Saturday, January 12, 2013

Know Thyself, Know Others, No Social Studies?

Since year one of teaching, I have begun instruction each year with a rationale to my students why the course they are taking is important to their education.  One year, during a high school World History course I asked:

“Why do you think this class is important?”

To which a wise-guy student replied:

“So people like you have a job”

I have been a Social Studies teacher for 20 of the past 21 years (there was that one year I was a Computer teacher that got my foot in the door at my current position).  I have dedicated my life to the proposition that a Social Studies education is vital to advancing a child intellectually.  

However, in the current educational climate, Social Studies has moved to the bottom of the totem pole in the classes known as the “academics” and I’m beginning to experience what my peers in the “arts” classes have dealt with for years; if the subject cannot be used to “make you money”, than why is it necessary?  

There is a reason they call history, literature, music, art, etc. the humanities; the ability to contemplate, express, and create work that is beyond what we need to survive separates us from animals, and makes us human. 

The humanities bring color and meaning to life.

As Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) says in Dead Poet’s Society

“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I was hit in the face this week as in several classes I was asked or the comment was made, “There isn’t a state test in Social Studies, right?”.  In 2004 (I believe), the state of NJ did have a Social Studies test ready to go, but then Governor McGreevy pulled it in order to save money, and it has never returned.  In the eighth grade, students will be tested in English, Math, and Science (in other years, just English and Math).  The “value” of an academic subject is based on if there is a state test on it, and the students are starting to buy into that belief.  Sad.

Why is a Social Studies education important?

First, let me state that some Social Studies teachers have “shot themselves in the foot” by making their classes all about memorizing facts and not guiding students into connecting those facts into their daily life.  My wife, from the moment I began dating her until now, has never been shy about telling me how boring history classes were to her.

A good Social Studies class should allow students to question, discover, and offer opinions about the topics that are in the curriculum and how it relates to their lives and the world that surround them today.  

The Social Studies class should be flexible enough to allow certain “rabbit trails” to be followed.  Doesn’t allowing students time to express their thoughts, referee disagreements, encourage appropriate responses, and guide them to lay out their opinions supported by fact help in molding them in becoming better citizens?  Doesn’t this allow them to develop their critical thinking skills?

Don’t the stories of great people inspire future generations to great acts?  Or warn them of consequences of poor choices.  

Don’t events of the world stage reflect the events of our daily lives?  For example, when I taught World War I to my middle school students, we would discuss the reasons the countries went to war.  We then took reasons on the macro-level such as Nationalism (pride) and Revenge (the French desire to regain the Alsace-Lorraine from Germany) and compared them to how disagreements or fights begin in their world, the cafeteria during lunch and blacktop during recess.

Just as Biology is the course that studies the physical process of life, isn’t Social Studies the study of what makes us humans?  And since the one thing in life you cannot avoid is other humans (unless you're a hermit), isn't Social Studies important to help each of us better understand each other?

If we are preparing our students for jobs that do not exist yet, then how are we helping them by our placing the vast majority of our efforts into science, math, and formulaic essay writing.  Now is the time we need to encourage the expansion of their thoughts beyond themselves.

We need to stop dehumanizing education by embracing pragmatism (ie. its all about test scores).

As Steve Jobs once said

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.  That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” 


  1. When I think about why Social Studies is important, I think of that famous quote about those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.Love that quote from Dead Poets society. The culture is not big on critical thinking. Just look at our leaders/celebrities.Keep fighting the good fight, though.