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Historic battles

History teaches dates and facts. Social studies offers context and perspective. Why are the two disciplines so fiercely at odds?

By April AustinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 2003



Pop quiz: Which description best fits Thomas Jefferson?

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A. Founding Father; third president of the United States elected in 1800; and author of the Declaration of Independence, adopted in 1776.

B. Statesman, author, inventor, architect, but also slaveholder and member of the landowning elite.

The answer depends on whom you are asking.

History students are more likely to answer A. Social studies students would gravitate toward B.

The hypothetical test question illustrates two approaches that are fighting for prominence in schools around the country. Traditional history classes would pay more attention to Jefferson's leadership, carefully placed within a framework of dates. Social studies classes, however, are more likely to study Jefferson as a multifaceted individual, with his position of wealth and privilege coming under the microscope.

At the core lie two distinct views of education. History advocates insist on a return to traditional instruction, while opponents assert that students need context. What the argument hides is a basic agreement that schools need to do a better job of teaching history. But neither side seems prepared to listen to the other.

In recent years, the issue has taken on added urgency. Standardized testing in math and English has forced many school districts to spend less time and money on both history and social studies. Research grants are dwindling. Recent reports on the lack of knowledge of history and civics among US students have grabbed headlines.

But if concerns have heightened about the quality of social studies and history instruction, the debate about what should be taught and how is hardly new.

Once upon a time, history was a staple in US public school curricula. But social studies became popular starting in the 1960s, inspired by the work of Charles Beard, an early 20th-century social reformer and Columbia University professor.

Social studies was supposed to remedy rote learning by encouraging an interdisciplinary approach. After all, Professor Beard pointed out, history didn't occur in a vacuum. The varied perspectives of economics, geography, sociology, anthropology, and current events would add meaning and relevance to history, or so the theory went.

In many schools, social studies were adopted for younger grades, seen as a softer study, preparing preteens for the more rigorous study of history in high school.

But in the view of some, a certain fuzziness crept into the field with the social studies approach and has been corrupting history classes ever since.

History advocates sputter at the mention of social studies, a field they see as too touchy-feely and lacking in rigor. But those who favor social studies blanch at what they see as an attempt to drive history back into the territory of rote learning.

But arguments about rigor or the lack thereof sometimes conceal another, deeper disagreement. It's an ancient conundrum: whether the purpose of education is to transmit the culture or transform it. Traditional history advocates say that learning history should enable one to join the culture, to participate as a citizen. A more liberal view deems the teaching of history a stepping- stone to improving society.

Lately, the rhetoric has grown hostile. Social studies teachers "have contempt for history," says Will Fitzhugh, who directs the National History Club.

"More than half of them didn't take history to begin with," he says. "The old joke that social studies is taught by athletic coaches is still sadly true in many places."

Stephen Thornton, a professor of social studies and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, says the attack on his profession is unfounded. "What do they think we're teaching if it's not history? The problem is that they want a particular kind of history - their version."

He continues, "They want a return to the Eisenhower era, a time when there was less open dissent in society."

History advocates such as Chester Finn at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation say that some consensus is needed on what kids learn.

"Social studies is peddling bad stuff," he says. "It's teaching kids that democracy is deeply flawed, and that America's evils exceed its virtues."

The foundation recently published a collection of essays, "Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?," that lay out a mission to re-instill appreciation for American government. The implication: Kids who know how government works will grow into good citizens who vote and support the US government.

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