Social Education 59(4), 1995, pp. 208-210
National Council for the Social Studies
Social studies emanated from a need to deal with the ever-increasing social changes that affect our lives (Barth 1988/89). It focuses on the study of our social circumstances, behavior, values, and interrelationships in the context of change. In the course of its development as a movement for citizenship education, social studies has been affected by political currents. These are not always fully discussed in the literature on social studies. For example, a number of works have recently explored the background of the social studies educational reform movement. These studies have focused on the development of the social sciences, and the impact of the ideas and influences of leading educational figures. (See, e.g., Dougan 1988/89; Shermis 1989; Jenness 1990; Brady 1993) While the studies make clear the importance of the socio-political forces in evidence at the time when social studies became an educational reality in 1913-1916, more attention should be given to the socio-political forces that paralleled the development of social sciences in its earlier gestation period.
Populism, Progressivism and Social Studies
The origins of social studies lead back to the late nineteenth century, when the major national problem was accomplishing the change from an agrarian to an industrial and increasingly urban society. The centers of economic and political power of the time could not be expected to favor an informed and active citizenry engaging in close public scrutiny of their activities, especially in the conditions of political corruption that then prevailed. As a movement for citizenship education that sought to ensure that the population was informed and active about civic and political issues, the social studies movement thus had affinities with political movements opposed to the status quo.
There was a particularly strong affinity between some of the founders of the social studies movement and Populism. The Populism of the 1880s and early 1890s posed questions about the structure of American democracy as the nation's industrialization reached new heights. The Populist questions challenged the vision of democracy developed by corporations and banking institutions. The Populists believed that the only force capable of standing up to the organized money of the corporate state, of insisting on and seeking to operate a democracy, was a democratic mass movement (Goodwyn 1978). Populism focused on the practical demands of defining "freedom," "democracy," "citizenship," and "equitable sharing of social burdens." It sought the development of a democratic mass movement based upon political self-respect, upon education that promoted alternative ideas, and upon cooperation. Social criticism at the end of the nineteenth century was espoused by persons claiming to act as the democratic conscience, who made regular appeals to Americans to reflect upon their responsibilities as citizens (Nelson 1994, 12). It is difficult for many in the contemporary world to imagine the depth of feeling and conviction associated with Populism at that time.
The 1890s were a turning point for the Populists. Between 1887 and 1892, banks and corporations effectively neutralized the Populist promotion of cooperatives, and producer control of the economic system as well as the market place. The success of the Democratic and Republican parties in turning back the Populists ensured the acceptance of the corporate state as the model of what democracy was to be in the twentieth century.
When social studies was incorporated into the educational system, it was toward the end of the Progressive Era, during the Wilson Administration. Progressivism was another trend of the period, which, like Populism, was concerned with making government more democratic and responsive (Nye 1959). Unlike Populism, Progressivism was a "good government" civic reform movement rather than a mass movement for change. Progressivism wished the rule of the majority "to be expressed in a stronger government, one with a broader social and economic program and one more responsive to popular controquot; (Nye 1959, 183). Progressives targeted the big city boss and, through him, the party machine of which he was the central cog. The party machine, in its own way, embodied a corporate view of politics. The boss system situated a talented but often socially unsavory individual at the center of a web of illegal, unethical, shadowy, or questionable reciprocal relationships with financial institutions, corporations, utilities, gambling, liquor, and prostitution.
In contrast to the Populist leadership, which consisted of active common citizens, often of low social origin, the Progressive leaders were middle-class professionals. Primarily, they were writers, journalists, and "academic, well schooled, urbane young attorneys, not crusaders but efficiency experts" (Nye 1959, 181). From industrial urban Victorianism, the Progressives adopted the view of mankind as basically wicked but capable of good if properly restrained and educated. The Progressive middle-class reformers, intimately connected to the industrial system, sought to regulate, repair, and perfect government and society. The result was a social-based civic reform movement well designed to attack social issues but ill designed and, indeed, unwilling to question, much less attack, the deep political and economic questions of justice, fundamental fairness, or equity that were the core issues for the Populists.
According to Nye, Populism sought to reinvent democratic government so that it could address the political and social impact of industrialization through the development of mass democratic movements, while
...Progressivism sought to optimize the operation of democracy within the accepted confines of the corporate state through technical expertise and interest group politics. While Populism sought to address issues related to the deep structure of democracy, Progressivism sought to address issues centered on the effective and efficient operation of the corporate industrial democratic state. It is from the core ideas of these two movements that social studies was to emerge as a movement for the reform of citizenship education. (1959, 13)
While social studies was born into a world dominated by Progressives after the turn of the century, the Populist tradition was the womb within which social studies gestated.
Because of the influence of politics on decisions about programs of study in public schools, social studies has been affected by the rise and fall of ideological and political trends. In 1892, as Populism had begun to diminish in importance, eminent historians of the period met at the Madison Conference and formalized history as the discipline that would dominate citizenship education in the emerging secondary schools. Saxe (1991), in his discussion of the Madison Conference, points out the tension displayed between ideas reflecting the Populist Democratic Dream and those reflecting the Progressive Ideal. The Populist Democratic Dream was a perspective endorsing open criticism of existing society, which would later be endorsed by the social critics, by John Dewey, and by social studies insurgents such as Albert Bushnell Hart and James Harvey Robinson, who were among the founders of the social studies. Saxe (1991, 42) describes the Populist Democratic Dream as "The antithesis of the program devised by the Madison Conference and the later Committee of Seven [which also endorsed a history-dominated curriculum]." In contrast to the Populist Democratic Dream, as Saxe points out, the Progressive Ideal addressed social issues in such a manner that "the outward appearance of society may be altered for the better, but the underlying institutions that support it remain unchanged" (Saxe 1991, 41-42). As a historian and university educator, as well as a conference participant, Woodrow Wilson, later to become the last Progressive President of the United States, was quite comfortable with this latter perspective. A history-centered curriculum blended well with his Progressive world view, because it would focus citizenship education on the heritage of the past rather than the burning issues of the present.
The decline of Populism, and the corresponding weakening of its ability to influence the citizenship education programs of public schools, was reflected in the final Madison Report of April 1, 1893. However, a Populist approach persisted in the field of social studies. As educational thought developed, especially after John Dewey's challenge to established beliefs about education with the publication of How We Think in 1909, advocates of a Populist approach to social studies continued to press their case. Their influence can be seen in the important and influential 1916 report by the Social Studies Committee, which affirmed the idea that "the good citizen and social efficiency" were the ultimate goal of social studies education.
Saxe uses a freedom/conformity continuum to address the tension between the Progressive Ideal and the Populist Democratic Dream. This may be misleading. A continuum suggests shades of difference within an established commonality. But the Progressive Ideal and the Populist Democratic Dream represent strikingly different cultural perspectives. A substantial difference exists between the Populist call for an inquiry about the quality of life and the Progressive analysis of the nature of human interactions within an industrial society. The former incorporates Dewey's concept of participatory citizenship and democratic community building. The latter reflects a world outlook based on social commentary, interest group politics, and systems maintenance. Of the two, the Progressive trend has exerted a more important influence on society and politics today.
Populism and Progressivism in Social Studies Today
The Populist Democratic Dream continues to be reflected in the social studies in such questions as, "How do we in a technological society empower American citizens to make effective, critical decisions?" and "How do American citizens learn to control their lives when they are in a constant state of change?" Perhaps its most dramatic contemporary emergence was in Hunt and Metcalf's (1968) concept of closed areas-social realities and issues whose discussion is taboo or discouraged because they challenge "official versions" of the truth. According to Hunt and Metcalf, education about these social realities is one of the core functions of social studies. The Populist influence emerged again in an admittedly weaker and more compromised form as a product of the new social studies just prior to the advent of the 1970's, and was the foundation of Oliver and Shaver's (1966; 1971) jurisprudential social studies, which promoted reflective inquiry into issues of social justice.
Hunt and Metcalf (1968: 48) have noted that "Education has been defined by John Dewey and others as the reconstruction of experience." By extension, social studies is a reconstruction of our democratic experience, and the wish to redefine and reconstruct democracy to meet the challenges of a new context may be more closely related to the Populist Democratic Dream rather than to the Progressive Ideal. Though social studies is supported by both Progressive and Populist ideas, the Populist Democratic Dream continues in the vision that many teachers have for building a citizenship education program for the twenty-first century.
If we, the citizens of the United States, agree with Thomas Jefferson that the only safe repository for the ultimate power is the people, we must find ways to reestablish the Republic of the people, by the people, and for the people. The current situation of government by the interest groups for the interest groups, in which discussions of the next Presidential election focus more on campaign funding than the ideas of candidates, demands closer scrutiny by the social studies. If we in social studies still believe in the democratic dream, we might consider rejuvenating Shirley Engle's argument emphasizing the quality of decision-making as a vital focus. A renewed commitment to mass education for an informed and active citizenry would revive the spirit of Populism in the social studies.
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