What U.S. Political History Reveals for Social Studies Education

Randy K. Mills

The major themes found in the story of the political history of the United States should constitute a primary guide in shaping social studies education. Social studies educators must relate this story so students may see what ideas have shaped and continue to shape what responsible citizens do. Leming has argued that it is through the study of U.S. history that students are able to develop social theory ideas that shape their civic behavior: "These social theory statements are used in turn to evaluate the extent to which current policy, leaders, and self measure up to democratic ideas" (1990, 279). Leming's notion suggests a dialectic process, i.e., the story of our political history conveys to a citizen a theoretical understanding of responsible civic behavior, and the citizen's actions, which are rooted in this theoretic understanding, in turn shape the ongoing political story.
Because historians have often disagreed about the meaning of most episodes in our political history, any attempt to examine and explain the historical political dynamics of our culture-with all of its ironies and paradoxes-is immediately fraught with difficulty. However, despite the difficulty, our political history may provide some structure that can help guide social studies research and, particularly, social studies instruction. Specifically, the American political story reveals three major themes: (1) tolerating conflicts between opposing values and beliefs, (2) creating structures to resolve those conflicts, and (3) accommodating conflicts through tolerance and compromise.

Tolerating Conflicts
A review of social science literature regarding American political culture indicates that conflict between opposing values and beliefs resolved in ways in which neither side totally wins or loses is one of the essential themes of American political history. From more than two dozen studies of American political culture, Wilson discovered that all concur on four basic political ideas Americans share and value. They are (1) liberty, (2) individualism or personal freedom, (3) equality, and (4) social justice (Wilson 1983). However, Wilson also related the contradictory nature of these beliefs. Wilson noted, for example, that
Equality of opportunity seems an attractive idea, but sometimes it can be pursued only by curtailing personal liberty, another attractive idea. The states went to war in 1861 over one aspect of that conflict-the rights of slaves versus the liberties of slave owners. (1983, 74)
Tocqueville (1980) may have been the first to see and articulate this paradox in detail, for he noted how democracies contradictorily value both liberty and equality, both personal freedom and social justice.

Order and Change
Another parallel notion of this paradoxical conflict in American politics is found in sociology. Specifically, sociologists have pointed out that order versus change is one of the primary conflicts in any society (Denisoff and Wahrman 1979; Eshleman and Cashion 1985; Rose, Glazer, and Glazer 1982; Mendoza and Napoli 1982). This conflict between order and change is especially intense in a democracy where those groups who have less power are not only tolerated and protected but also have available to them the potential means to change the status quo.
Significantly, this sociological notion that conflicts exist in a society between those who seek order and those who seek change parallels the political conflict Wilson and others have noted between an emphasis on liberty and personal freedom, on one hand, and an emphasis on equality and social justice, on the other. Specifically, in a democratic culture, over time, those who have sought liberty and personal freedom will often become successful economically and politically. Once they have achieved a higher status, they may then conversely seek to maintain a more closed economic, social, and political system to protect their status and power. Consequently, these people may come to a point where they support a political policy that maintains order at the expense of those who have not achieved high status. Conversely, those who are not of high status and want more political and economic power tend to support policies that bring about equality and social justice, i.e., policies producing change.

Political scientists also echo this important theme. Bluhm (1984), for example, examined eight political ideas and found them all rife with the tension of order versus change. Political scientists also point out that, as Aristotle noted, humans are by nature political animals. Political scientists believe that this nature springs from necessity. Furthermore, as Ebenstein, Mann, Pritchett, and Turner (1976, 6) explained, political questions ultimately revolve around the problem of the distribution of power:

Power in any society or political system may be centralized-that is, it may be held by a small elite-or it may be shared by a plurality of groups. With respect to the analysis of power in the United States, two main approaches or interpretations have been advanced: the pluralist and the elitist.

Elitism and Pluralism
The sociologist C. Wright Mills (1958), perhaps more than any other, has argued that elitism is at the core of our social, economic, and political culture. He specifically suggests that the United States is ruled by a small group of men who formulate nearly all the nation's policy but are not well known to the general public. Another sociologist, William Domhoff (1978), refined this elitist model, arguing that the governing class in U.S. culture makes up less than one-half of 1 percent of the population.
Dye and Zeigler (1984, 4), in an overview of how political conflict is resolved in our culture, argued that both elitism and pluralism are important parts of the democratic process, but that elitism is somewhat at the core:

Democracy is government "by the people" but the survival of democracy rests on the shoulders of elites. This is the irony of democracy: elites must govern wisely if government by the people is to survive.
Although elitism has been recognized as existing in our political culture, as well as supported by some arguments, most historians and political scientists view pluralism as the most representative form of what our political system is and should be. Pluralism is the notion that democratic ideas can best be served in a system of multiple, competing groups that determine public policy through a process of bargaining and compromise. In this process voters make choices in elections that may help them gain access to power (Ebenstein et al. 1976).

History, political science and sociology all support the idea that some degree of conflict of values is inherent in our political culture, and that elitism and pluralism are the poles of this conflict. History futher reveals, however, that this conflict is not to be feared, and may even be unresolvable. Social studies teachers can help students to address the tensions between these values. Our history also tells of the creation of functional structures and institutions that can resolve these pressing problems, at least at some level. This leads to another important theme of our political history that can be communicated through social studies: the resolution of conflict through the establishment and growth of political institutions.

Creating Structures
Political scientific and sociological research clearly indicates the existence of a profound degree of conflict in our democratic culture. But the story of our political culture is also one of the establishment and evolution of important institutions that help to resolve the powerful tensions present in our society. The Constitution, for example, with its checks and balances, provided a framework both for preventing the excessive concentration of power and offering peaceful channels for legal redress in the case of violations of rights. Further, political freedom, and the right to create political organizations, offered opportunities for the non-violent assertion of rights and claims that were not addressed directly in the Constitution.

The Constitution of the United States
The Constitution provides us with an exemplar of this theme. The Framers created a blueprint for government that has enabled the many conflicting forces found in our political culture to come together as a nation. The Constitution itself did not completely resolve the tensions created by the paradoxical needs of this democratic society, but it did create an adequate structure for responding to these conflicting needs. Furthermore, the new structure was flexible enough to allow for change. Historically, then, the system has usually worked to one degree or another because "everyone got a piece of the cake" (Roche 1969, 200) and differing opinions of others have been tolerated.
Significantly, the key to resolving conflictual problems within the Constitution was, according to Roche (1969), accommodation. Roche goes into some detail, demonstrating this when discussing the issue of electing the president, an issue that has strong elitist versus pluralist overtones. Roche's interpretation indicates that, although proponents of each position had strong feelings, they were nevertheless able to accommodate, accept, and incorporate, to some workable degree, the opposition's ideas as well.

Formation of Political Parties
Although the Constitution created a structure for relatively peaceful resolution between conflicting forces, the continuing drama of how this resolution played out after the inception of the Constitution is found in the story of the formation of political parties. Chambers (1967, 21-22) believed, for example: "In the process of party building, American founders confronted and effectively solved a long series of political problems."
Beard (1967) viewed the conflict that developed after the Convention along economic lines-the elite merchant class versus the "inland farmers, debtors and less prosperous sections of the country" (5). According to Beard, Alexander Hamilton's policies drew a firm line between these two groups and led to the formation of political parties. The significant point for social studies education is that, like the Constitution, the formation of political parties created a structure for relatively peaceful resolutions of tensions between opposing positions. Goodman said of this structure:

The United States is the oldest republic in the world because an earlier generation, unwilling to accept the conventional wisdom of the day which held that no large, diverse republic could long survive, formulated fresh ideas and invented new institutions to overcome the obstacles that threatened the success of republican government. None of these innovations was more important than the political parties; through them a numerous and heterogeneous people, scattered across a huge continent, governed themselves by resolving differences peacefully and adjusting to the forces of change in an orderly, democratic manner. (1967, 6)

Accommodating Conflicts
A review of our political history also indicates that, in most historical episodes, ways were found to accommodate both sides of the political spectrum. Significantly, this part of the political process implies two other essential ideas: compromise and tolerance. Specifically, each proponent may get part of what he or she promotes, but each must be willing to tolerate what the opponents gained. Mendoza and Napoli (1986, 557-58) sum up the historical tendency of our political leaders, both elitist and pluralists, to work together by pointing out the historical similarities between political liberals and conservatives in this country, noting:

Despite the structure for change found in the U.S. Constitution-and despite the potential for political resolution contained in the structure of political parties-relatively peaceful resolution has not always happened. The Civil War is a case in point.

Well over half a million men had to die on the battlefields of the Civil War before certain constitutional principles could be defined-a baleful consideration which is somehow overlooked in our customary tributes to the farsighted genius of the Framers and to the supposed American talent for "constitutionalism." (Roche 1969, 211)
Irony abounds in this most paradoxical episode of our political history, where one group (the South) fought for freedom and liberty but at the expense of another group (slaves). More ironic still, the primary spokesman for stopping the southern states from leaving the union alludes to the Declaration, a document of rebellion, to justify the war against the rebellious South (Wills 1978). But Lincoln seemed to understand the paradoxical heart of this dilemma when he posed this question: "Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its own people or too weak to maintain its own existence?" Ironically, no leader was more hard pressed than the Confederate President who advocated a strong central government in order to win a war for the right to a weak central government. Agreeing with Lincoln's sense of the conflict, most historians see the Civil War as finally resolving the tension that existed between those for states' rights and those for a strong central government.

Social Studies Instruction
The story of American political history is ongoing. To some extent tensions are never completely resolved. Because of shrinking economic opportunities and the ongoing technological and demographic changes, the tensions that political thinkers of our past have noted are perhaps even more intense today than at any other historical time. In that case, the goal of social studies education-to teach an understanding of the paradoxical nature of American political culture-may be more important than ever.
The story of American political history indicated that social studies education has the paradoxical task of teaching both order and change. Ironically, proponents in social studies for both these conflictual positions see the telling of and discussion about the story of our history as being essential to the teaching of citizenship (Mills 1994). The socialist Gramsci and the more recent conservative supporters of the revival of history-Ravitch, Cheny, and Finn-come to mind in this regard. But the irony of both liberals and conservatives emphasizing history dissipates when one considers that the story of history has the property to convey several ideas at once. Robertson (1980, 14) refers to this property of history as myth and said that while conveying opposing ideas within the same story from history may not be logical, it is nevertheless necessary in instructing students about living in social settings.

It is a function of myths, in any society, that they can-and do-by their juxtaposition of images and metaphors and ideals make logic out of the rationally illogical. They provide, thereby, a tension that seems necessary to human thought and necessary, too, to maintain dynamic human societies. Myths carry with them the implication that they have resolved the paradoxes and contradictions they contain.
An examination of American political history suggested that responsible citizens in a democracy must hold political values that are often conflicting in nature. It falls then to social studies educators to successfully teach about these paradoxical political values.

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Randy K. Mills is Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana.