James Michener and the Historical Future of Social Studies

James P. Shaver

Novelist James Michener may well be the best-known public figure to have been a member of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). He began his teaching and educational career in 1929 as an English teacher, but he soon switched to teaching social studies. Michener taught in two private schools (at The George School in southeastern Pennsylvania, he participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association) and then studied in Europe.
In 1937, Michener accepted an appointment at College High School, the laboratory school for the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley. In 1939, he became a visiting instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where his associates included Wilbur Murra, the first full-time executive secretary of National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and Howard Wilson, an NCSS founder. Unwilling to pursue the Ph.D. that was a prerequisite to promotion, he returned to Greeley. In 1941, Michener left academia for a position with Macmillan Publishing Company. He later commented that "I have never ceased to regret my departure from teaching . . . [and] I think of my books as an extension of my early commitments; creative teaching expressed in a different way" (Michener 1970, 763).

A few months before going to Harvard, Michener became active in NCSS and, in January 1940, was appointed chair of its Publication Committee.1 Among his activities was the editing of an NCSS curriculum bulletin, The Future of the Social Studies, published in 1939. In an introductory chapter, Michener (1939/1991) discussed the status of social studies. Over fifty years later, his observations provide an interesting frame through which to contemplate the present and the likely future of social studies. Michener's assessment of the status of social studies in 1939 and the implications for its future should be considered in the context of the uncertainties of prognostication and the present status of the field.

Forecasting Social Studies
Caution in predicting the future of social studies will likely seem mandatory to anyone who took part in the then-exciting curriculum development movement of the 1960s and 1970s, still referred to somewhat charitably as the "New Social Studies." At the beginning of that period, I was a freshly minted doctor of education, trained as a curriculum developer on a citizenship education project aimed at helping students learn to analyze public issues (Oliver and Shaver 1966/1974). From that perspective, the social science projects that dominated the NSS movement (Fenton and Good 1965), with their acceptance of the structure-of-the-discipline approach laid out by Bruner (1960) in The Process of Education, were clearly wrongheaded (Shaver and Oliver 1968). By virtue of sheer numbers, however, the social science curricula produced by those projects seemed destined to dominate social studies in the schools. What seemed likely was a few islands of public-issues-oriented curricula awash in a sea of efforts to make all students into miniature social scientists.
As it turned out, the anticipation of a few islands of public-issues curricula was valid, if only marginally so; islets would have been a more fitting, if even then overstated, metaphor. However, the prediction of overwhelming influence by the structure-of-the-discipline, social science projects was also wrong. By the 1980s, there were few concrete vestiges of either type of project in the schools. The major residue of the New Social Studies has been periodic speculation about the possible impact of the movement on the textbooks that continue to dominate social studies instruction (Shaver 1992/93).

Few of the thousands of social studies classrooms across the country were touched fundamentally by the fuss and fury of educational reform, although the initiative and inventiveness of individual teachers has resulted in changes in practice here and there. Concurrently, the ubiquitous textbooks have displayed expanding barrages of color and eye-catching arrangements of print, but the conceptual changes have been minimal (Sewall 1988, 1992/93). Schooling now goes on largely as if the two decades of debate and development by social studies experts had not occurred (Cuban 1991; Shaver, Davis and Helburn 1980).

An apt metaphor for the impact of curricular innovations such as the New Social Studies is a pebble cast on a lake. The ripples spread, but most of the lake remains undisturbed. Soon the small wavelets run out and disappear, until another pebble is cast. Even if many pebbles are cast simultaneously, perhaps on a small section of the lake, with considerable surface disruption, longlasting or deep structural changes in the body of water do not occur.

Nevertheless, there is not complete uniformity in social studies curricula. For example, in a middle school in a small western, rural town, largely unaffected by even the university just fifteen miles away, a ninth grader whom I know well recently had two contrasting world geography courses. The first was much like what many students experienced years ago. Student work was almost exclusively reading the textbook and filling in maps and worksheets, while American troops were being sent to Somalia-an event that went unmentioned in class. The next term the ninth grader moved down the hall to another teacher. To her, world geography is a means of challenging students to understand and think about the problems facing our society, such as acid rain, AIDS, and the economic plight of nations like Somalia. Instruction was problem-centered, challenging, and interactive.

Such personal experiences of curricular contrast suggest that the conclusions drawn from a review of studies sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the late 1970s are still valid:

There has been great stability in the social studies curriculum.... Those who graduated from high school twenty years ago or more would, if they visited their local schools, typically find social studies classes to be similar to those they experienced. [Yet,] significant changes...have occurred in some districts...[and] there is also much diversity and variety in what goes on in social studies classrooms. (Shaver, Davis and Helburn 1980, 17)
In short, although great general change in the social studies curriculum has not occurred, there is variability that can be significant for the students who experience it.

Difficulties in Knowing
The prediction, as well as the description, of the status of social studies is complicated by difficulties in assaying what is happening in classrooms across the nation. That is not true of the status of thinking by what has been referred to as the social studies "intelligentsia" (Shaver 1981). The presentations and publications by university professors and curriculum specialists are readily accessible, but that information has little value for understanding what is actually happening in elementary and secondary-school classrooms (Leming 1989; Shaver 1981; Shaver, Davis, and Helburn 1980).
The impediments to knowing what is going on in most social studies classrooms are at least threefold. First, those who write about social studies are typically involved in trying to change educational practice. They have a personal stake in innovation, and that tends to make them optimistic about its potential. Hope affects perception; glowing accounts of changed school practices are often based on surface, temporary indicators, such as the enthusiastic participation of teachers during program development or during the first year or so of implementation. As the Rand studies (Berman and McLaughlin 1978) showed, however, the introduction and implementation of projects in schools are no guarantee of institutionalization.

Second, educational innovators usually collaborate with school staffs who share their views and are eager, or at least amenable, to change. Reformers' perceptions of change are, therefore, often based on invalid samples of teacher and classroom populations. Not only are small, unrepresentative samples of schools and teachers involved in the innovative projects, but as the NSF studies of the status of social science/social studies education indicated, other teachers remain largely unaware of the projects' conceptual or material products (Shaver, Davis and Helburn 1980, 5-6).

Third, we have no good method for detecting what actually goes on in the multitude of classrooms across the country. That it is largely not what we read about in professional publications and hear about in conferences was confirmed by the NSF-sponsored studies of status in the late 1970s, referred to earlier. That extensive, multi-faceted classroom assessment of social studies included an exhaustive review of the literature (Wiley 1977), a national survey of teachers and administrators (Weiss 1978), and intensive ethnographic studies of twelve high schools and their feeder schools across the country (Stake and Easley 1978). It is, however, the only such assay of social studies ever conducted. As Cuban (1991, 199) has lamented, data about classroom teaching are not available periodically and, because of costs, are not likely to be.

James Michener's Descriptions and
the Future
If knowing about social studies as implemented in schools is so difficult, it would be no surprise to find observational or futuristic shortcomings even in the writing of James Michener. In his introduction to the 1939 publication The Future of the Social Studies, Michener presented a positive appraisal of the field.
It was, Michener suggested, highly probable that there would be agreement on the major objectives for social studies stated the year before in a National Educational Association publication (Educational Policies Commission 1939). He also observed that "individual textbooks are reaching an unusually high standard of utility." Even though "practice still lags behind our knowledge," he noted, "the field of methods ... [is] fairly well organized," with "the principles of democratic classroom practice ... fairly well agreed upon." In regard to the "preparation of competent teachers," Michener thought that wide study was taking place and "those practices which promise to produce better teachers are rapidly spreading." Moreover, "in evaluation, there is a fairly clear understanding of desirable procedures" (31-32).

Michener summed up:

In fact, there is agreement as to what the [sic]2 social studies should accomplish. Usable materials are at hand; methods are being improved; teachers are being prepared to use the newer methods; and evaluation instruments have been perfected to test whether or not the whole process is efficient. (32)
Yet, paradoxically, in his optimistic appraisal of the status of social studies in 1939 and the implications for improved practice, Michener injected a note of reality that was prophetic: "If practice . . . lags behind accepted theory," the reason is that "for the questions of what to teach and when to teach it there are no clear answers" (32, italics in the original).

The quotes from Michener are not intended to impugn his credibility, but to make a point about the stability of the field of social studies. If Michener's piece had come from the computer of a social studies expert in 1995 over half a century later, it would not be criticized as an anachronism. Ironically, the writer would more likely be faulted for presenting an overly rosy appraisal of the present, for describing a status to be sought but not yet attained.

What, then, can be said about the future of social studies?

Future and History
Robert Heilbroner's (1960) book title, The Future as History, sets a particularly appropriate context for contemplating the future of social studies. Heilbroner did not mean to imply a deterministic perspective by his choice of title. That is, he was not suggesting that the future is irrevocably the past repeated. His point was, rather, that historical context must be taken into account in comprehending the present and in anticipating and shaping the future, in part because those who act today are not dissimilar from those who shaped the past. Contemplation of the past is essential if significant reconstruction of the future is to occur. In that context, analysis of another part of Michener's 1939 introduction to The Future of the Social Studies provides the basis for exploring a crucial element of that future.
Breaking Loose from the Past
Michener (1939/1991) listed six areas to which the "principal problems associated with the social studies" could be assigned. The areas constitute the following tasks to be carried out by educators:
(1) Decide upon the objectives for which the social studies will be taught. (2) Construct courses which will attain these objectives. (3) Select and arrange the necessary materials for use in these courses. (4) Determine what methods shall be used. (5) Prepare teachers to administer the courses thus established. (6) Evaluate the entire procedure. (31)
Aside from the artificial separation in the list of the interactive and interdependent activities of course construction, materials selection, and methods decisions, there is a glaring omission of a task crucial to whether the future of social studies will be more than its past: the development of a sound, shared rationale for the curriculum, the experiences to be provided students. The development of a rationale involves the explication, examination for validity and consistency, and coherent statement of the basic principles and beliefs that are to be used, or should be used, to structure the curriculum (Shaver 1977b). To be productive, efforts to attack the six problem areas proposed by Michener must be based on such a carefully constructed intellectual frame.

The significance of rationale development was not unaddressed in the 1930s as The Future of the Social Studies was being prepared. In 1934, in his classic, The Nature of the Social Sciences in Relation to Objectives of Instruction, Charles Beard (1934) had emphasized the "fundamental and inescapable" conclusion that every human has a frame of social reference, a "picture of arrangements deemed real, possible, and desirable," with "any formulation of objectives, selection of materials, or organization of knowledge . . . controlled fundamentally" by that frame. If that frame is not clarified and informed, Beard stressed, "then small, provincial, local, class, group, or personal prejudices" will determine the curricular choices that must inevitably be made (181, 183). John Dewey (1938/1964), too, had emphasized the importance of "a well-thought-out philosophy," so that educational practices would not be "under the control of customs and traditions that have not been examined or in response to immediate social pressures" (17).

The purpose here again is not to be critical of Michener, but to highlight the future as history in social studies. Lack of emphasis on the conscious explication and examination of beliefs and assumptions and their curricular implications, and lack of "thought about purpose and about the ways in which technique, content, and organization fulfill or alter purpose" (Silberman 1970, 379), continue to characterize social studies education, as they do other educational areas. The lack of such critical introspection in social studies has resulted in textbook-based curricula that frequently lack relevance to the commonly stated aim of citizenship education

(Engle, forthcoming; Shaver 1977a).

Given the tendency to teach as one has been taught, can the textbook-recitation pattern be broken in social studies? Teachers operate within many social and institutional constraints, including the traditional content and instructional expectations of parents, students, other teachers, and principals. But, as noted earlier, there are ample instances of teachers who break from the mold and make social studies relevant and exciting.

Significant, broad change in social studies curricula will come with teachers' awareness and analysis of assumptions that influence their instruction. For that reason, the limited attention in most teacher education programs to the examination of questions of "Why?", with the emphasis instead on "What?" and "How?", is a serious concern. As with Michener's statement of six "principal problems" of social studies, teacher education is too often focused on the practical matters of stating objectives, preparing lesson plans, and using textbooks and conducting discussions, and with the review of new materials and programs. The critical examination of basic assumptions and the development of explicit, sound teaching rationales are too often neglected.

What, then, are the prospects for the future of social studies? Given the difficulties that individuals and institutions have in breaking from their pasts, a Larry Cuban writing fifty years hence will probably conclude that the history of social studies teaching is still a tale of "constancy and change," with more stability than change (Cuban 1991, 199, 204).
Given the difficulties in schooling prognostication discussed earlier, that prediction must be made with some trepidation. What, you might ask, of the technological age in which we are immersed? Surely, computer technology will revolutionize the teaching of social studies within a few years. Going out on a prognostic limb, I propose that it will not.

Futurists typically envision a markedly different world just around the corner. Technological innovation, however, seems often to pass schools by or to have little influence. The Model-T Ford to jet aircraft symbolization of change is not applicable to the classroom; in social studies, the recitation of today is often not very different from that of several decades ago (Cuban 1991, 204-205). The advent of television was not only going to have an impact on society and family, but radically change instruction in schools. The first occurred-witness the quick-ad, splash nature of presidential campaigns, the instant audio-visual contact with world events that made the Vietnam and Gulf Wars household experiences, and the replacement of reading with viewing. Television became a force to be considered as a context for schooling (Splaine 1991), but has had little direct influence on the conduct of classroom instruction.

The same factors that restricted television use will limit the classroom impacts of computer technology: lack of hardware; inadequate quality and quantity of programming; the difficulty, without careful consideration by programmers, of how and where their products might fit, in integrating programming into the curriculum. Perhaps most important, as was the case with most of the New Social Studies projects of the 1960s and 1970s and with educational television, the funding will not be available to develop products for classroom use that can compete successfully for students' attention with those from the private entertainment enterprise. The brightest, most creative talent will continue to be drawn to business and entertainment by the personal financial opportunities and by the availability of capital for risky product development and for creatively satisfying products. Similarly, as with educational materials in the past, persons with innovative programming concepts to stir students' imaginations will find it difficult to locate producers.

Computer technology will likely be at the periphery of social studies instruction, as perhaps it should in a curriculum area oriented to the social.3 Moreover, market forces, real and imagined, will keep the textbook genre in its powerful position. Publishers will argue that innovative products will not sell (and given the orientation of many teachers and pinched local budgets, there will be truth to that claim); university educators will lament the lack of innovative products; and most teachers will continue to use textbook-recitation instruction, along with the relatively unimaginative and dated technological products that will be available to them. University professors, curriculum specialists, and a few teachers will continue to make presentations on innovative curricula at conferences such as the annual National Council for the Social Studies conference, but still with little more effect than that of the New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s.

In brief, Michener's appraisal in 1939 will continue to be a more optimistic foreshadowing of the future of social studies than its history suggests. At the same time, at the classroom level, many individual teachers will continue to provide students with the challenging, socially relevant experiences envisioned in the social studies curriculum standards recently released by NCSS (1994). Despite the systemic intransigence of American schooling, the National Council for the Social Studies can, through the support it provides to teachers, do much to ensure that for many students the future of social studies will be dramatically different from its past.

1Details of Michener's career come from Michener (1970), Galvez (1991), and two items by Wilbur Murra: a memo, "Michener and the NCSS," November 14, 1994, and "A Memoir: The NCSS and the Michener Connection," prepared for the NCSS Foundations of Social Studies Special Interest Group meeting in Phoenix, November 19, 1994.

2Sic is inserted to indicate a common, but questionable, appellation-"the social studies"-and to remind readers of the basic curricular issue it implies. Is the proper designation "the social studies," indicating a collection of individual subjects; or is it "social studies" (as in, as an alternative to Michener's terminology, "there is agreement as to what social studies should accomplish"), to indicate a curricular area that has, or should have, some central structuring purpose, such as citizenship education?

3As Neil Postman has observed, schooling is about "teaching children how to behave in groups ... to turn narcissistic children into a public," tasks that may not be feasible through technology. Quoted in "The Future of Technology in Education Challenged at EDUCOM '93," EDUCOM Update, November/December 1993, 1. ReferencesBeard, Charles A. The Nature of the Social Sciences in Relation to Objectives of Instruction. New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 193

4.Berman, Paul, and Milbrey W. McLaughlin. Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. VIII: Implementing and Sustaining Innovations. Report to the U.S. Office of Education. Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation, 1978.Bruner, Jerome S. The Process of Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.Cuban, Larry. "History of Teaching in Social Studies." In Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, edited by James P. Shaver. New York: Macmillan, 1991. Dewey, John. "The Relation of Science and Philosophy as a Basis for Education." In John Dewey on Education: Selected Writings, edited by Reginald D. Archambault. New York: Random House, 1964. (Original work published 1938)Educational Policies Commission. Purposes of Education in American Democracy. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1939.Engle, Shirley H., and David W. Saxe. "Foreword." In Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, edited by Ronald W. Evans and David W. Saxe. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, forthcoming.Fenton, Edwin, and John M. Good. "Project Social Studies: A Progress Report." Social Education 29 (1965): 206-208.Galvez, Cleta M. "Michener's Early Work: The Foundation Years." In James A. Michener on the Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1991.Heilbroner, Robert L. The Future as History. New York: Grove Press, 1960.Leming, James S. "The Two Cultures of Social Studies Education." Social Education 53 (1989): 404-408.Michener, James A. "The Mature Social Studies Teacher." Social Education 34 (1970): 760-767Michener, James A. "The Problem of the Social Studies." In The Future of the Social Studies, Curriculum Series, No. 1, 1939, edited by James A. Michener. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies. Reprinted in James A. Michener on the Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1991.National Council for the Social Studies. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994.Oliver, Donald W., and James P. Shaver. Teaching Public Issues in the High School. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1974. (original work published in 1966)Sewall, Gilbert T. "American History Textbooks: Where Do We Go From Here?" Phi Delta Kappan 69 (1988): 552-558. Sewall, Gilbert T. "Social Studies Textbooks in the 1990s." Publishing Research Quarterly 8 (1992/93): 6-11.Shaver, James P. "A Critical View of the Social Studies Profession." Social Education 41 (1977a): 300-307.Shaver, James P. "The Task of Rationale-building for Citizenship Education." In Building Rationales for Citizenship Education, edited by James P. Shaver. Arlington, Va.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1977b.Shaver, James P. "Citizenship, Values, and Morality in the Social Studies." In The Social Studies. Eightieth yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part II, edited by Howard D. Mehlinger and O. L. Davis. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.Shaver, James P. "The New Social Studies, Textbooks, and Reform in Social Studies." Publishing Research Quarterly 8 (1992/93): 23-32.Shaver, James P., O. L. Davis, Jr., and Suzanne W. Helburn. "An Interpretive Report on the Status of Precollege Social Studies Education Based on Three NSF-Funded Studies." In What are the Needs in Precollege Science, Mathematics, and Social Science Education? Views from the Field. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1980.Shaver, James P., and Donald W. Oliver. "The Structure of the Social Sciences and Citizenship Education." In Democracy, Pluralism, and the Social Studies: Readings and Commentary, edited by James P. Shaver and Harold Berlak. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.Silberman, Charles E. Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education. New York: Random House, 1970.Splaine, John E. "The Mass Media as an Influence on Social Studies." In Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, edited by James P. Shaver. New York: Macmillan, 1991.Stake, Robert E., and Jack A. Easley. Case Studies in Science Education. Urbana-Champaign, Ill.: Center for Instructional Research and Curriculum Evaluation and Committee on Culture and Cognition, University of Illinois, 1978.Weiss, Iris R. Report of the 1977 National Survey of Science, Mathematics, and Social Studies Education. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: 1978.Wiley, Karen B. The Status of Pre-College Science, Mathematics, and Social Science Education: 1955-1975. Volume III: Social Science Education. Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Education Consortium, 1977.

James P. Shaver is Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Professor of Secondary Education at Utah State University. He is the author of numerous publications, and was the editor of the Handbook on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (1991).