This address was delivered by NCSS
President Susan Adler at the
80th NCSS Annual Conference in
San Antonio, Texas, November 17, 2000.


Creating Public Spaces
in the Social Studies Classroom

Susan Adler

My remarks this morning are intended to accomplish two things. The first is to give a very brief overview of some of the major initiatives NCSS has undertaken this year. My second goal is to share with you some of my thoughts (and dreams) about social studies for the 21st century.


Four Major NCSS Initiatives

First, I’d like to make a few remarks about four major initiatives that are in process right now. The first is a Governance Task Force, chaired by Carol Marquis. The idea for this Task Force came about as we started asking how the organization might more efficiently and effectively serve our members and social studies education. What emerged was the understanding that we cannot simply tinker with the way we do business. Rather, we must address questions about our vision and what it would take to move us toward that vision. The work of the Task Force has begun with information gathering–feedback from and to members. The work will be spread out over two fiscal years and will inform the Board’s strategic planning in February and beyond.

A second initiative is a partnership with WGBH (Boston Public Television) and Annenberg/CPB. This project will result in the production of a social studies video library which will showcase classrooms that exemplify our curriculum standards and powerful teaching. This library will be available for use with preservice and inservice teachers (in courses and workshops, for example). Judging from the work I’ve seen from similar math and science projects, this promises to be an excellent collection.

A third major initiative is the Citizenship Education Task Force co-chaired by Diane Hart and John Minkler. The work of the Task Force is a significant way in which we, as an organization, can re-commit to our core focus and re-examine what citizenship education ought to be about in the contexts of the 21st century. It seems to me that this work goes to the core of our organizational “soul.”

Finally, I should mention our public relations campaign, which is aimed at promoting social studies and the importance of social studies. Our website, and, in fact, much of our communication features the slogan “Today’s Social Studies: Creating Effective Citizens.” But for the public relations effort to be effective and for the slogan to be meaningful, we depend on all of you. Each of us, talking about the importance of social studies, telling our success stories, can have far more impact than what the officers and staff alone can have. And, of course, each of us, thinking about what “effective citizenship” means to our teaching, can help to make a difference.

This last segues nicely into the second part of my talk. I’d like to spend the remainder of my time this morning sharing my dreams for social studies classrooms and curriculum built around a conception of citizenship and the common good. I’d like to talk about classrooms that are not only places of learning, but places which are caring, participatory and socially just. And I’d like to invite you to share my dreams, which are realities in many classrooms, in many places.


Looking to the Future

The theme of our conference this year is “Honoring the Past: Building the Future.” The turn of our calendars from 1999 to 2000 has led many of us to consider where we’ve been, where we are and where we should go. As social studies educators, we know that the past can inform our understanding of the present and help shape our decisions for the future. The past can be instructive; but we also have to remember that the future is not inevitable.

What can we learn from the 20th century? What are the lessons we can learn as we help to shape a future? The accomplishments of the 20th century are mixed. One might argue that great strides have been made over the past century. It was, for example, a century that started with air flight and continued with space exploration. Today, many ordinary people can travel to almost any part of the globe (although not always comfortably). Life expectancy has increased in many places and the sick have more resources and procedures to support them. More children receive more schooling. More families live in comfort and cleanliness. We can talk to friends and colleagues around the world quickly, easily and cheaply.

But we can’t ignore the whole of the story. What a century: two world wars, holocausts that terrify the mind, diseases that spread with mind-boggling swiftness. And as some of us have grown richer, most of the world’s inhabitants have not: hunger, disease and poverty are no strangers in our world, even here at home. Yes, there have been advances in technology, but that’s not always a good thing. Just think of Hiroshima, or Three Mile Island, or the Gulf War (from the point of view of Iraqi civilians). Yes, many of us can travel faster and farther. And few of us would want to give up the ability to communicate instantaneously with friends and colleagues in distant places. But with rapid transportation and communication come increasing global corporatization and homogenization. The seeming Americanization of everywhere may be comfortable for Americans-–but is it good for the globe?

What are the lessons we might learn from the past century as we think about our future? Elie Weisel suggests one lesson though a little anecdote: Imagine two men lost in the woods. The two are each alone, unaware of the other. The woods are thick and no way out is obvious. It’s a dangerous place, full of unknown terrors. After wandering for hours, distraught and alone, the men meet. The first man exclaims, “I’m so glad to see you; I can’t find my way. Do you know the way out?” The second man replies, ‘Sorry, no. But I just came from that direction,” he says pointing behind him. “Don’t go there.”

Don’t go there. Weisel cautions us to avoid authoritarianism and, importantly, to avoid unthinking acceptance of a social order. But, of course, there are also accomplishments to build on and people to learn from. Even in remembering the Holocaust, and other events of horror and genocide, there are stories of overwhelming courage, of struggles toward justice, of seemingly ordinary people who stood up against evil. The stories, and the lessons, of the 20th century are mixed: horror and compassion, social inequities and struggles for justice, Adolf Hitler and Eleanor Roosevelt. As we find our way into the 21st century, we won’t go there again. Whatever way we go, it won’t be back. Let’s honor the past by building a future that is a better way. Let us think about how we might build a future in which justice and human compassion triumph over authoritarianism and hate. The lessons of the past are mixed; the future is still a possibility. Dreams do have a place.

What, then, are the challenges we face as educators, and especially as social studies educators. Looking back, we see that the development of the public school in the U.S. has been about creating an institution for social order, stability and the status quo. But it has also been about educating all children, preparing them to be thoughtful, principled participants in a democratic society.

In social studies we take the charge of preparing citizens for a democratic society as our special emphasis. When I was a child, we got citizenship grades on our report cards. That really was a grade for behavior, or what my teachers would have called deportment. I was a good citizen, by the way, except in second grade. And to this day, I don’t know why my citizenship skills appeared, at least to my teacher, to have faltered when I was seven. I do know that the citizenship we speak about in social studies is something different. It is about the notion that citizens in a democracy should be thoughtful, able to make informed decisions, and willing to deliberate with others in open-minded ways. As we look to the future, we, as educators, must continue to choose which image will guide our teaching: the compliant citizen or the deliberative one? What is “civic virtue” in the 21st century and how do we nurture and develop it? And what does “civic virtue” have to do with day-to-day teaching?

In daily classroom lives, a notion of “civic virtue” may not, on the surface, influence teaching. We’re concerned with the daily cares of organizing instruction for diverse learners, with engaging students in the content under study, with keeping order so that learning can really happen. As I travel to state meetings, I listen to teachers talk about accountability and assessment and how the ways in which those issues currently manifest themselves often inhibit good teaching and real learning. These things appear to have little to do with “civic virtue.”

Teachers continue to wonder how much school can and should do. They wonder, for example, about changing family structures, about whether kids are in loving homes (whether traditionally structured or not), about whether care is given or absent. We wonder who is teaching kids values and what is the schoo#146;s role in building strong values. And whose values are they anyway? I listen to teachers talk about technology—how it has increased access to knowledge for some, but not yet for all. And how it has also increased access to hate and ignorance. How do we help kids grow and make informed choices in a knowledge-intensive society?

All of these things are important, and they are connected to questions of “civic virtue.” I keep returning to the core of our work as social studies educators—enabling kids to be citizens in a democratic society. I use the word “citizen” and “civic virtue” broadly. I am referring to the rights and responsibilities of all of us to think critically, to participate thoughtfully in society, and to interact with one another, in open and respectful ways, in order to make decisions that affect the broader community.

This last point is crucia#151;the need for people in a democratic society to interact with one another, across the differences of who we are as individuals, in order to make decisions that affect all, or most, of us. When was the last time you talked with people outside your usual circle? Have you talked, really talked, to the custodian in your building? What about the kids in your schoo#150;-I mean really listening? Frequent interactions among diverse groups of people are crucial to our civic life, crucial to the development of trust, crucial to decision-making that goes beyond self-interest. It is because of this need to interact with “different” others that I look with concern at the loss of our “public” spaces and, as I shall argue, our shrinking concern with a “public good.”


Public Spaces and the Public Good

Let me talk first about “public spaces” and then return to the idea of “public good”; finally, I’ll come back to the idea of classrooms that are educative, caring, participatory, and socially just. Living in cul-de-sacs and behind closed doors, watching pay-per view movies, we can avoid strangers. Put your debit card in the ATM or gasoline pump and forget the chit-chat with the clerk. And when was the last time you called a customer service line and got a human being? Technology has made our day-to-day interactions speedy and efficient, but also impersonal and mechanical. With the contraction of public spaces, we don’t have to interact very much with strangers, with people who might be very different from ourselves.

I learned about “public spaces” as a child growing up in the Bronx. We were freer then, perhaps, to run and play in the neighborhood without fear of violence. And while our parents may not have been directly supervising or watching out for us at all times, there were eyes on the street, kind strangers keeping watch. Garry Marshall dedicated a column in a magazine called Back in the Bronx to thanking the people who helped make his childhood specia#151;his parents, teachers, and neighbors. “And finally,” he wrote, “thanks to the ‘Get Off There People’ who when you climbed on a tree or a fence or a car or a wall, yelled ‘Get off there, you’ll break your neck.’ We seem to have changed from a ‘get off there world’ to a ‘who cares, let them break their neck world.’ I hope the ‘get off there’ people come back to the Bronx and everywhere.”

Louis Duiguid, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, expressed a similar sentiment from a modern-day, Midwestern perspective when he wrote in a column last summer (August 23, 2000): “We need to shed our cocoons and extend kindness to others. It has to be so commonplace that it will counter the perception of meanness, renew our faith in democracy, and restore people’s faith in our republic and in others.” Acts of kindness renewing our faith in democracy! That’s not really far-fetched. Isolated individuals don’t care if someone else’s kid breaks her neck, or doesn’t go to a very good school. Acts of kindness to strangers are a way to connect to others. In this way, acts of kindness contribute to a sense of the ‘common good.’

My concern with the shrinking of public spaces reflects my concern not simply with “space,” literally thought of, but with a diminished concern for the “common good.” When I refer to a “common good,” I’m referring to a shared commitment to the civic health and life of the community (whether neighborhood, nation or globe). Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, documents a steady decline in membership in community organizations in the United States.1 Even memberships in social groups, such as bowling leagues, have declined. People are still bowling, but not as league members. (They are “bowling alone.”) Why does this matter? Such social groups, Putnam argues, are important because they bring together a mixed group of people around some common interest. Unlike Internet chat rooms, for example, people in face-to-face groups are likely to talk about a lot of other things beyond the particular shared interest that brought them together. Putnam goes on to argue that the decrease of interaction with a variety of others can and has resulted in a shrinking of “social capita#148;—the social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trust which arise from them. “Civic virtue,” argues Putnam, “is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.”2 He goes on to document steep declines in civic engagement and social trust.

Putnam is not making the argument for social groups that have tight bonds among their members, but are exclusionary to those outside the group. His argument has to do with the importance of broad social interactions and what he calls “social bridging.” Civic engagement requires a sense of mutual obligation, a sense that there is a “public good,” something beyond our individual self-interest. Trust and reciprocity help us to move beyond limited self-interest, to an understanding that one’s own well-being is affected by the well-being of others. Trust and reciprocity can enable us to act in egalitarian and caring ways that further the interests of the entire community. Trust and reciprocity enable strangers to care whether children are about to break their necks.

Traditionally, democracy in America has placed high value on the rights and freedoms of the individua#151;freedom of speech, religion, movement and so forth. Part of the American belief system is the belief that each individual has the right to develop to his or her fullest potential. As we look back we can see that at least some of our history is the story of the struggle to assure that each individual has the opportunity for such development.

But this conception of democracy is not the whole story. We also hold a conception of democracy that defines democracy as more than individual liberties, more than a form of government. In this other, and sometimes competing, conception, democracy is defined as a way of living together. It is seen as a mode of interpersonal relations—of connections with others. It is a sense of responsibility to the whole—to the common good. Democracy, from this perspective, requires a sense of expanded identity—beyond the personal self to the greater whole. It is this participatory democracy to which social studies has made a commitment—that learners should be educated so that they might participate in the decision making process of civic society. In NCSS position statements, for example, citizenship is defined by a willingness to engage in civil debate and to work for public policies that serve the common good. That is not to say we should sacrifice the individual to the common good; but we also cannot sacrifice the common good to a worship of the individual. The challenge is to find balance in ways that further the interests of the community as a whole.

I’d like to illustrate this idea with another anecdote I heard Elie Weisel tell. Imagine a crowd of people on a boat. All of them have bought their tickets, paid their money for a bit of space on that boat. One of the passengers is at his seat below deck. He has a pick and he’s hammering away at the hull. “You can’t do that,” shout the passengers around him. “Are you crazy, of course I can,” he replies. “Leave me alone, I paid for my seat.” Well, what he fails to see is that, in fact, we’re all in the same boat—we can all drown. If we don’t balance our concern for the protection of individual liberty with a concern for the common good, we will all lose. Our individual liberty is threatened when we lose public spaces and when we fail to think about a “public good.” We may be free to choose a car, but not public transportation; free to choose a school, but not to ensure that tomorrow’s citizens are well-educated. Individual choice, without a concern for the public good, is barely a choice at all.

What has this all to do with teaching social studies day-to-day? As social studies educators we should keep in mind that we learn to be democratic in situations of interaction—not just by reading about it in a book. I have argued that democracy is not simply a form of governance—but a way of living. Democracy is about how we interact with others. It is about egalitarian and caring actions and interactions that further the interests of the entire community. Teaching for democracy means fostering principled relationships—among students, between students and teachers, between school and community. It means fostering relationships among diverse, heterogeneous groups. It means enabling youth to struggle together to solve public problems.


The Qualities of a Democratic Education

Jeanne Oakes and her co-authors, in a book called Becoming Good American Schools, argue that education for democracy is education that is educative, caring, socially just and participatory.3 I’d like to borrow these ideas and apply them specifically to social studies classrooms. I’d like to challenge us to think about ways to create classrooms and curriculum that aim toward these goals: educative, caring, participatory and socially just.

Classrooms that are educative are places of learning. Such classrooms enable learners to become informed and to develop the habit of staying informed. By informed, I don’t simply mean kids should “learn” (too often memorize) a list of facts. The information we expect our students to learn should be embedded in conceptual understandings. Educative classrooms would have learners ask: “Whose knowledge?” “Whose point of view?” With these questions, learners can approach information with open minds, with a healthy skepticism that seeks to learn all sides of a story or of an issue.

Along with open-mindedness, we would strive to develop the skills of disciplined intelligence. In educative classrooms, students would develop sophisticated thinking that recognizes problems. They would learn to gather information in order to form justifiable opinions. They would explore alternative possibilities in an open-minded fashion; they would avoid jumping to conclusions. In such classrooms, students would engage in problem solving through analysis, discussion and compromise. And with all this, they would gain the information and skills necessary to meet state standards. State testing and disciplined inquiry are only mutually exclusive if we conceive of inquiry as somehow devoid of facts, or if we let the pressure of testing focus our teaching on merely hollow information. Effective social studies helps kids learn information and ideas. It is rigorous, whatever our critics might claim; it is aimed at understanding, deliberation, and in-depth thought.

Effective social studies classrooms are also caring places. I remember one particular class I had when I was a middle school teacher. The kids in that class simply didn’t like one another very much. They didn’t seem to mind me, and I really didn’t have much trouble with them, as long as I didn’t ask them to engage them in meaningful, and caring, interactions with one another. In fact, the class was less trouble if I didn’t ask them to interact—that was asking for trouble. I remember saying to them one day, “If you learn nothing else this year but how to get along with people you don’t like, I’ll be happy.” I immediately wanted to take back those words, by the way, as I imagined my students going home and telling their parents that their teacher doesn’t care if they learn anything!

But I believed, and I still believe, that classrooms should be caring places. I believe that students and teachers should treat one another in respectful and compassionate ways. This too, is about civic virtue and coming to understand a concept of a “common good.” I wanted my students to understand that sometimes one’s personal needs are subsumed in those of the larger community. I wanted them to see that we are “all in this boat together.” Caring classrooms are not conflict free; rather, conflict is dealt with openly and with respect for diverse points of view. Effective social studies classrooms develop a consciousness characterized by a sense of responsibility to others. We disagree—we don’t ignore or destroy. Caring is at the core of democracy. One of the places young people can develop an expanded sense of self is in our classrooms. Students learn better when they feel safe and cared for. And students learn about democracy as they learn to care and nurture, as well as to resolve conflict.

By the way, I think I had some success with that group of students. At the end of that year the class planned and carried out a surprise party for me. It really was a surprise. They kept the secret and worked together to pull it off. One of them even said to me (in one of those highlight moments of teaching), “You really did make a difference for us.”

Caring classrooms are a prerequisite for participatory classrooms. Participatory classrooms are characterized by shared decision-making and by cooperative, egalitarian relationships. In democratic classrooms, leadership should be exercised, but not coercion and manipulation. I’ve watched small children participate in determining how their classroom would be run: what would be the rules, rights and responsibilities. In effective social studies classrooms, students are helped to develop the skills and maturity to assume the responsibilities of decision-making. They engage in interactions with one another to make meaningful decisions that affect their lives in school. And they reach outside their classrooms, to engage with others in the school and community. They learn that participation must be informed, deliberative and caring.

A group of high school students in a classroom where I had a student teacher recently organized a debate for the candidates running for school board in that community. They invited the candidates, invited the community, handled all the logistics. I was in the classroom the next morning observing my student teacher de-briefing the experience. I’ve rarely seen students so engaged. They talked about how it all went, and also about what the candidates had said. These students were actively engaged, actively participating, in meaningful conversation about real issues. I was inspired.

Finally, democratic classrooms must be socially just places. Socially just schools and classrooms provide all learners with rigorous learning in caring classrooms. Many of the reforms of the past decade or two have been about bringing all children into the mainstream, about countering old structures that gave children differential access to learning experiences and good teachers. The construct of multiple intelligences conceives of intellectual capacity as complex and developmental, and learning as an active process. The slogan: “All children can learn” reminds us to provide the best education possible to all learners regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or score on a standardized test. However, we must be watchful against thinking that a slogan makes reality. A slogan such as “all children can learn” may make us feel as though we are providing a rigorous and meaningful education to all kids. But are we?

On another visit to a student teacher I observed students making presentations based on research they had done about the 1920s. Their projects were examples of “multiple intelligences” at its best. One group of students had organized a jazz combo (it was an arts magnet school). One young woman had baked toll house cookies. (Did you know toll house cookies were invented in the 1920s?) There was a poetry reading. Other kids described the political climate of the time; others focused on economics. These students built on their strengths to create a picture of the 1920s that was complex and fascinating. These were predominantly low-income, minority students in a failing school district. All children can learn what they want to learn. It’s a daunting task to push resistant learners toward rigorous thinking, to engage indifferent children in thoughtful debate. But this must be the goal for social studies (and schooling generally) if we are to really address the public good.

As we struggle to teach in socially just ways, we must also engage our students in questions of social justice. Socially just classrooms give learners opportunities to examine the concept of social justice and the ways in which it is and is not played out in communities and nations. I remember one day—when I was still teaching middle schoo#151;my class came in after lunch and told me about a new boy in school. The new kid had cerebral palsy—he looked “funny,” moved “funny” and drooled. Some kids at lunch had started teasing him. Other kids had gotten upset. “It’s not right,” one of my boys said. “Well,” I said, “What can you do about it.” I decided, on the spur of the moment, that talking about “what’s right” rather than the War of 1812, or whatever was on my lesson plan for the day, might be more meaningful. It was. We talked for a long time about why people who are “different” are often teased. We talked about who the teasers are. And we talked about the need not to remain silent when we witness such teasing. That was their solution, not mine. I didn’t lecture them on proper behavior; they did it themselves. I didn’t preach about standing up to ignorance—they decided that on their own. Perhaps the resistant and indifferent learners would be more engaged if they perceived the content of a lesson as meaningful, somehow connected to the worlds they know, and as something in which they participate.

I am not unaware of or indifferent to the structures and culture of schooling which make teaching for the public good—teaching in ways that are educative, caring, participatory and socially just—a difficult challenge. Social studies has been criticized for being without content, too focused on process. Nothing I’ve suggested above should indicate that content doesn’t matter. Basic literacy is important. An understanding of the disciplines that contribute to social studies is crucial. But “creating effective citizens” means that we must take learners beyond mere information. We cannot let ourselves be stopped by state mandates and testing, though we should not disregard these. Spend a little time on teaching kids how to take a test; drill them on basic information every once in a while. But don’t put aside efforts at powerful teaching and learning. Meaningful content will be remembered far better than that learned through drill and kill.

Years ago, I chose to be a teacher—because I loved history (although I had not liked it as a school subject), and because I enjoyed kids. But mostly, I wanted to make a difference. I still believe that what we do matters. What each of us does is important; what all of us can do, can make a difference.

In 1932, George Counts, an educator and activist, addressed an assembly of the National Council of Education. He spoke of the challenges of economic depression and sought to spur teachers to political action. In fact, he challenged teachers to be active citizens at a time when teachers were expected not to be politically active. Most of all, he challenged them to take charge of their curriculum and their classrooms.

To refuse to face the task of creating a vision of a future America immeasurably more just and noble and beautiful than the America of today is to evade the most crucial, difficult, and important educational task… Only through such a legacy of spiritual values will our children be enabled to take their place in the world, be lifted out of the present morass of moral indifference, be liberated from the senseless struggle for material success, and be challenged to high endeavor and achievement.”4

Moral indifference, material success … as we look back and look to the future, Counts’ challenge from 1932 is still relevant. “Today’s social studies: Creating effective citizens.” This NCSS public relations slogan must be more than a slogan—and that is up to each of us. As we learn our lessons from the past, let us remember that the future is still possibility. Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”




1. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

2. Ibid., 19.

3. Jeannie Oaks, Karen Hunter Quartz, Steve Ryan, and Martin Lipton, Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

4. George S. Counts, Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 51-52.