©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Toward a Humane World: Making a Difference with Social Studies


Tedd Levy

For a classroom teacher to have this size of audience, with so many paying attention, is an awe-inspiring experience. But I will understand if you leave your seat, call out, or walk around. If you wish to go to the lavatories, please do so without raising your hand.

Since this is a new, one-time experience, I want to say first that I feel privileged to be here and honored to share some small association with truly outstanding social studies educators who have preceded me as NCSS presidents. Several are here to introduce speakers and I would like them to stand as their names are called: Don Schneider, Jean Craven, Bob Stahl, Todd Clark, Margit Maguire, Charlotte Anderson, Mary McFarland, Fred Risinger, Don Bragaw, James Banks, and Ted Kaltsounis.

I would also like to recognize immediate past presidents Pat Nickell and Rich Diem, who helped show the way, and president-elect Rick Theisen and vice president Susan Adler, who will follow.

I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to recognize a few people who have contributed to my professional career: First, I want to acknowledge and thank my wife Carol, who has always encouraged and supported my efforts, has tolerated late nights and lost weekends, and has always made the most important difference in my life. Thanks, too, to:

Special thanks, too, to my colleagues in the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies for tolerating and motivating what, in retrospect, had to be an insufferable aging adolescent.

I invite you to recognize and thank—in some way—your teachers, too.

How many of you are classroom teachers? How many are attending their first professional social studies conference?

Well, many of us share some common experiences as teachers. We know, for example, that the day after Halloween is not good for calm reflective thinking. We know that new students come from schools where nothing was taught. Good students move away.

We know that parents called to school to discuss their child’s profanity invariably swear, too—just as parents who are called to school for their child’s excessive tardiness are always late.

We know that the classroom clock is never right. The public address system always interrupts when you are about to make a key point. And fire drills usually occur during tests.

We know that student knowledge is not always what we would like it to be.

You have come to this conference, I gather, to connect with like-minded professionals, see new materials, and learn new ideas and classroom activities. You have done this because you want to improve the education of young people. And I would like to suggest that our overall purpose is to help young people make competent and caring decisions for the common good.

As Henry Ford observed: “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.” You have made a beginning. I’m sure over the next few days you’ll make progress. And success will come upon your return.

This morning, I plan to talk about the world and its people, as well as public education, social studies, and teachers.

First, the world today. As this century draws to a close, a quick review reveals that we have had to adjust to the effects of two world wars and many smaller ones, a devastating depression, genocide, the end of colonialism, the revival of national and ethnic identities, the re-emergence of religious fundamentalism, the concentration of economic power, and persisting inequities.

We have witnessed the defeat of fascism; the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union; the rise of China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian nations; the concern for environmental and population issues; the dramatic introduction of scientific and technological advances; and, in an increasingly interdependent world, the uneven but undeniable spread of democracy.

In our own country, while many have enjoyed great material abundance, we have seen poverty, drugs, crime and violence, and shifting social values that have strained personal relations and the family structure, and altered political attitudes and institutions. There has also been a continuing concern with civil and human rights. Many, regrettably, continue to live, as Thoreau observed, “lives of quiet desperation.”

For many, the material quality of life has improved but the social quality of our lives remains strained. In large number, we remain ignorant, poor, prejudiced, selfish, alienated, or apathetic. And these ills of adults are suffered most by their children. As educators we have a daunting task, little appreciated by our critics.

At the same time, in the midst of this ever present disruption and destruction, a global society has truly emerged offering scientific and technological advances that require interdependence and promote the opportunity of a better life for all. “It is the first civilization,” Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, observed, “that spans the entire globe and binds together all societies, submitting them to a common global destiny.”

For many of the world’s people, whose liberties are more an aspiration than a reality, this destiny is best measured by progress in human rights. But there are signs of hope. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in December 1948, 50 years ago, much progress has been made.

Developed by more than 50 governments and hundreds of organizations in an effort headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the Declaration states simply: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” During these 50 years, thousands of organizations devoted to protecting individual and group rights have emerged. Although not legally binding, the Universal Declaration has become the customary law of nations, cited in court decisions, written into constitutions, and used to guide foreign policy and international agreements. “Today,” says U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “those principles which have become the yardstick for measuring the degree of progress of societies are known and recognized by all the inhabitants of the globe.”

In seeking to focus attention on this year’s NCSS conference theme, “Toward a Humane World: Making a Difference with Social Studies,” we asked several NCSS members which 20th century person best exemplifies the spirit of making this a humane world, and how can social studies educators make a difference in creating a more humane world? Who, in your opinion, is the 20th century person who best exemplifies the spirit of making this a more humane world?

Among the most frequently suggested individuals were Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Many noted their commitment to others and their belief in nonviolence.

Several others were also suggested—Eleanor Roosevelt, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Winston Churchill, Dag Hammarskjöld, Robert Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, to name a few—and some common traits seem to emerge.

To be humane, whatever our loyalties or national, racial, religious, or ethnic background, is to recognize the worth of human life. Whatever our distance from others—geographic, economic, politica#151;we are bound by common human abilities and challenges. The most humane men and women have a vision that cuts across barriers. They have compassion for their fellow human beings, firm beliefs, and the courage to champion a larger cause. They inspire the best in human beings and they are great teachers.


What Is Our Challenge? How Do We Promote a More Humane World?

This information age, with its technically competent people, does not automatically produce citizens who think critically or value liberty and justice. It does not guarantee any concern for the common good or offer respect for the humanity and diversity of others. Throughout history, from the bronze age to the industrial age, and through the atomic age, space age, and information age, scientific and technological advances have brought as much grief as goodness. They have never guaranteed “the good life.” And in the 21st century, even though science and technology will be vastly different, we won’t be. So our task of educating competent and caring thinkers remains and takes on renewed urgency.

With travel, technology, and other ways of reaching people around the world, we need to encourage students to:

Ultimately, the type of education we provide will shape the type of society we will have. As Gary Fenstermacher says:


Citizenship education is, as some have called it, the phantom of the curriculum. Where does this leave us, the social studies educators in the nation’s schools?

There can be no doubt that over the last decade or two, teachers have had to work with students who have changed. Schools today face a flood of social problems plaguing children: teenage pregnancy, adolescent drug and alcohol abuse, juvenile crime, violence, disruptive families, and poverty. Where we once taught basic skills, we are now often called on to meet children’s basic needs.

It is easy to conclude that the problems most children face start, or are found, outside the school rather than inside; on the street rather than on the playground; in the living room rather than the classroom. The problems that plague schools, especially city schools, are deeply rooted in poverty, unemployment, crime, racism, and human despair. Too often, teachers and administrators are asked to solve problems that the public and its leaders in statehouses and city halls have lacked the will and courage to tackle.

A writer for the Kettering Foundation, an organization that has long supported public education, recently explained that it might be helpful to think of the public schools as the canaries of public life.2 You remember the old story: if you are in a mine, and the canary in the cage next to you stops singing, it is an early alarm that the air is poisoned.

When public life in a community is weak, the first place that weakness is likely to show up is in the public school system. And you cannot improve public schools by abandoning them for private ones. Public life is critical and yet as inconspicuous as the air we breathe. It would not be wise to spend a lot of time performing throat surgery on the canary. The problem is much bigger than the canary, and you won’t be able to help the bird until you fix the much bigger problem. Similarly, we may not be able to have the schools we want until we have the kinds of communities we need.

For all their faults, schools seem destined to become social service centers that offer parenting classes, family counseling, and medical clinics in an effort to provide more healthy youngsters. These are the youngsters, of course, with whom we must work.

“Part of the problem,” according to Laurence Steinberg, author of Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, “is that we keep asking schools to fix what’s wrong when it’s beyond their capability. No curricular overhaul,” he writes, “no instructional innovation, no change in school organization, no toughening of standards, no rethinking of teacher training or compensation will succeed if students do not come to school interested in, and committed to, learning.”3

Steinberg’s study, based on interviews and discussions with over 20,000 students and hundreds of parents, found that:

If this study is accurate, no amount of school reform will work unless we recognize the solution is considerably more far-reaching and complicated than simply changing curricular standards, teaching methods or instructional materials.

In addition to these social issues, teachers are held accountable and evaluated as a result of factors of curriculum requirements and school organization over which they have little control. They rarely have a meaningful say in what is taught, how many students are taught, or how often or for how long they will conduct their classes. Materials are usually limited and commonly selected by someone else. It is extremely difficult to meet with colleagues to discuss student progress, instructional methods, or the academic program.

In almost every respect, rules and regulations governing a teacher’s life within the school are arbitrarily pronounced by others outside the class or outside the school. And it goes without saying that when it comes to school reform, this is also done to teachers rather than with them.

There remains a great gap between elite policymakers on blue-ribbon committees and harried teachers in crowded classrooms, and until that gap narrows there will always be a need for educational reform.


Why Insist on More and Better Social Studies?

The question is a fair one: Do we suffer from inadequate math and science and reading or from a confused social environment? The political and social contradictions speak for themselves:

In this confused environment, it is only surprising that more and more people do not see a need for more and more social studies. Our society is going through yet another period of self-interest and neglect of the common good. Private interest, yes. Public interest, I can’t be bothered.

As part of this pervasive attitude, social studies doesn’t have the payoff that math or science or the computer-god has, and is therefore not even placed on the back burner. In many communities, it is off the stove. It is not a consumer or career driven discipline. There is not private gain. It is not that people don’t understand the purpose, it is that they often don’t agree or care about the purpose.

While these obstacles to advancing and improving social studies are rooted in indifference, there is also a vigorous, vocal, well-financed, well-organized assault on public education and social studies by a hard right conservative minority that seeks privatization for persona#151;and not the public—good. And they have been influential beyond their numbers and have shaped much of the discussion over educational reform.

The purposes and quality of social studies education will rise or fall with the existence of public education. The debate over vouchers, charter schools, standardized tests, teacher accountability, and all the other educational hot buttons has the potential for redefining “public” education. If the last remaining institution that accepts all members of our society, and exists only for the altruistic purpose of improving the society, gives way to private enterprises with narrow religious, racial, or class interests, we will have gone a long way toward changing the basic nature of our social compact. The glue of common good will have hardened and cracked in a spasm of self-interest.

The effort to dismantle public education is an assault on the common good. As community-minded educators, we shoulder the burden of a great responsibility. Our noble efforts can truly make a difference for the future of our society. The one institution in our society with a mission to improve that future is education. The one part of that education system most responsible for citizenship, and our future, is social studies education. The one person who can most make a difference is a caring adult—you, the teacher.

Our mission is to make that difference: to educate competent and caring human beings for a diverse and democratic society in an interdependent world.



1. Cited in R. Soda, ed., Democracy, Education and the Schools (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).

2. David A. Smith, “When the Canary Stops Singing: Public Life and the Health of Public Schools,” Connections (June 1997).

3. Laurence Steinberg, Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).


Tedd Levy is President of National Council for the Social Studies.