (Spring 1991): 5.Ravitch, Diane, and Chester Finn, Jr. What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? New York: Harper and Row, 1987.Spencer, James M., and James L. Barth. "The Deconstruction of History in the Public School Classroom." Social Education 56 (January 1992): 53-54._____. "Standing on Uncommon Ground." Social Education 56 (March 1992): 143.Stevens, Linda J., and Marianne Price. "Meeting the Challenge of Educating Children at Risk." Phi Delta Kappan 74, no. 1 (September 1992): 18-23.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 in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, School of Education, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana 47907. James M. Spencer, the 1989-90 Purdue University Social Studies Master Teacher-in-Residence, teaches social studies at North Montgomery High School in Crawfordsville, Indiana 47933. Ronald Shepherd, the 1991-92 Purdue University Social Studies Master Teacher-in-Residence, is Social Studies Department Chair at Frankfort High School in Frankfort, Indiana 46041.