Why We Need Social Studies
Did you ever see Jay Leno’s segment “Jay-Walking”? Jay-walking asked seemingly logical questions to people in various cities walking down the street. One of his favorite topics was to ask people citizenship questions or questions that focused on United States history. I remember sitting with my mouth open at how little some people knew about our government and history!
While this is funny to watch, and I’m sure there are people who knew the answers that were edited out, how much of this is truly reflective of what is taught? JayWalking was at least 10 years ago, before smart phones were attached to every hand and Alexa arrived in our homes. Are Americans really lacking in some of the basics of history and government? Does it really matter if it’s taught in a classroom? In this age of social media and entertainment news, has knowledge gotten better or worse? With Google, Alexa, and Wikipedia at our fingertips, shouldn’t we know more than ever before? The facts are literally with us all of the time!
Let’s take a moment and think about our last two Commanders-in-Chief, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In a speech in 2008, then Sen. Obama stated that he had visited 57 states while on the campaign trail. What??? He then followed up later, admitting his gaffe, blaming his exhaustion on the campaign trail and laughed it off by saying it felt like 57 states, what he had meant to say was that he had visited 47. Recently, President Trump tweeted congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs for their Super Bowl win, and how the great state of Kansas was well-represented. Oops…he really needed to take a moment and consult Google. He removed that tweet once someone pointed out that the Chiefs are from Missouri. This is not a political argument, but shouldn’t the leaders of our country be a little more versed in the history and geography of the country they represent? Or at least better fact-checkers before they speak or tweet!
The teaching of Social Studies (government, history, geography, economics, sociology) is slowly becoming eradicated from school curriculums across the country in favor of more reading and math instruction. As more high-stakes testing is taking place, and more $$$ are thrown at bringing up lagging test scores, knowledge is getting lost. In fact, one could argue that the more intervention that is taking place in a school, the less prepared students are for life outside of the classroom. While reading and math are vital skills to have, an educated populace is much more than deciphering words and figuring out what’s being asked in a word problem (reading disguised as math). It’s an understanding of how communities and governments came to be; it’s how jobs and economics determine the success or demise of a region, and how past choices have affected the growth of a nation. Yes, you have to read and you need a good foundation of math, but by not giving students the knowledge to use these basic tools to interpret history, culture, and economics, we are doing a disservice to them and to the future of our nation.
Here is an excerpt from the position statement of the National Council of the Social Studies:
According to a report by the Center on Education Policy, since the enactment of the “No Child Left Behind” federal education policy (NCLB), 44 percent of districts surveyed have reduced time for social studies. That percentage rose to 51 percent in districts with “failing schools.” 3Denying students opportunities to build social studies vocabulary and background knowledge by engaging in social studies activities can lead to lower literacy levels and, ironically, increase the achievement gap. 4 As a result of educational practices steeped in the “teach to test” phenomenon, teaching and learning are reduced to that which is necessary for students to do well on state tests rather than providing a well-rounded program to ready students for life as active citizens in the context of a global society.
History is so much more than facts that can be generated by Google or dates listed on a website. When I taught my 5th graders any topic in history, we read and examined the topic from various points of view (historical thinking). They looked at maps, graphs, and charts to compare and contrast the impact of an event. They used primary sources to get a feel and a better understanding of a particular time period. They created their own interpretation and discussed the effects of the events on how we live now. They listened to each other respectfully, and could disagree without calling names at each other. It was a great way to teach kids to enjoy Social Studies and even if it wasn’t their favorite subject, I felt as if the students had more respect for it at the end of the school year. I wish I had been able to get to every topic on my list of 70+ standards. Yes, I had over 70 standards to teach 5th grade, a span of 1860-2019. That’s a lot of history! Add to it that while my class period was 80 minutes, I also taught Science. I alternated the days for these, but it equaled a half year to teach all of the standards for each subject. I worked with other teachers to integrate my topics into their subjects, but prescriptiveness of those subjects made that difficult and the lack of planning time didn’t allow much depth. Tennessee changed some of those standards beginning in the current year (2019-2020), but it still isn’t being given the time in classrooms or the autonomy for teachers to teach it well. It also hasn’t been tested in any meaningful way in at least 4 years. However, in my subbing experiences in Florida, I am quickly understanding that classrooms in Tennessee are given more time for Social Studies than those in the Sunshine State. In my experiences, Social Studies is being taught in middle (6-8) and high (9-12) schools as their own subject as part of a 7 period day. In elementary schools (K-5) it isn’t happening at all. None. I’ve only been in one school where they began the day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve attempted to understand this lack of Social Studies, but no one I’ve spoken with has actually been concerned because they are so reading and math focused. In my search, I realized that the standards exist, but since they aren’t tested until HIGH SCHOOL end-of-course exams, no one is teaching it! The only tested subjects are reading and math. Again, those subjects are needed, but we aren’t teaching students how to apply them and enjoy them, only how to show mastery on a test.
When I was in school, it was important to memorize facts, because unless you had a set of encyclopedias at home, you were limited in where to locate this information. Why else should Social Studies be taught? In 6th grade (Nashville in the 1980s), I remember learning some incredible stories and lessons about ancient civilizations! Our teacher, Mr. Deising, brought those stories to life for us in the classroom. The year ended with The Olympic Games played on the field at the only full-size replica of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park! In 7th grade, Mr. Parrish gave us a world view of history by bringing in other cultures into the classroom. We learned songs that were familiar tunes, but in different languages! The man would stand on his desk and lead the class in song, and I can still see it in my mind 35 years later. Teachers such as this engaged us with the content and made it relevant to our lives. Even Mrs. Hudson in U.S. History in the 11th grade, shared with us note-taking techniques and ways of reviewing and studying that I still apply. Yes, she gave us lots of facts, but the skills learned along with those facts have served me well-beyond her classroom. Even more, I developed an interest and a passion for history that has crossed into my classroom and led me to places and friendships that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
So WHY aren’t we teaching Social Studies? I could go very “conspiracy theorist” here and say that we are deliberately dumbing down American schools so that they can be privatized. I am currently in the “Jeb Bush land of vouchers”, but that will be for a different day. What is happening here is a huge disservice and a lack of respect for our country, our veterans, our forefathers, historical figures, explorers, and innovators who dedicated their lives to something bigger than themselves. How will our future leaders (the kids sitting today in classrooms everywhere) avoid the mistakes of the past if they’ve never learned from them? How will students learn to love their country and respect other cultures if they don’t understand the stories behind it?
For the future of our country, our students, and our world we NEED Social Studies, perhaps now more than ever. Isn’t that funny to hear? A world where knowledge is literally at our fingertips, doesn’t know how to use it. Google is great for facts and fact-checking, but it is horrible for independent thinking. Let’s encourage our school leaders and legislative bodies to return Social Studies to the same levels as Reading, Math, and Science. Let’s return passion, interest, and pride back into our teaching and to our students.