Whither Not Social Studies!
by Tom Lucey
Your Social Studies students may be getting good grades, but they are not learning what they should. How does that statement make you feel? Research shows that students do not understand American history when they're in college (University of Connecticut, 2000) and shows that they like Social Studies the least of their subjects (Mallan and Welton, 1999). If you follow your texts dutifully and the students are passing the tests, how could they not be learning what they should?
Students have difficulty appreciating Social Studies because it is not taught as a discipline they may identify with. This situation occurs because Social Studies, in general, convey messages that the classroom audience cannot relate to. Today's society finds its youth increasingly obsessed with sarcasm and instant gratification. Unfortunately textbooks provide general politically correct accounts of society and history. Students scoff at texts' messages because they live different realities of life from the images texts portray.
Today's students have a different social perspective than those of the past. Consider the change in the last 20 years of the share of aggregate income in the United States. From 1980-2000, the highest fifth of the country's population increased its share of income from 41.6% to 49.6%. Over the same period, the middle fifth's share declined from 17.5% to 14.8%, and the second lowest fifth's share declined from 11.6% to 8.9%. During this twenty years, the wealthiest 5% of the nation increased share of wealth from 15.8% to 21.9% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). These statistics show that the richest members of the population are earning more at the expense of the Middle and Middle-Lower classes. The poorest quintile of the population saw its proportion of wealth declined over this period from 4.3 to 3.6%. While this decrease is not comparatively significant, the decrease demonstrates the ongoing plight of a significant percentage of our population with meager resources.
This trend does not only occur in the United States. Consider that in Canada, the percentage of low-income households (defined as using 70% of Income for food, shelter, and clothing) increased in every province between 1990 and 1995. Significant increases were observed in British Columbia (15.8%-19.6%) and Ontario (13.4% - 17.7%). Overall, the country's rate increased from 16.2% - 19.7% (Statistics Canada, 2002). Both in the United States and in Canada, we appear to be educating a population that is becoming less wealthy.
Our textbooks largely do not relate to this population. For his bestseller, Lies My Teacher Never Told Me, James Loewen studied one dozen American Social Studies textbooks. Six of those texts did not mention any topics related to class social structure. Two texts did mention "middle class", but in a general sense. Disproportionate wealth and income distribution plague the United States and Canada now, but texts ignore or gloss over these circumstances.
Today's students often leave school for broken or abusive homes where they learn from experiences that are often contrary to what they're taught. Students understand the improbability of their succeeding as we teach in school. Textbook images are a practical fantasy, and the kids know that. We are teaching the history of the affluent to the waves of a moderate- to low-income populace. In this circumstance, students study and pass tests, but they question the usefulness of the curriculum content.
Like teachers at an in-service ceremony, watching the administrators giving plaques to the politicians, students' eyes gaze over as praises and acclamations are given to the historical figures without addressing the figures' weaknesses. Social studies help students to learn from mistakes of our pasts. Dependency on textbooks overprotects our students from these mistakes and fosters the cynicism of their young minds. Students understand reality; teachers are obligated to help them make sense of it and to improve the world through this understanding. It's commonly understood that the French and Bolshevik revolutions were caused by economic difficulties for the masses. We live in times with, despite recent price corrections, stock market closings at levels that are multiples of just 20 years past. However, the four causes of the 1929 Stock Market crash (Galbraith, 1958), which exist in today's financial systems, are not covered in today's texts.
Texts also obscure the fact that the lower classes led the 1960s civil rights revolutions (Loewen, 1995) and that African American civil disobedience occurred on a large scale nearly a century before Martin Luther King (Westin, 1962). The northern states (often depicted as compassionate to African American social difficulties) were home to industrialists who worked with southern conservatives to fund schools designed to perpetuate African American oppression during the late 1800s and 1900s (Anderson, 1988). The photograph marking completion of the transcontinental railroad excludes the Chinese workers vita to the accomplishment (Devine et al, 1999). These deficiencies occur, as people of color become a majority of the United States' population (Hodgkinson, 2001). While U.S. history texts suggest that there are steps to success, the government is one largely for the elite. Of the United States' 43 presidents, only one came from a lower class background (Loewen, 1995). Our students need to discover the realities of our social and political past to prevent recurrence of these wrongs. By doing so, we cultivate the seeds of a better social and political system for our future.
Current political events reflect this problem. The events of September 11, 2001, terrible as they were, developing differences between the United States' long-standing corporate influenced foreign policies and the religiously conscious societies of the other sections of the world. During the Eisenhower presidency, American oil companies represented major benefactors from the CIA's overthrowing the Shah of Iran (Divine, Breen, Fredrickson, and Williams, 1999). President Bush's explaining the Persian Gulf War in 1990 as protecting Kuwait's antifeminist democracy rationalized the effort to protect American corporate oil interests. The question of Enron's influence in the present presidential administration's foreign policies in India speaks loudly to this issue (PBS, 2002).
The aforementioned middle eastern countries have religiously devout populations which most Americans has difficulty conceptualizing. The global west gradually separated the religious and secular thought its daily processes starting with the transition from the European Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Reformation. Today's global wealth disparity speaks to this issue reflects, in many ways, a conflict between wealth and religion (or earthy wealth and spiritual wealth). Teachers should prompt students' cognitive thinking to stimulate values clarification, rather than drill the regurgitating of politically correct "facts". Values clarification involves questioning our democratic system and the practices it pursues.
These practices may be criticized as unpatriotic. Yet MacIntyre reminds us that "Patriotism is not to be confused with a mindless loyalty to one's own particular nation" (MacIntyre, 1984, page 4). We must our students to consider the virtues which prompt national loyalty and challenge our them to discover these virtues in a post-modern society expects more sophistication from children viewed as competent rather than innocent (Elkind, 2001). The age of assimilation has passed, the environment of knowledge construction challenges us embrace our differences (Banks, 2001). By doing so, we may be models for our pluralistic world.
It has been said that the winners of wars decide history. Reality is a matter of perception. The importance of Social Studies topics depends on who studies the field. Unfortunately, in a world of standardized testing and uniform texts, our students perceive Social Studies with wary and critical minds. Our government sets standards for what our children should study when our children know it's not the whole truth. Geyer (2000) observes that our culture stems from ideas, not bloodlines. An education in Social Studies should provide a much needed preservation of the concept "Where we come from" (Geyer, 2000). Textbooks tend to relate social studies from a Euro centric perspective however. A one-dimensional education perspective has inherent flaws in a multicultural democratic society. A proactive approach to Social Studies would stimulate objectivity by broadening students' perspectives to see a broader educational picture.
Allow your students to conduct (web and or textual) research on statistics involving economics and world diversity. Then consider the following exercise as a method to introduce acceptance of cultural pluralities. First, pair off your students and have them stand facing each other with their toes three inches apart. Then, have students converse with their partners for three minutes without changing their positions. After that, have the students discuss their reactions to the experiences (McCarter, 1994). Students should have different comfort levels because they have different interpretations of personal space. This exercise demonstrates the different tolerances of different people interpreting the same thing in different ways. It also provides a reference point for future lessons where students need to consider different points of view when cultures come in contact with each other.
Teachers should use the students' wariness of texts as a springboard to discovery. Challenge the students to discover what the texts do not cover. Ask the students what they want to know and guide them in how to find it. Allow them to expose the hidden or obscured truths about what really happened, in the process, informing them of their democratic rights to work for change within the system.
Here is an idea Loewen suggests to pursue this process. Research the accuracy of stories on historical markers in your community. Then, as activities in citizenship and political processes, have the students work in the system to make any necessary changes. Compare several different accounts of historical events to establish what really happened. Research events that your text makes a very short mention of and see what really happened. You might have members of the community who witnessed historic events talk to your class (consider what a Vietnam Veteran would say about the war compared to your textbook). All of these activities provide students with tangible understandings of real social studies experiences.
Although Social Studies represents a very dynamic field, students do not appreciate it because they know the lessons of the classroom do not fit their realities. Students want to know historical truths, not neat and tidy accounts of historical heroes and their successes. As educators, we need to encourage students to develop challenging and discerning minds. Such an assignment greats a nation where 90% of public school teachers and 94% of post-secondary instructors are Caucasian (Gay, 2000). In classrooms across America, students thirst for studies of social identity.
Anderson, J. D. (1988). The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
Banks, J. (2001). Citizenship Education and Diversity: Implications for Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education (52). 5-16
Divine, R.A., Breen, T.H., Fredrickson, G.M. & Williams, R.H. (1999). America, Past and Present. (5th ed.). New York: Addison, Wesley, Longman Inc.
Elkind, D.(2001). The Cosmopolitan School. Educational Leadership.(58).12-17
Galbraith, J. (1958). The Days of Boom and Bust. In John Garraty (Ed.), Historical Viewpoints: Notable articles from American Heritage (pp178-187). Reading, MA, Longman
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press
Geyer, G.A. (2000). Our National Case of Amnesia. The Commercial Appeal, May 29, 2000.
Hodgkinson, H. (2001). Educational Demographics: What Teachers Should Know. Educational Leadership. 58. 7-11
Loewen, J.(1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Teacher Got Wrong. New York, NY: Touchstone
MacIntyre, A (1984). Is Patriotism a Virtue? The 1984 Lindsay Lecture. Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas: Lawrence, Kansas
Mallan, J. and Welton, D (1999) Children and Their World: Strategies for Teaching Social Studies. Boston, MA: Houghton -Mifflin
McCarter, R (1994), Cultural Spaces. http://askeric.org/cgi-bin/printlessons.cgi/
Public Broadcasting Service (2002). NOW with Bill Moyers. Aired February 1, 2002 (Writer's note: Web information for this telecast may be found at http://www.pbs.org/now/thisweek
Statistics Canada (2001). Incidence of Low Income Among the Population Living in Private Households, 1991 And 1996 Censuses. http://www.statcan.ca/english/
Pgdb/People/Families/famil60a.htm (1 February, 2002)
University of Connecticut, Center for Survey Research and Analysis (2000),Elite College History Survey. http://www.csra.uconn.edu/reports/history.pdf (30 May 2001) [pass word required]
U.S. Census Bureau (2002),Historical Income Tables - Households. http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/histinc/h02.html (1 February 2002)
Westin, A.F. (1962). Ride In: A Century of Protest Begins. In John Garraty (Ed.), Historical Viewpoints: Notable Articles from American Heritage (pp11-22). Reading, MA, Longman