Saturday, September 07, 2002

Social Studies versus History

The NEA’s September 11 lesson plan is really just one example of what is wrong with the general approach to teaching social studies in the United States. Kimberly Swygert, of Number 2 Pencil, notes that “even if you decide that the NEA’s suggestions are not as unpatriotic as some critics have claimed, you’ll still notice that the lessons are ridiculously touchy-feely, centered on pop psychology, and sorely lacking in any useful cultural information.”

A comprehensive History News Network piece by Chris Patterson, the education director for the Texas Public Policy Institute, makes it obvious that touchy-feely pop psycology is really the norm in social studies instruction:

Over the past 20 years, history has been removed from public schools and replaced with social studies. This new subject crams geography, psychology, sociology, religion, culture, government, and history into the 55 minutes that schools once devoted daily to teaching the past of our state, nation and world.

The National Council for Social Studies says the multi-disciplinary subject helps students "construct" the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required of good citizens. Social studies focus on "contemporary conditions of real life," facilitate "specialized ways of viewing reality," and promote the "common good" of all people.

History is missing from the topics that the Council recommends for classroom learning, passed over for "Individual Development and Identity," "Culture" and "Global Connections."

In other words, the NEA’s September 11th material fits right in with the standard way that social studies is taught in American classrooms.

The relationship between historical illiteracy and social studies seems fundamental. Schools don't teach history--students don't learn it. But this connection eludes educational pundits who call for more social studies and blame schools (inadequate course requirements) and teachers (insufficient credentials) for the amnesia of Americans under the age of 30.

Research recently published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation offers a sobering warning about Social Studies. The next generation of social studies textbooks proposed for use in Texas and the nation are miserly about history. Textbooks not only begrudge history, history is tainted with errors and partial facts that sacrifice objective interpretation for brevity.

Patterson uses a recent Texas textbook adoption process to illustrate how far removed social studies is from teaching history.

Although only 25 % of Texas's Social Studies standards pertain to history, reviewers produced a 972-page list of the historical facts needed to ensure students acquire sufficient knowledge to recognize the importance of key events and people. Some omissions are grievous: no mention of Abraham Lincoln in a description of the Civil War and no use of the term "free enterprise" in a section on the U.S. economy.

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